Madhesi women speaking out

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Ever since the new constitution was promulgated in September 2015, Madhesis have been seething. They are frustrated with what they see as a fundamental betrayal of democratic ideals, the institutionalisation of a deeply discriminatory political and social system that places ‘high-caste’ Pahadis at the top and Madhesis at the bottom. They have put their lives on the line to demand reform, protesting against blatant gerrymandering, lack of proportionate representation, and centralization. It appears as if a wave of social and political awareness has swept through Madhesi communities, and beyond amendments in the constitution, what people are fighting for are basic values of respect and dignity.

Towns like Birgunj, Janakpur and Jaleshwar are abuzz with men in tea-shops having conversations about experiences of oppression, sharing with each other instances of maltreatment by Pahadi government officers. Many people who, until recently, would have primarily identified themselves with a sub-ethnic group -- Musahar, Kayastha, Dom, Brahmin -- have begun to see themselves as Madhesi. While Madhesi political mobilization has not yet borne fruit (at least in any tangible sense), it is inarguable that the degree of ‘Madhesi consciousness' is at previously unforeseen levels, and people are unafraid to speak up about the injustices, big and small, that are part of everyday life as they know it.

As in any movement, however, there are asymmetries in whose voices are heard and who remain largely silenced. Madhesi women from marginalized sections of the rural population are heard the least often. In my trip to Suga, a village in Mahottari right out of Jaleshwar, last month, I was curious to know what perceptions women there had of the  Madhes movement:  whether they felt ‘Madhesi consciousness’ had any resonance in their lives, and what they felt like the government's obligations towards Madhesi people, and specifically Madhesi women, were. I interviewed several women to try and gain some understanding of the gendered dimension of political and social priorities in Madhes.

The first house I visited illustrated to me the fact that an emphasis on gender is necessary, and if women’s voices are not sought out and amplified, they are likely to be drowned out by Madhesi men, many of whom have the tendency to  patronize, underestimate, and dismiss the ‘womenfolk’-- maugi in Maithili. The ‘man of the house’ that I went to was offended that I wanted to interview his wife and his mother, not him, and said: “I can give you all the answers you want. What do you want to know? They [my wife and mother] don’t know anything about such things, they are incapable of understanding the magnitude of what is happening. You will waste your time.”

When I finally did have a conversation with his mother, I was awed by the passion with which she spoke about Madhesi plight, the blood of martyrs, the importance of struggle, government apathy, her participation in the human chain (a demonstration at the height of Madhes andolan that prime minister KP Oli infamously dismissed with a phrase that was interpreted as ‘chain of flies’). She was insightful, articulate, her revolutionary excitement palpable, and she was definitely much more politically aware than her son would give her credit for.

Out of around three dozen women that I had conversations with, this level of understanding and belief in the cause was far from the exception: an overwhelming majority were wholeheartedly in favor of the Madhesh andolan, not always able/willing to articulate the exact changes that they wanted to see, but certain that injustice had been done, and needed to be rectified.

Sita, a homemaker with 7 children, talked about the hardships that she faced during the blockade: “There was no food; I fed my children chuda (flattened rice) and achar. No gas, no income, it was a difficult time.” 

When I asked her if she was glad that the blockade happened despite the pain it caused her and her family, she said: “Absolutely. Of course in an ideal world such extreme measures would not need to be taken, but the government refuses to hear us, what else could possibly be done? Jatbo dikat sahab, tabo apan adhikar ke lel ladab - I am willing to make as many sacrifices as I need to, but I will not stop fighting for my rights.”

Sita’s sentiment was echoed by many, across caste and economic status. Gulabiya Devi, an elderly lady, was annoyed by the tone of my question when I asked her if she felt that all efforts to secure rights of the Madhesis had been useless because no concrete changes had taken place, and said: “I am disappointed when young people like you think that change needs to be immediate and if not, it is a failure. We need to keep making sacrifices, keep the struggle going, god is on our side.”

There was plenty of optimism in many of the women, an unwavering belief that the governance was unsustainable in the long run without Madhesi support, and something had to, and would, eventually give.

Swati, a 15 year old student, said: “Madhesh is a part of Nepal. If Madhesis are unhappy, how will the country ever prosper? I have faith that we can all treat each other as Nepalis, as equals, one day, and the term Madhesi will be irrelevant.”

Not everybody shared Swati’s belief in the nation’s ‘happy-ending’, some women were completely disillusioned. Poonam, a former government employee, was very bitter. “Who died? We (Madhesis) did, by the dozen. The government is full of monsters. All the slaughter, they treat us worse than animals. What’s the point of all this protesting when all that happens is that ours sons die while the government continues to be tyrannical? I think we should just stop, or there will be more needless violence, nothing good is ever going to happen."

Reema was even angrier than Poonam, and while I would like to preface that her conviction was far from common (at least amongst the women that I talked to), she seemed to endorse secessionist ideas of the CK Raut variety. “Listen, I have never felt Nepali. Pahadis have never allowed me to feel Nepali. We can continue on this fruitless path of fighting against people who have a deep-seated belief in their own superiority and our inferiority, or we can say screw it all and create our own system where our humanity is not up for debate.”

While many would dismiss Poonam’s ideas as radical, even counterproductive, talking to people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by horrendous, baffling government brutality, it is not difficult to understand why there is so much frustration and hopelessness. Diya talked about how her heart starts palpitating every time she walks past a police officer ever since her friend, Aman was shot dead in broad daylight. Aman was a 10th grade student walking back home from tuition, when police officers opened fire, shooting him multiple times. The young boy died immediately and needless to say, officers responsible for murdering him walked away with impunity.

Diya described the terror that characterised day to day life for people when repression was at its height. She was scared to go close to the main roads because there was no way to know when the police would get violent, and school was closed for months on end. Diya is young, and when I asked her if she understood why there are so many activists who continue to struggle in the face of such deadly violence, she responded: “I don’t know exactly why, I don’t know what is in the constitution that is so unsatisfactory. But I know that more than anything, what Madhesis want is respect, to be treated as equals.”

Diya’s conviction in the necessity/inevitability of the Madhes andolan, despite her lack of education about specific demands, was characteristic of many women I talked to. Not many women knew why the constitution's proposed federal framework was so highly contested, when I asked about quotas, most responses were a nod and a shrug, but every single person could, when prompted, go on a genuinely moving tirade about the unsaid but understood second-class citizenship status of Madhesis. They talked of the state’s indifference to their crippling poverty, the lack of employment opportunities, the sorry state of educational institutions, and the constant need to assert claims to a nation that constantly, stubbornly disowns them.

The most striking thing about the conversations that I had was the way in which women weaved quotidian concerns with narratives about systemic oppression-- a detailed knowledge of how the Pahadi-hegemonic state had failed them was unnecessary: injustice was something that was felt in the bones. The fact that Madhesi women, with their dual-subalternity, have reached a point where they can see liberation as an immediate issue that is relevant to their lives and not a distant incomprehensible matter is an achievement and a cause of (cautious) optimism for where the Madhes movement is headed. When awareness penetrates deep enough to arouse passions of the doubly discriminated, circumstances have to change, and Most Madhesi women that I talked to don’t appear to be ready to give up their collective fight for the dignity of the community anytime soon.

(Lal is pursuing a Bachelors degree in Anthropology and Religion at Swarthmore College)

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