The DisruptorsNepali history is replete with examples of women being underestimated. They have had a limited role in political leadership and have faced significant social hurdles in asserting their identity and accessing their fundamental rights.
Nepali history is replete with examples of women being underestimated. They have had a limited role in political leadership and have faced significant social hurdles in asserting their identity and accessing their fundamental rights.
But their erasure from history does not do justice to their profound contributions in ensuring this country’s transition to democracy. Filling the streets time and time again — from the revolt against the Rana regime to participating in the People’s Liberation Army to charging on to the streets during Jana Andolan II, women have challenged the status quo time and again. Simply put, we can’t celebrate democracy without celebrating these trailblazers and their successors.
Though they may not always be recognised, these women, relentless in their pursuit to shatter assumptions about what women can do, are everywhere. From challenging narratives to leading Nepal in international sports; running business ventures that accelerate entrepreneurial spirit across the country creating thousands of jobs; voicing their unapologetic thoughts in the fields of activism — our anniversary edition salutes such women.
These women whose stories we want you to read have been fighting the fight with unparalleled tenacity. And in doing so, they continue to demonstrate the fact that has too often been relegated to the peripheries — but has always been known to be true: women everywhere are a force to be reckoned with.
By Dhurba Bikram Malla
She is an epitome of endurance amidst adversities. That is the least I can say of Mira Rai who was born into a poor family of seven in remote Sanodumba village in Bhojpur. I still remember her house — surrounded by graveyards.
She was probably 13 when a Maoist insurgent she knew coaxed her into joining People’s Liberation Army (PLA). She re-appeared later during the Maoist reintegration programme after the end of the civil war in 2006. As the PLA Sports advisory committee member, I visited all seven cantonments to select promising athletes.
I discovered Rai in the Division 2 cantonment in Sindhuli. She was very interested in sports especially in karate, kabaddi, football and running. I hand-picked around 18-20 athletes, including Rai, from the cantonments and brought them to Kathmandu to my academy in Balaju. Coincidentally, there was a 10-km running competition in Tokha organised in the memory of the late athlete Gajaraj Joshi. I registered Rai’s name for the race along with another PLA member, Ram Maya Thapa. Rai finished third behind national women’s champion Kanchi Maya Koju and Thapa. It was her first competitive race.
Rai expected that she would be reintegrated into the Nepali Army, but her hopes were dashed when she was disqualified during the UN verification process for being a minor. She did not even get the Rs500,000 compensation that most of her fellow PLA fighters received. Rai was suddenly left in limbo. She couldn’t go home nor pursue any other career considering her family’s financial status.
Her PLA friends, who had received the compensation package, advised her to seek foreign employment for which they were ready to help Rai financially. After leaving the cantonment, she lived with her friends in Sindhuli. A year later, she obtained a three-year visa to work in Malaysia. It was then that she came to visit me in Balaju before leaving for Malaysia. When I asked her to postpone her plans at least for a year and explore options in sports, she was visibly excited—and she put her plans on hold.
She stayed in the academy’s hostel and trained diligently. Three months later, she won the 2014 Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50km race. It was a breakthrough event for her. And as they say, the rest is history.
The competition also opened doors for her to compete on foreign soil for the first time, notably the MSIG HK50 Series which she won.
International events are a regular feature for her now. Her biggest break came in 2015 when she won the Blanc 80km race and set a new course record in one of the most prestigious races in Europe. This victory introduced her to the world of trail running.
I am still amazed by her stamina. She is never exhausted. Her years of financial troubles are now over. She is currently a part of the Saloman Trail Running Team which sponsors her travel, lodging and food, and even medical treatment. She has earned over Rs14 million in prize money alone over the years and has bought a house in Jhapa where her brother’s family live. Despite all the international fame and success the sport has brought to her, she is a humble girl, happy with small things in life.
Dhurba is the president and chief coach of Balaju Karate-Do Academy.
Mala Thapa Magar
The Accidental Entrepreneur
By Shivaram Ghimire
I never thought that a young girl who had joined our organisation, which was working for children, as a volunteer would one day go above and beyond in the sector of Allo (himalayan nettle), and be an inspiration to many.
We didn’t know each other personally before she joined our organisation. It was her mother who requested me to take on Mala as a volunteer.
Back then I wasn’t aware about her interest in Allo. I had some Allo handicrafts in my office and I remember her asking me about these items and the manufacturing process involved. I think that’s how and when she developed her interest in Allo products.
It had been some years since I had started working in the Allo sector. Seeing Mala’s interest I started teaching her about Allo; the techniques and methods used to manufacture various Allo products. About a decade ago, impressed by her commitment and enthusiasm regarding Allo, I helped her register a company ‘Himalayan Allo Udhyog’ in her name to manufacture and sell Allo products.
I remember Mala being excited about starting her own venture. Her interest in Allo also stemmed from the fact that this craft is mostly practiced by women of indigenous Magar and Rai communities in the Himalaya; she comes from the former. Since Allo is abundantly found above 4,000 ft, indigenous people weave threads for shawls, blankets, bags, clothes and more.
Mala’s start-up is an inspiration mostly for the women of the Himalayan region. I think her entrepreneurial spirit showed that women too can be in the forefront of the business community which sadly is still viewed as a man’s domain. Through her venture she has also provided jobs to many women showing them the way to economic independence. What Mala is doing and the extent of success she has achieved is commendable.
When most girls her age were seeking admissions in colleges abroad, Mala decided to stay in Nepal and make a difference. She started to earn her livelihood from a very young age which is not an easy feat.
Many women in the Himalaya knit clothes and make handicrafts but haven’t been able to sell their products in the urban areas. Mala serves as an example to these women and teach these women to monetise their craft.
There are a lot of differences between the Mala who walked into my office ten years back to the one I see standing in front of me today. I must say, she’s come a long way and I believe that she has the grit to do more, and be more.
Shivaram, a former Nepal Army soldier is a businessman and social worker.
by Usha Paudel
Radha is the fourth child among us five. She’s always been a doer; a go-getter. She’s always been fiercely competitive and headstrong, questioning long held traditions and beliefs that were
practiced in the society back then, and even now.
We never knew what her future would be like but we were certain that she would make something of it; something that would make us proud.
Never the one to follow norms and traditions of the society blindly, she always found ways to be one step ahead of the naysayers. I still remember her running away to our elder sister’s house when her first menstrual period started. She didn’t want to be an outcast in our household where menstruating girls were expected to live in seclusion for the duration of their menstrual cycle.
Her advocacy towards this form of untouchability towards women on their period increased when she started studying nursing following our father’s advice. Nursing not only established her determination to eradicate ‘untouchability’ but also nurtured her instincts as a caregiver.
Upon completion of her degree, she started working at Bharatpur Hospital. She took up residence in the hospital quarters so that she could be available to her patients at any given time.
She was someone who knew her mind; she never consulted with us before making decisions about her life. And, once she reached a decision, she would make sure she saw it through.
When she decided to leave for Jumla under a Safe Motherhood Programme, she didn’t seek anybody’s permission from the family. She simply informed our parents about her decision, that too only some days before her departure!
I came to know that she was in Jumla only after I heard that she had survived a fierce skirmish for 13 hours during the Maoist insurgency period. She was caught in a crossfire and survived. I was horrified to read the details about this episode in her book ‘Khalanga ma Hamala’ and how she survived continuous gunshots and explosions. She had rejected a relatively easy job in Rupandehi to take up the job in Jumla. But I think all the hardships she went through paid off when her book won the Madan Purashkar. It was a proud moment for us all.
Even when her project tenure ended in Jumla, she stayed back to serve the women deprived of basic health care services. This decision of hers and her work won her many prestigious awards.
She was working on her plans to manufacture biodegradable sanitary pads and we found out about it much later. She had no intention to discuss it with any of us. When I came to know about it, she asked for my suggestions for a suitable place to establish her manufacturing unit.
She said that she came to know about the possibility of manufacturing biodegradable sanitary pads on her visits to foreign countries. Since menstruation has been the crux of her crusade against discrimination, she took small steps, for instance, by manufacturing biodegradable sanitary pads, towards her fight against the prejudice faced by menstruating women.
Today when I look at her, I see her from a different perspective. She has grown as a person; from a rebellious teenager to a woman who fights for what is right. While earlier she would question everything that she came across, now she advocates and picks her fights based on importance, necessity and rationality.
Usha is Radha’s older sister. She currently teaches at a school in Chitwan and holds a Master’s degree in Nepali.
by Anup Baral
One late autumn in 2009, I was angling my handycam towards the then hit music video model Deeya Maskey, who was auditioning for the tele-serial, ‘Dalan’. The director of the serial, Nabin Subba, was narrating the story to her, but Deeya said she wasn’t comfortable with us filming her. She was not too focussed on the role either. When the audition was over, Deeya said she didn’t understand anything about the role despite Nabin’s briefing. “I’m not sure if I’d do this serial but I’ll definitely attend an acting school,” she said and walked away.
Nabin was confused but I loved Deeya’s bassy voice and her surefire straightforwardness. We were almost certain about casting Deeya in the role which, given her complexion and demeanour, would make her the perfect fit.
Deeya nonetheless attended the workshop we conducted for the TV serial. And the way she improvised her role made us cast her as the lead, Kali. She played her part with finesse and deftness and immortalised the role. Her initial apprehension withered away.
I came across another side of Deeya while rehearsing for the play Khuma. We were staging the play at a festival in South India, and we had limited time on our hands. Despite time constraints, she diligently handled the choreography of the play and the final product turned out to be excellent. That was when I realised that with the right guidance and enough practice, she could excel in theatre movements and body language. It’s humbling to see how she has improved in terms of her body language and expression from ‘Khuma’, ‘Malami’, ‘The Gate Circus’ and ‘The Honest Thief’ to ‘The Conference of Birds’. She is as good a dancer as she is a theatre artist; she exceptionally maintains the thin line between dance and theatre movement—her choreography is inextricably linked with the essence of theatre.
Deeya as an actor is both a good observer and listener. Actors rarely pay attention to the continuity of the action, but Deeya matches the sequence in such a way that any number of jump shots in a take wouldn’t cause any problems. This is what I have felt working with her from ‘Kagbeni’ to ‘Dokh’. Maybe her discipline with the dance forms help her achieve this because in dance, one is expected to give various expressions in a matter of seconds, and with precision! Watching her lost in this process is really electrifying.
There are two kinds of actors: the ones who follow the director’s orders and the others who immerse themselves in the script and, within given circumstances and director’s interpretation, act out their role accordingly, making use of one’s imagination and observation. Deeya belongs to the latter troupe.
Sometimes I think that she did way too complex roles at a very young age. And, the Nepali film industry is quick to typecast actors into categories too soon. Therefore, I feel that only a small part of Deeya’s skills has come to the fore and to the notice of her audience. Only a few know that she’s also a very good comic actor.
I remember an incident at Actors’ Studio where the actors were asked to perform four different versions of a single situation. Deeya performed each version with such simplicity and spontaneity that four different shades of her personality were on view. I asked her, “What is your process?” She replied, “Observation.”
Seeing her from ‘Kagbeni’ to ‘Soongava’ and ‘Sanghuro’ to ‘Fitkiree’, it’s easy to say that Deeya is a versatile actor. She has done a relatively few number of films in the past decade but her dedication and passion towards her work has only broadened the horizon of her acting abilities.
Anup is a veteran playwright turned actor/director and Deeya’s husband.
by Dipti Sherchan
It is difficult to write about someone you do not know at a personal level. Therefore, I take refuge in the very few “professional” yet perceptive encounters that I have had with Dr Mallika Shakya to do some justice to frame her contributions to the scholarly fields of anthropology, economics, and the social sciences.
During a book talk about her recent work, Death of an Industry: The Cultural Politics of Garment Manufacturing during the Maoist Revolution in Nepal, published by Cambridge University Press in 2018, I found myself keenly listening to one of the very few, if not first, published Nepali female economic anthropologist. Dr Shakya was captivating in her eloquent and capacious narration of the experiences she gathered during the process of writing the book. Being a student of anthropology, the novelty of that experience was baffling but also inspiring because the field of anthropology in Nepal needs people like Shakya to show that the process of knowledge production and engagement, especially within academia in South Asia, can emerge from the multivalent site of ‘the local’ by ‘the local’ (the ‘local’ being a can of worms, I will leave unopened here).
Shakya holds a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. Before taking up her current position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at South Asian University (SAU) in New Delhi, she worked as a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Her contribution to the scholarship of anthropology is indelible. This is further evident in her methodological approach to the fieldwork she conducted for her book. A decade’s worth of extensively multi-sited ethnography at the intersections of economics, sociology, anthropology, and political science is telling of Shakya’s intellect and rigour. This opens up a scholarly path for aspiring researchers to learn many lessons from.
In the few but productive interactions that I have had with Shakya, I have noticed that her candid and collegial nature invites people around her to engage in difficult yet deep conversations. Her dedication to the field of anthropology shows through her continuous engagement both inside and outside academia to promote research in South Asia. She is currently organising a conference called “Work, Identity and Livelihood in ‘New’ Nepal: Conversations within South Asia” at SAU, which will be able to not only generate important discussions but also carve out a much-needed space for Nepali scholarship in South Asia and beyond. This will undoubtedly be one of her many significant contributions to forging dialogue and generating critical and innovative discourses amongst South Asian scholars in the field of anthropology.
Dipti is pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research examines the cultural politics of visual arts in Nepal.
The Visual Artist
by Hitman Gurung
Sheelasha is a voracious researcher and a hard worker when it comes to her work. I have known her since our college days at Fine Art Campus and I feel like we have grown together, as friends and also as artists.
It is not easy to have the conviction to pursue one’s dream as a female in a patriarchal society like ours. And, it is all the more difficult to be an active independent female artist. But withstanding the struggles of being a female with vision in a male dominated society, and discouraging laws and policies of Nepal, Sheelasha has decided to carve her own niche in the art space, and also challenge the patriarchy through her works.
We do not have the culture of visual literacy in Nepal. The concept of understanding, perceiving, and appreciating visual language in Nepali society is quite limited. But Sheelasha took this challenge head on and chose visual language as her artform. It is challenging, risky and uncomfortable to use visual language as a medium to provoke and confront the deeply-rooted patriarchal ideas—and then some.
One of my favourites from her artworks is her series of work titled ‘Marriage taboos’ that showcases the challenges faced by Nepali women, which in a broader sense, also reflects similar challenges faced by women around the world. Her work represents how from an early age women are directly or indirectly taught to be submissive rather than letting them focus on their individuality. And after marriage, they are expected to take on the role of the “perfect” daughter-in-law and “adjust” to her husband’s family values. They are frowned upon if they decide to become their own self and express themselves freely.
Sheelasha’s recent series document and critically analyses human history, culture, social norms, and geo-politics of our time. She urges the audience to understand the unilateral biasness projected by mainstream history in that it only succeeds in showcasing a one-sided narrative. She reiterates the fact that it lacks in establishing diverse and multiple realities. In order to challenge this mainstream narration, she references various oral histories of different communities, folklores as well as vintage materials into her arts.
Sometimes I find myself in awe of her when we talk about her artworks. She exudes such passion to create more art that challenges discriminating conventional ideas. She is sensitive with her ideas, materials and is serious in her approach to research. She chooses her materials, techniques, objects, and mediums very carefully and goes with something that compliments her concept and delivers her message.
We have shared many ups and downs together as artists and we have always made the choice to be there for each other and encourage each other to continue on our individual artistic journeys. I believe that our relationship is beyond the romanticism or criticism and that we are in a shared journey of art as well as life.
Hitman Gurung is a multimedia artist who co-founded Artree Nepal, an artist collective with Sheelasha Rajbhandari in 2013 .
Uma Devi Badi
By Devendra Dhungana
Life was never easy for Uma Devi Badi nor was her struggle for dignity and rights—the fact that she was always aware of deep in her heart. As her neighbour and someone who worked closely with Uma, I have never had the slightest doubt that she would not see through her commitment.
Uma has endured the deprivation and the humiliation that her community has faced as ‘untouchable’ for decades. She always wanted to break the long shackles of discrimination meted out to her community because of socio-cultural norms further strengthened by policies imposed by the state. She cherished the dream of having the opportunity for her community to live a dignified life like any other community in Nepal.
Uma was committed to ensuring that not a single person from her community should unwittingly be made to embrace the profession of a sex worker, which she herself had once practiced. To realise this mission, she wanted recognition and support from the state.
As a rights activist and the leader of a movement, widely known as the Badi movement, Uma was fighting for the rights of the Badi community, subjugated into exploitation, poverty and prostitution. She was also fighting for citizenship and land ownership rights for her community.
She was aware about the repercussions of statelessness on the future generation of Badis. Although she had children from her inter-caste marriage, she continued her fight so that no Badi child would have to remain without a citizenship and recognition of his/her rights.
Uma, along with other like-minded activists and support from ActionAid, established a local organisation—Community Support Group—dedicated to the cause of the Badi movement. She also started a hostel for 25 Badi boys and girls and made arrangements for their education.
She travelled to the western part of the country, far from the centre of power, and visited government agencies, submitting memos stating the importance of granting citizenship to Badi children through their mother. On her way and through her journey she garnered immense support for her cause from all corners.
In 2007, she gathered and led more than 500 Badi women from 23 districts to Kathmandu. The 48-day long movement succeeded in garnering attention to the sufferings of the Badi community, following which the government signed a 26-point agreement towards improving conditions of the Badi community.
There were many who supported her during her long-struggle but everything she has achieved for the Badi community and herself is the result of her own dedication and will power to fight against the social injustice aimed at the Badis.
Uma was elected as a Provincial Assembly member of the Sudurpashchim Province under the Proportional Representation quota of the Nepali Congress (NC). Besides being a political leader, she has also emerged as one of the international women icons. She was selected among BBC’s ‘100 inspiring and influential women from around the world for 2018’ and was ranked 10th on the prestigious list; a celebration of her lifelong struggle for the upliftment of the Badi community.
Devendra is Uma’s neighbour and colleague who has closely witnessed her struggle and rise as an activist and now a politician.
By Kamal Kumar
We were in Parbat on our journey to the mid-west looking for stories for Herne Katha, a web based TV series. On the third day of our two-week long journey, on 21 January, 2019, Bidhya received a call from her family back in Kathmandu.
Bidhya’s father had passed away; she started packing her bags to fly back to Kathmandu to be with her family. She was visibly upset with tears in her eyes, but she didn’t let a single tear stream down her face. She said, “I will go to Kathmandu but you must continue looking for stories.” She shared the phone numbers of our characters and contacts with me. Because I didn’t have a smartphone with me, she left hers behind so that I could Google my way around.
The very next day, she started calling us often to get updates on our stories and plans. The level of dedication she exhibited even while going through a personal loss showed us that she’s made of stronger stuff.
Before we started on our Herne Katha journey, Bidhya and I had very cushy jobs. We both were working with BBC as presenter and producer, respectively, for a popular show. Our salary was in six figures and we had health insurance, travel opportunities, celebrations and admiration. Bidhya, especially, was famous. However, some time in mid-2017, while we sat down for our regular morning cups of tea, we discussed quitting our jobs and starting something on our own. In December 2017 we quit BBC. On March 1, 2018, the first episode of Herne Katha was published on YouTube.
It has been almost a year since we started Herne Katha. Our Herne Katha journey has been, to say the least, fulfilling. We are telling stories that we’ve always wanted to tell. We are our own boss!
Bidhya has a gift of being able to talk to people—the ordinary people. She’s not very comfortable talking to “big shots”, politicians and “important” people. She often makes excuses to avoid “talking and listening” at social events and she’s very media shy. However, these days we have decided to accept attention and publicity for Herne Katha.
People find it very easy to open up with her. When she interviews people for the show, it feels more like a conversation than an interview. People from different backgrounds and cultures speaking different languages open up with her because she’s very welcoming and warm.
Bidhya is still celebrated and admired by people. We always come across her “fans” in tea shops, bus parks, airports, restaurants et cetera wanting to take selfies with her. However, she never lets the popularity and fame get to her head; she has no airs and graces. She can be seen doing shopping on the footpaths, and we mostly hang out in the most “least happening” tea shop near our workplace.
I have known Bidhya since 2003 and many things may have changed in the last 16 years, but not her positivity, integrity, humility, creativity and professionalism.
It has been an exceptional year for Herne Katha; the only worry is the project’s financial sustainability. Whenever I voice concerns about the same, she shrugs it off. She says “aatinu hudaina” (don’t worry), advertisers will find us one day!
Born and raised in an awareness-deficit suburb of Kathmandu, Bidhya’s journey has been so inspirational. Many young girls and women send her messages on Facebook sharing their aspirations to become like her one day.
Kamal, a former journalist and producer directs Herne Katha, a web series presented by Bidhya.