2-8 September 2016 #824

Patriarchy in the hierarchy

The Tij fast by Nepali women could also be considered a one-day hunger strike against male dominance in our politics and society

Bikram Rai

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In the driving seat, Shreejana Shrestha

Songs of rebellion, Smriti Basnet

Power to women, Bineeta Gurung

Nepal is going through a dramatic demographic shift. The country’s fertility rate is approaching replacement level — although the momentum of population growth will continue for another generation, it will stabilise thereafter. 

This demographic transition of low birth rate and higher life expectancy is accompanied by the biggest population migration in the country’s history. The hill districts are depopulating at staggering rates, having lost between 15 to 25 per cent of their inhabitants in the past 10 years as people migrated to cities, plains and abroad for work

Nearly 20 per cent of Nepal’s population is away at any given time, and considering that the migrants are mostly young men, this could mean that up to half the men in the 20-35 age group are essentially missing from their families, communities and society. 

This brings us to the other ongoing societal transformation: the gender shift. Families and communities in rural Nepal are being run by women. With most men gone, rural Nepal has been feminised. The number of female students in high schools and colleges is at an all-time high. Women are moving into jobs traditionally considered the domain of men: driving public transport, and engaging in masonry, carpentry and construction, especially in the earthquake-affected districts. The feminisation of the workforce is subtly empowering women, providing them with cash income and new confidence, and bolstering their sense of self-worth.

Gender activists are not particularly fond of Tij — the annual celebration by daughters, wives and sisters — which this year falls on Sunday, 4 September. Their criticism is of the practice by women of fasting for the wellbeing and longevity of their husbands. It is absurd, particularly in this day and age, that women should be culturally required not to eat so that their husbands will be well-fed. 

However, Tij has traditionally also been a celebration of sisterhood and solidarity, a one-day rebellion characterised by deliberate defiance against male dominance. Could it be that some Nepali women today consider the Tij fast as a hunger strike against patriarchy? Going by the lyrics of the new duets that have been released in the run-up to this year’s festival, there is open ridicule of menfolk as lazy, good-for-nothing spoilt brats (see page 7). 

Add ‘corrupt’, and how aptly that sums up the attributes of most men who have the audacity to rule over us. Let’s just leave aside for the moment the fact that Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal has already squandered one-and-a-half months of his nine-month rotational tenure just to form a council of ministers from a coalition of four parties. 

The Nepali Congress could not even agree on a list of ministerial appointees until after the Nepal Students’ Union elections as well as the return from New Delhi of Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi. Why the selection of ministers by Nepal’s largest party should be held hostage by the election of 45-year-old ‘students’, and a visit to India by the prime minister’s special envoy, has never been satisfactorily explained to the public.

Nevertheless, of the 31 ministers appointed in his fourth consecutive expansion of the cabinet, only three are women, two of whom are junior state ministers. Clause 42-1 of the new Constitution expressly stipulates that women and other marginalised groups be given proportional representation in all agencies of government. When it sent its list of 13 ministers, the NC could muster only one woman.  

In terms of inclusivity, the ratios are not much better for Dalits, Janajatis, or Madhesis either. For example, there are only two Dalit ministers, and three from Janajati groups. As Bineeta Gurung argues in her column in this issue (see page 6), not only is there no ‘substantive representation’ in support of gender-based governance, but even ‘descriptive representation’ — corresponding to the constitutionally-stipulated ratio of 33 per cent of female representation in government, is sorely lacking. 

The sad irony is that this is happening under the prime ministership of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who used to be the ‘Supreme Commander’ of a guerrilla army of which one-fourth was made up of women warriors, many of whom laid down their lives for equality.

The members of the ruling coalition are the same political parties that took to the streets to protest King Gyanendra’s ‘regression’ in 2006. What a cruel joke that real regression is happening under the rule of these same so-called democratic parties.

Read also:

Land of our daughters, editorial

From feminism to masculinity, Bernardo Michael and George Varughese

Daughterhood, Feby Boediarto

Women count, Hemlata Rai

Demography and democracy, Kunda Dixit