Women in the Nepalese Maoist movement
The "people's war" war emancipated the women who served in it in a number of ways.
My father’s Hajurabubā (grandfather) was born in Gulmi District, in the mountains of Nepal. When my Hajurabubā was about eight years old, his father moved their young family down to Koilapani, which lies in the terai of Nepal near the Indian border. My family have lived there ever since. At that time, nobody else would live there, because the area was troubled by malaria and cholera, and the thick jungle which covered it was filled with dangerous wildlife like tigers and rhinos. The area of land that my father’s Hajurabubā owned at that time was so large that now, over 8 000 families live on it.
My Hajurabubā eventually married and had four children, my father being the eldest and only boy. My Hajurabubā spent about 14 years in the Gurkha Army in India, returning home only every one-two years. When his father died, the land was divided between all the brothers and sisters. Workers came from other rural areas to help farm the land, and he leased it to them.
Very much concordant with communist ideology, Maoist thought strongly supports that whoever farms the land owns it. In 2002, a group of Maoist insurgents came to my Hajurabubā’s house to force him to sign over the land that had been his family’s for more than 60 years. 15 men entered with guns and knives. They locked my Hajura’āmā and aunties in other rooms in the house, and they hammered Hajurabubā’s toes and shins, tortured him, and before leaving, cut off his left arm. He spent two months in hospital in Kathmandu and nearly lost his life. My Hajurabubā died four years ago now, but following the attack by the Maoists, he always suffered much pain in his arm, and he never felt safe in his home again.
Many families had been living on our family’s land for generations. When my Hajurabubā died, my father distributed it among them, giving them the paper to confirm that the land was finally, theirs. Now, our family owns a few small areas of land that they use to grow rice and live on.
This story strikes something deep within me; it’s painful to think about. The suffering that occurred is unjust, and it can be argued, for what? But I understand this movement. This ideology, their demands. I understand why huge numbers of people, especially women and Janjati (Indigenous) peoples, joined. Why wouldn’t you strike against the higher castes? The landowners, the tax collectors. Of course you would.
By 2006, 70% of the Nepalese countryside was under Maoist control and 13 000 people had been killed in connection with the uprising and state efforts to suppress it. Thousands became internal refugees, with people fleeing to the city in order to escape the brutality that had become far too common.
This war became known as ‘the people’s war’ and it flung the country into complete tumult for 10 years. The main objective was to abolish the feudal monarchy and to establish a new democratic republic, but the Maoists also had a strong agenda of emancipation for lower caste, rural and oppressed peoples across Nepal, including women. In Nepal, a woman’s position is contingent on her male family members – her father, her husband, her brothers. The past decade has seen significant shifts in the legal system, and the conceptualisation of what a woman’s role should be has slowly evolved; however, the inheritance system, patriarchal descent and marital tradition still play an enormous part in informing attitudes and restricting opportunities. It’s not surprising then, that when Maoist demands included “patriarchal exploitation and discrimination against women should be stopped, girls should be allowed to access paternal property as their brothers,” that this ideology spoke to women, who joined the movement in the thousands. When Maoists came to rural villages asking for one child from each family to join the resistance, parents would often choose to send a daughter, rather than a son. Daughters were seen as more expendable, and often weren’t being educated as their brothers were anyway.
However, this war emancipated the women who served in it in a number of ways. Women made up a third of all foot soldiers in Maoist strongholds. They were not only able to perform similar tasks to men, but also occupied positions of leadership, actively participated in village defence groups and many were educated to a higher level than they would have been otherwise.
In a country like Nepal, this was totally revolutionary. The importance of women’s emancipation, and especially that of rural women, is hard to overstate. There has been much research concerning the high rates of women joining revolutionary movements across the world, but Nepal is a particularly interesting case, because the intersections between development, education and politicisation are not clear cut when you dig into it. There are two main theories for why rural women in Nepal supported and played an active role in the Maoist insurrection, but neither one of them are without faults and inconsistencies.
One argument—the ‘failed development’ hypothesis—asserts that women’s willingness to join the Maoist movement came from a discontent with the government, and specifically, a discontent with their failure to successfully provide essential services in rural areas; adequate education and aid being the central, most important ones. What this model fails to take into account is the fact that many of the women who took up arms actually did so because of successful development programs in their areas which empowered them through education, and raised their gender and class consciousnesses.
To contrast it then, a ‘conscientisation’ model acknowledges that girls were politicised through school, and asserts that this method of radicalisation was one of the primary reasons that revolutionary politics gained ground at this period of history, rather than a decade prior, when education, especially for women, was not widespread. Interviews done with female ex-combatants after the peace process was finalised showed the sense of empowerment that these Maoist women felt in being able to escape from the traditional gendered roles which they had come to expect from their lives. “Mahila sasahktikaran” (women’s empowerment), “awash uthaunne” (where they could raise their voices), “mahilako awaj ko pratinidithyo” (women’s voices were represented) and “mahila ko dukka bhujnne” (understanding women’s grief) were phrases which continually came up in conversations with the interviewees.
Many of us are torn between wanting a revolution that evens the playing field—between worker and landowner, men and women—and being opposed to the violence that must inevitably come with it. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is just one example of how these kinds of wars often take on a ruthless nature. Much like the violence that my Hajurabubā suffered, gendered forms of violence, like sexual assault, were common in the revolution – perpetrated both by government forces and by the Maoists. Nobody is without responsibility, or accountability in these wars, including the women who fight in them.
Rama S. Lohani-Chase writes, “the question arises about the limits of empowerment in the transnational biopolitics of human labour and capital and whether women’s embodiment of traditional militarism or militancy will change the larger patriarchal military-industrial complex or keep women hostage to it.” Although women are still hostage to it in many ways, the benefits which came from joining the insurgency cannot be disregarded. The benefits that these women received—more visible and immediate perhaps, than system changing—may well have overpowered the knowledge that they were helping to replace one failed, patriarchal system with another. This does not mean however, that it wasn’t powerful, that there were no wins, or that when peace finally came, that all women simply returned to playing the roles they were before. The sense of pride I feel when I think about rural Nepalese women standing up in arms against the feudal patriarchy doesn’t take away the pain I feel when I think about what happened to my Hajurabubā – but it gives me a glimmer of courage that things can be better.