Nepali Times Asian Paints
Plain Speaking
The new Madhesi woman



WOMAN'S VOICE: Basanti Jha has been elected for the TMLP from Mahottari, after campaigning for women's votes for many years.

Earlier this week, human rights activist Dipendra Jha organised an interaction of the 13 women who have made it to the constituent assembly from the MJF. The experience was a revelation.

You can easily travel across the plains, hold meetings with politicians and civil society leaders, get a sense of the macro political dynamics, write reports, and not meet a single woman. Women's participation in politics is passive at best: as a voter told by her father, husband or son which way to cast the ballot, and as fodder when street agitations are launched.

Discrimination against women exists across the country. But in the Madhes the preference for a son is higher, female infanticide is growing alarmingly and girls usually drop out after primary school. Dowry is widespread with education only reinforcing the practice and hiking up the rates for grooms. Widows are treated as sinners and deprived of the most basic human dignity, and a premium is placed on women being confined to homes. They may be treated as symbols of izzat, but rarely does this translate into autonomous decision-making and personal agency.

When quotas were allotted for women in PR, Nepali male politicians hated the idea of sharing the slice of power. A senior Madhesi politician confided, "We have got a 33 percent reservation for Madhesis but will have to give half to women. They don't know anything. What a waste."

Cynics pointed to the Indian experience in local governance. Since a law was introduced in the 1980s to have 33 percent reservations for women in all Panchayat posts, India has witnessed a 'bibi-bahu-beti' brigade. Men have got their closest female relatives to stand as proxy candidates while calling all the shots from behind-the-scenes.

At this week's program, it looked like they were right. The first two women MPs to arrive came with their husbands who began doing most of the talking. The women had their heads covered. One of them asked for the day's Kantipur and said shyly, "I will return it in a minute. I just want to look at the horoscope."

But when the discussion started, we saw the real, assertive face of the new Madhesi woman. They may have lacked Kathmandu seminar etiquette by interrupting other speakers in the middle. They may not have structured speeches and power point presentations. Maybe they were more comfortable because it was an all-Madhesi gathering where they could speak in their own languages, with Hindi as the common medium. But what was undeniable was that the women knew what they were talking about.

The group was diverse in terms of caste - Karina Begum, Durgadevi Mahato, Rambha Devi, Savita Yadav, and the most vocal of them all, Kalavati Paswan, a middle-aged Madhesi Dalit woman. Many of them had been beaten up during the Madhes movement. They spoke about the discrimination against the Madhes, the oppression of women, the cry for education, the challenges of being a woman activist, the need to take advantage of the India connection.

What was striking was the anger against Kathmandu as well as the Madhesi social structure. Kalavati Paswan said, "We are as strong as iron. We are ready to die and kill for Madhes. If they do not listen to us, we will break the chairs of the CA." Upendra Yadav clearly has his secret weapon in these articulate, angry members.

In India, the Panchayat system has now evolved with women politicians coming into their own, taking independent decisions, and rising from the ranks. The gates have been opened in Nepal now and, seeing the new women MPs, it is only a matter of time before more independent women come to the forefront. The big question is whether they can present an alternative kind of politics, or will merely be pawns in the masculine norm of corrupt, violent, and manipulative politics.

This political revolution now needs to be accompanied by drastic social reform on the ground. Gandhi always attached his politics with a constructive programme: promoting khadi, eradicating untouchability, working on sanitation in villages. What the Tarai desperately needs is a similar social revolution that fights caste discrimination, builds inter-community relations, focuses on rural upliftment, and, of course, allows women across castes to break more barriers.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)