International Women’s Day: Women’s Role in Nepal’s Revolution
Posted by n3wday on March 9, 2010
Originally posted on Monthly Review.
Women’s Role in the Nepalese Movement: Making a People’s Constitution
by Hisila Yami (Parvati)
At this very moment Nepal is making a constitution through the historic Constitutional Assembly (CA). It is important to note that up till now all prior constitutions handed over to the people of Nepal were through direct intervention of oligarchs or kings. It was the historic ten years of People’s War (PW) (1996-2006) complemented with 19 days of People’s Movement (April 2006) that made it possible to bring about a free and fair CA election in April 2008 as a means to make a people’s constitution by the people themselves. It is under the leadership of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(Maoist)] and its skillful use of a united front with various parties that the monarchy system was abolished in 2008.
The specificity of the Nepalese movement is the presence of a strong left. For this very reason the women’s movement is comparatively strong in Nepal. Women’s exploitation being deep-rooted — one of the oldest and longest exploitations, embracing all sectors from womb to tomb — communist movements often take the lead in ending it. Of course one has to fight against patriarchal tendencies within the Communist Party or similar tendencies arising from the stage of development of one’s society which ultimately find reflection on the Party or movement. But there are always rightist, ultra-leftist and eclectic middle tendencies within the Party or movement which will affect the women’s movement accordingly. Women have to fight for a correct line which addresses both the class and gender issues in correct proportions. In the specific case of Nepal, we have to additionally address Dalit, regional and ethnic oppression because they are interrelated to women’s oppression.
Women’s Movement before the PW
It is important to recall that the first people’s movement that took place in 1990 lasted almost 50 days and resulted in the overthrow of the “partyless” Panchayat system, a one party system run from the royal palace that had lasted for thirty years (1960-1990). During monarchical rule, women’s and student’s fronts were very active as political parties were banned and they operated through these fronts. This is in sharp contrast to most other South Asian countries where the women’s movement emerged along with independence movements against foreign rule. When the 1990 anti-monarchical movement started spreading from urban areas towards rural areas, the king was forced to negotiate with the political parties. This resulted in a tripartite agreement between the king, Nepali Congress (NC) (representing the comprador bourgeois class) and the United Left Front (representing broad reformist left parties) to arrive at a constitutional monarchical parliamentary system. The new constitution promulgated in 1990 made mandatory that each party make a minimum of five percent of its candidates women as a condition to contest in the election. In the first 1991 election, out of 205 legislatives representatives only seven women were elected.
But a second united front, a more radical United National People’s Movement (UNPM), which also had been struggling against the Panchayat system, decided to continue the struggle against the constitutional monarchical parliamentary system on the ground that only a constituent assembly election would serve the interests of the broad mass of the people. Nonetheless the underground Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre) [CPN(UC)], which was one of the main parties within UNPM, decided to participate in the first election through its aboveground United People’s Front (UPF). One of its main aims was to expose the contradiction between monarchy and democracy and the fallacy of a supposedly democratic Westminster parliamentary system headed by the king. It fielded 59 candidates, of which four were women candidates. Nine candidates won in the election, making the party the third largest after the bourgeois NC and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) [CPN(UML)]. None of the UPF women candidates won.
However, during the brief six-year period beforethe PW started, there was a sudden growth of women’s movements pertaining to gender issues. Many independent women’s organizations and united fronts of women’s organizations started springing up. Many debates, programs and movements relating to women’s issues started taking place. Many women’s magazines started to appear. However, taking advantage of a partial freedom of expression given by the new system, the commercialization of women (beauty-contests, pornography, blue films) also started taking place openly. Women used all sorts of movements to prevent and discourage this tendency. One such struggle was the successful prevention of a beauty contest in one of the five-star hotels. Women also used Teez, a traditional celebration specific to women that propagated gender oppression, as an opportunity to expose feudal patriarchal values and to propagate left ideology (Teez is a Hindu festival seeking husbands’ longevity for married women and good husbands for unmarried women). Thus the 1990 people’s movement prepared a base for weakening feudal patriarchy in the country.
Focus on urban and gender issues gradually shifted to rural and class issues when CPN(UC) decided to boycott the election in the year 1994. Many false charges were made against its cadres and sympathizers in the name of suppressing “boycotters.” When most men fled the villages under police attack, it was women who had to not only look after households but also do work traditionally done by men, such as roofing houses, ploughing land etc. But soon they too were hunted, harassed and raped, and thus they too were forced to go underground. All these incidents created conducive ground for launching PW, which was to start on 6th Feb 1996. Meanwhile CPN(UC) was renamed as Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [CPN(Maoist)], under whose leadershipthe PW started.
Women’s Movement during the PW
The PW, which lasted for ten years from 1996 to 2006, was a phenomenal historical achievement in Nepalese history as it removed nearly 240 years of monarchy, creating a federal democratic republic in Nepal. The many thousands who joined the class war became not only class-conscious, but also gender-, Dalit-, region- and ethnic-conscious.
One of the historical achievements of the PW was that it made a big leap in women’s lives. Women joined all the fronts: the Party, United Front and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the three instruments of revolution. For the first time, women became professional full-time revolutionaries not in tens or hundreds but in thousands! Before the PW started there were only two women full-timers in the then CPN(Unity Centre).
Women became professional revolutionaries by joining PLA, militias, production brigades. They became policy makers; they worked as couriers, organizers, as barefoot health workers, as radio anchors. For the first time they were taught to target the feudal state apparatus as an instrument of class and gender oppression. For the first time they were taught to fight for new democracy, a state which will do away with feudalism completely. For the first time they got the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with men combatants in war fronts. For the first time they could get married or remarried irrespective of caste, class, region and ethnicity, choosing a partner on the basis of love and ideology. For the first time the women’s mass front was geared to not only addressing women’s oppression but also producing red expert women for running cottage industries, producing soldiers and leaders for the Party, militias and the PLA, running communes, co-operatives etc. Equally, by associating with the masses at the grass roots level, the new women leaders became sensitized at a deep level to regional, ethnic, class and caste oppression.
What made them more confident was that in the base areas they were able to practice what they preached. In villages declared “woman model villages,” it was forbidden to beat women, women practiced special rights and exercised equal rights to parental property, women were involved in constructing trekking trails, martyr gates, running people’s courts etc. The nineteen-day people’s movement of April 2006, which was mainly limited to Katmandu and the few other major urban areas, also helped to instill the agendas brought forward by CPN(Maoist) among the urban masses. It prepared a wider ground for removal of the absolute monarchy.
Participation of Women in Making the Constitution
The present peace process, which started in 2006 and has continued to this day, is the result of the “12-point understanding” reached between seven political parties and CPN(Maoist) in the year 2006. The essence of the 12-point understanding was that it united all democratic parties against the king, preparing a base for restructuring the state and ending feudal structures. The peace process gave the opportunity to CPN(Maoist) to institutionalize the issues they had been raising and practicing during the PW, namely that of institutionalizing democracy and the republic through CA election, and pursuing a federalism based on ethnicity, region and other factors.
The hallmark of the present constitution-making process is that CPN(Maoist) has been taking the initiative in every stage of the process, be it making an interim constitution, forcing other parties to participate in CA election, or making sure CA committees submit their draft constitution in time.
Thus, the Preamble to the Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007) reflects the issues raised in the PW:
“Having determined upon the progressive restructuring of the state in order to resolve the existing problems of the country relating to class, caste, region and gender. . . .”
A crucial aspect of the historic Constituent Assembly election, which took place in 2008, is that it adopted a mixed form of election. By using First Past the Post (FPTP) together with Proportional Representation (PR) in the election system, it was able to bring about inclusive and proportionate representation of the various oppressed groups present in Nepal. At the time of the CA election, the election commission had stipulated mandatory filing of candidates for the PR seats on the basis of 50-50 male and female candidacies, with regional, caste and ethnic groups required similarly to be represented among party candidates: 31.2% for Madhesi, 13% for Dalits, 37.8 for Janajatis (ethnic groups), 4% for backward region and 30.2% to others. Similarly the interim constitution stipulated that a minimum of one-third of the total number of candidates nominated, counting both candidates based on FPTP and PR, be women.
Today there are 601 CA members, out of which 240 members were elected on the basis of FPTP, 335 on the basis of PR while 26 are nominated by the main parties with the view to incorporating those communities which had been left out.
The CPN(Maoist) won the highest number of CA members (both male and female): 120 through FPTP and 100 through PR. Second came the NC, which has 37 through FPTP and 73 through PR. And third is the CPN(UML), which has 33 through FPTP and 73 through PR. The total number of Maoist CA women members elected via both FPTP and PR far exceeds the number in the other main parties.
Only Maoist women were elected as CA members through FPTP who were Dalit, ethnic, backward-region, or Madhesi, that is from the minority and discriminated-against communities. The same trend is seen in the case of PR (see Table 3), thus helping to make CA relatively more inclusive and proportionate.
Only 30 women CA members won in the 240 FPTP constituencies. Thus it is precisely because of the PR system that women came to be substantially represented in the CA. In fact the proportional representation/mixed form of election has indirectly forced the non-Maoist Parties to adopt class, gender, ethnic, region and Dalit agenda within their organizational structures and programmes.
Out of a total of 197 women members in the CA, Maoists elected 74 — by far the largest number among the parties. This number has increased as many smaller parties within the CA have joined CPN(Maoist), making it now the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN(M)].
Also interesting is that, among the 24 Maoist women elected in constituencies through FPTP, two belong to the Dalit caste. This is of historical importance because no woman Dalit had ever previously won in a direct election in Nepal. Likewise, nine women CA members belong to discriminated-against ethnic groups, another great historical feat (see Table 2). It is a matter of pride that eight women CA members belong to martyr families of the PW. And four CA couples won election through FPTP. This has also led to one couple, both of whom won through FPTP, joining government in capacity of full ministers, something rarely seen in the world. It is interesting to note that the two seats won by NC and one seat won by UML through FPTP belong to high-caste Hindu Brahmins.
Today the vice-chairperson of the CA is a woman belonging to UCPN(Maoist). The whip for the Maoist Party, too, is a woman. Seven women chairpersons head different legislative and constitutional committees, three belonging to the UCPN(Maoist). Moreover, the second highest vote received in a FPTP constituency went to a Maoist woman candidate, the highest having been bagged by a male Maoist candidate. Most interesting is that young district-level Maoist women defeated veteran, central-level senior men candidates of other parties.
Federalism is another important agenda of the present constitution-making process that reflects women’s pressure on the organs of the state. The interim constitution calls for a CA “to carry out an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state by eliminating its existing form of centralized and unitary structure in order to address the problems related to women, Dalits, indigenous tribes (Adivasi Janajati), Madhesis, oppressed and minority communities and other disadvantaged groups, by eliminating class, caste, language, gender, cultural, religious and regional discrimination,” so as ” to enable Madhesi, Dalits, indigenous ethnic groups (Adivasi Janajati), women, laborers, farmers, the physically impaired, disadvantaged classes and disadvantaged regions to participate in all organs of the State structure on the basis of proportional inclusion. . . .” These goals have strategic implications and reflect the Maoist analysis of women’s liberation, as women are an oppressed community within the oppressions of caste, class, ethnicity and region.
The Maoist CA members have taken the lead in advancing strategic issues pertaining to women in the draft committees of different CA constitutional committees. It is on this basis that the new constitution is going to be made.
The distinguishing feature of the PW in Nepal was that it raised vertical, class issues at the same time as it pursued horizontal issues such as caste, ethnic, gender and regional oppression. We Maoists are trying to arrive at Nepal-specific federalism based on nationality. Today, class war is being waged in different forms. There is a big struggle between those forces wedded to the old feudal and comprador mode of production and those who are struggling for a new nationalist capitalist mode of production as a stage on the road to communism.
Women’s liberation is at present at a crossroads: it has the possibility of taking a leap forward if the restructuring of the state takes place in line with a new mode of production. But at the same time it has the possibility of backfiring if — by manipulation in the name of identity, ethnicity, region — divisive forces are mobilized by the class and national enemy to preserve old social habits and culture, which are detrimental to women’s emancipation.
Today, Maoist women have not only to be skilled in street protests; they have to be equally inquisitive and eloquent in legislative activities and skillful in shaping the restructuring of government organs. Thus Maoist women have an opportunity to understand what in essence constitutes a bourgeois state and make sure the newly restructured state serves the people. At present the party needs to intervene in the state from both the top and the bottom — particularly from the base by keeping people well organized and vigilant so that they are on their toes if a people-based constitution is sabotaged. People must be ready to struggle at every juncture of such sabotage. Those who are not happy with the CA election results that made the Maoists the largest party, those who want to stick with the old feudal unitary system, are obstructing both army integration and the constitution-making process. Already there are signs of increasing violence against women, reports of women attacked as witches and Dalit women forced to eat feces. To blame are the forces seeking to ignore the verdict of the CA election, as the obstructed peace process drags on, contributing to escalating price rises and rising insecurity.
Today Nepalese women, particularly the Maoist women, have the opportunity to become holistic. They raised gender issues before the PW started and put into practice their response to class and gender issues during the ten years of PW. And today they are vigorously raising the issue of “inclusive and proportionate” participation during the constitution-making process. We must continuously struggle not only to make a people’s republic constitution but also to implement it.
Today’s struggle is whether to make a new Nepal with Nepal-specific federalism addressing all class, gender, Dalit, ethnic and regional issues. To make a constitution which is anti-feudalist and anti-imperialist. To make a constitution which not only protects the right of peasants and workers but also accepts their leadership. Or to remain stuck with the old Nepal, with the old unitary state plus a few cosmetic changes.
In the same way, today’s struggle is whether to make women the vehicle of status quo or forward-looking change. The challenge for Maoist women today is to defend the achievements we made during the PW, to apply them in practice creatively, and to develop them in order to prepare a higher level for the women’s movement.
Asmita. 2049 (Year 7, No.12, Baisakh).
Asmita. 2051 (Year 7, No.30, Mangsir).
Samudayik Sarathi Nepal. 2008. Members of the Constituent Assembly. Kathmandu, Nepal: Samudayik Sarathi
Yami, Hisila. September 2006. People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal. Raipur: Purvaiya Prakashan.
Nirwachan Ayog. Jesth 2065. Sambidhansabha Sadasya Nirvachan 2064. Nirvachan Parinam Pustika. Kathmandu Nepal: Nirwachan Ayog. (Election Commission. May-June, 2009. Constitution Assembly Member Election 2008. Election Result Book. Katmandu, Nepal: Election Commission.)
UNDP. January 2008. The Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063 (2007). UNDP Nepal
Hisila Yami is a leading figure of the United Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist, a Monthly Review contributor (“Women’s Leadership and the Revolution in Nepal” and “People’s Power in Nepal”), and author of People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal (Kathmandu, 2007).