As someone that has had the fundamental tenets of development drummed into my head for some time now, I arrived in Nepal with very strong preconceptions about the role of Dalit women in the struggle to end untouchability. I had been taught that where women belonging to oppressed groups are concerned, there is a need for outsiders to “meet them where they are,” and to “not have unrealistic expectations.” This is allegedly especially so when a kind of double oppression of gender and caste is founded on strongly held cultural and religious beliefs. These attitudes are often internalized by women, thus limiting their ability and inclination to engage the public sphere and demand their rights.
To me, these warnings have a distasteful whiff of condescension. Sure, one could legitimately point to the fact that women are phenomenally busy taking care of hearth and home, but the subtext always seems to be that women are so completely consumed with securing the basics of life that we can’t expect them to be meaningfully involved in abstract advocacy campaigns. For a long time, I have been skeptical of this simplistic generalization, but until now deferred to the judgment of those wiser and more experienced than I.
I am happy to report that the conventional wisdom is being challenged by the Dalit women we met at our second rally in a week—this time a march demanding caste equality to kick off the annual convention of the Dalit NGO Federation, an umbrella organization with some three hundred members. A good-natured procession of over one thousand demanded a republican constitution and the end of untouchability in Nepal—in deed, as well as in word.
Much to my surprise, the majority of the marchers were women, decked out in their most colorful saris and huddled under umbrellas to fight off the hot sun. They seemed elated to be participating, raising their voices, doing something.
To a large extent, this enthusiasm can be traced to the extraordinary events of the last two months, the “People’s Movement 2006,” as it is called in these parts. But I also have the strong feeling that Dalit women perceive recent developments as more than an exciting bandwagon, but an opportunity to air long-held grievances and push for meaningful change.
The reality is that the abuses against which Nepal’s Dalit rights movement is fighting are every bit as fundamental as the struggle to secure food and shelter for one’s family. Caste discrimination assaults the very dignity and humanity of Dalits, a fact that is as enraging to women as it is to men.
Of course, it is possible that I am entirely misreading the situation. Frustratingly, my Nepali is almost non-existent, so it is difficult to gauge how meaningful women’s participation is in the Dalit struggle. Indeed, the VIP dais was dominated by men and very few conference speeches were made by women.
Still, as appears to be the norm in this maddening yet wonderful country, nobody paid any attention to the official program. Instead, the conference’s real business was being conducted in furtive conversations outside of the convention hall. In these, the women were every bit as active as the men.
While there certainly appears to a limited female presence in the leadership of Dalit civil society, women are every bit as passionate and determined as their male counterparts in the struggle to end caste-based discrimination. As outsiders that claim to be advocates of equality for all, it is our responsibility not to sell them short.
Posted By Nicole Cordeau (Nepal)
Posted Jun 12th, 2006