(This article originally appeared in Kaantipur Report, Nepal, 29 September 2014)
Organisations working on women's issues from all over Nepal came together in Kathmandu on late September 2014 to mark the launch of One Billion Rising Revolution, a global campaign to end violence against women. Darshan Karki spoke to Kamla Bhasin, a celebrated feminist and the campaign's South Asia coordinator, about the possibility of a common agenda for the women's movement, its criticism in Nepal, and the challenges feminism is facing today.
You often call yourself a South Asian activist. Given the immense diversity of this region, is there a possibility of a common agenda for a women's movement?
A movement is not an organisation or a campaign. A movement is a large coming together of people for a common cause, but there can be tremendous diversity within it. For example, when people in Nepal were fighting for democracy, the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, and the Maoists came together, though their strategies were not the same. They all wanted democracy. Similarly, the women's movement wants equality between men and women. But in Nepal, the issues are different. Nepali women can take up issues like gufa and chaupadi, which are not present in India. In Bangladesh, they have acid attacks. In Pakistan and India, there are honour killings. So there is no problem in having different campaigns as part of the women's movement.
Still, 90 percent of our problems are the same. The US also has rape, domestic violence and child sexual abuse. So the women's movement is global, not only South Asian, like this One Billion Rising, as women are violated globally.
Speaking of the women's movement in Nepal, programmes on gender equality often get criticised as something NGOs do to perpetuate their work and for enforcing donor agendas.
When people do not like an issue, they will use any excuse. They will speak of donors, they will say it is Western or it is against Nepali and family culture. They will say anything as they do not want women and girls to be free. If there are floods and NGOs come in to help, then you don't say it is a donor agenda. When NGOs are working on trafficking of women, then there's no complaint. The backlash has nothing to do with donors. It has to do with people who do not want gender equality.
Western feminism was originally criticised for taking women as a homogenous group. The women's movement here has also been criticised for propagating an image of one Nepali woman, which does not exist.
Western feminism is an incorrect term. In the West, there is French, German, American, white woman's, black woman's, lesbian, Marxist, socialist, and liberal feminism. So there is nothing like Western or Asian feminism. What is Nepali feminism? The UML's feminism is very different from the Congress' feminism. Some people coin terms like Western or Asian feminism just to criticise us. Because there is diversity, all these women have to focus on their own issues. Still, suppose I want to change something in the Dalit community. As an outsider, I cannot do it. Dalit women have to work on Dalit men and women.
What about elite women of a certain group speaking for the rest?
In every movement, not just the women's movement, middle-class people lead because they have the education, time, resources, and the heart to work on those issues. They are using their resources for the cause of equality. Why should they work on women's issues or Dalit issues? One needs to appreciate rather than criticise them as they are not doing it for themselves but for the cause.
So what has changed with regards to women's rights?
The glass has become half-full. Twenty years ago, you could never imagine one-third reservation for women in Nepal's Parliament. Now, there cannot be a single government policy without talking of gender. Today, even private companies have to think of the percentage of women workers. We have reviewed textbooks and criticised sexism in the media. Talk of laws on domestic violence, marital rape and anti-dowry show that laws are constantly improving. But of course, they are not being implemented. Yet, 20 years ago, being a victim of domestic violence was an outcome of fate. Now, we say it has nothing to do with fate. It is a crime and you will go to jail for it. So I think a lot has changed, but a lot remains the same.
What has not changed?
Earlier, we had traditional patriarchy; traditions that kept telling women that they are inferior to men. A wife has to put sindoor in her head, while the husband does not have to show any sign of marriage. There is kanyadaan [a Hindu wedding ritual which means giving away the daughter as a gift] but there is never an equal marriage where one side does putradaan [gifting the son]. Instead, the kanya is picked up by the father and given to another man, the husband. While we must change it, we now have modern or capitalist patriarchy.
How would you explain that?
It's the billion-dollar pornography, child pornography industry. It is the trafficking of women all over the world by using technology and the cosmetic industry telling us to be fair. Then there's the toy industry—guns for boys, Barbie dolls for girls. Look at the entire market coming together to promote Teej, which is a patriarchal festival. The market should have spoken about equality but it has instead capitalised on it to make money.
Now we have so much violence that two-year-old girls are being violated. There is a direct connection between pornography, seeing rapes on TV from morning till night, and reading these things. This is a push against us. If I write a nice song about women's freedom, it reaches 5,000 people. Bollywood in Mumbai writes horrible anti-woman songs like 'Chipkale mere photo fevikol se' and it earns millions, is played at weddings and little girls dance to it. In the song, a woman is saying "I am a tandoori chicken, eat me and gulp me down with whiskey". Capitalism is increasing the machismo, violent aggression of men on the one hand and the Barbie doll, sexualised woman on the other.
How do we resist this tide against feminism?
You cannot resist it. You need a partnership of political parties and women's movements to do so. So women's equality needs democracy, secularism, socialism. That is why my feminism is not only about women and men's equality but also equality between Dalits and Brahmins and the rich and the poor.
Talking of politics, in South Asia, we often seem to be swinging back and forth when it comes to women's representation in politics. Why does this happen?
Struggle is an ongoing thing. We cannot say that once we have 33 percent representation, we can go to sleep. In any case, when we had women prime ministers, they did not represent feminism or gender equality. They represented a lack of democracy. They got the post as their fathers or husbands died. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's husband passed away and she became prime minister. In the cases of Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto, their fathers died and they became prime ministers. In Nepal, Bidya Bhandari came into politics after Madan Bhandari died. All of them represent male power. But when these women came from the kitchen to the Parliament, they were not worse than their husbands. They were as bad or as good as their husbands. So just imagine how clever they were.
In case of 33 percent representation, it is progress. But for the first many years, who will make that 33 percent? It will mostly be women from political families. But maybe 10 percent of those candidates will be genuine and slowly, if we keep up this pressure, things will change. The struggle for democracy and equality is ongoing.
In that regard, do you think taking affirmative action, separating quotas for women helps?
Yes, I think affirmative action is important because for 3,000-4,000 years there has been negative discrimination against women, Dalits, and other excluded groups. Society has to take responsibility for their backwardness and exclusion. Initially, there will be weaknesses in the quota system, elites will come. But in a scenario where there are all Brahmin elites, at least there will be one Dalit elite now. Let the backward communities be visible. Gradually, members of that community will begin to talk of democracy amongst themselves and new people will come in.