Challenges of being a woman
There is no doubt that Nepali society is a society of strong patriarchal values. All walks of social and political lives and state bodies are dominated by men. Women rarely have decision-making authority. Gender inequality is high and rural and urban women lack equal access as men to information, education, health, employment, and justice. Gender-based violence and discrimination include domestic violence, rape and abuse, women trafficking, child marriage, forced divorce, dowry-related violence and witchcraft. Nepal is ranked 112th in the Gender Development Index out of 136 countries. Female literacy rate is 57% compared to 75% for male. Political elites often show reluctance towards women’s rights in order to preserve traditional norms of the male-dominated society.
Let me tell my own story to clarify the kind of struggle Nepali women undergo to be on par with men. I was born in Nepalganj. My father owned a small carpentry shop. When I was a child, Muslim girls were rarely sent to school for formal education. But my parents, who themselves had never set foot in school, decided to send me to a government school. I was second of the five siblings including two boys. When I was in the 9th grade, I began assisting my father in his shop by keeping accounts and preparing contracts for biddings.
As his business slowly improved, my younger brothers and sister were sent to a private English medium school. Yet, school was expensive, and I struggled through this economic hardship to complete my high school. It was a difficult time because the local community did not appreciate a Muslim girl going out and participating in public activities. My parents and I were criticized for not following local conservative norms for Muslim girls. However, they were not hostile.
I was an average student, but had leadership qualities, so I organized various events, such as running a relief campaign for flood victims or leading my school team in a speech competition. Likewise, in the early 1990s, I actively participated in social activities in my town such as women’s art exhibition, cultural programs, youth politics, and joined local chapter of the Amnesty International. I also worked as local reporter in the early emerging period of Nepali media, reporting mainly on issues of women and children in the region. At the age of 18, I was a known face in my town and occasionally appeared in media as a young female leader. Around 1995, I was appointed by then government as a member of the Mid-Western Regional Sports Council. I didn’t yet have a clear vision of what my future career would be like. I engaged in as many fields, learning from all opportunities. I felt depressed seeing the plight of Nepali women and wanted to work for their wellbeing. But, I did not know how I would do that. My parents were supportive of my work. Gradually, the relatives and other people in the communities too were impressed to see how confidently I interacted with the government officials, police and other government authorities, which they had thought was almost unimaginable for a Madheshi Muslim girl. Gradually, those who criticized my parents for sending me to school began changing their perspectives; they began talking about the importance of educating a girl. Of course, many more Muslim girls are going to school nowadays as compared to before.
After high school, the first big opportunity came to me that shaped the course of my life, making me who I am today. A senior female lawyer from Kathmandu Shanta Thapaliya, who knew my father, offered to take me with her and provide legal training. For a family in my community, where a girl was not even allowed to go to school next door, sending a daughter to faraway Kathmandu was a big decision. After six months of training in Kathmandu, I returned home and started law course in the local college. My education was interrupted for about three years due to my marriage and the birth of my two children. However, with the support of my husband and his parents, I managed to complete my bachelor’s degree in law, and in 2001 became the first certified Muslim female attorney of Nepal. Later, I also completed a Masters degree in sociology.
From 2001 to 2010, I worked on several national and international organizations advocating for the protection of women’s rights, providing legal assistance to the victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) and raising public awareness on gender equality. The second big opportunity came to me in 2010 when I was appointed by the Nepal Government to the National Women’s Commission. A new political era had begun in Nepal and there was a strong thrust for inclusive appointments. I quit the UNDP job and joined the Women’s Commission.
In this new capacity, I was not prepared to sit back and enjoy this post only for perks and benefits as has been the tradition of political appointments. Meanwhile, the traditional government apparatus was not ready to accept the authority of a woman from a marginalized community who was trying to do what had not been done before -- implementing the mandate of the Women Commission fully and strongly. There were attempts to undermine and discourage my work, but I had my strategies not only to excel but also to diffuse the obstructions. I created a support network through my work with the most disadvantaged and vulnerable women groups, and I increased visibility of the Women Commission and enhanced its profile as an active and engaged state institution for women’s welfare.
I strongly discouraged resolving the crime against women through political mediation to end the culture of impunity. I was successful in ensuring law reforms on violence against women to include witchcraft, dowry incidents, domestic violence and bringing the live-in relationships under legal protection. I pushed for the implementation of the Supreme Court verdicts on women’s issues such as reproductive rights. In 2012, I was awarded with a prestigious service award by the President in recognition of my work, and also received awards like Celebrating Womanhood Durga Award, among others. Long before working with the Government, I was also presented by the Asia Foundation as Face of Leadership in a program of Asian women leaders organized in the California, USA in 2006.
By the end of my four-year term at the Women Commission in 2014, I had made a good reputation and public profile at the national level. Continuing the pace of this work, I started working with the women’s legislative caucus and related committees of the Constituent Assembly through IDEA International. In October 2014, the new Government appointed me to the five-member constitutional body of the National Human Rights Commission, myself being the only Madhesi, Muslim female along with four men of the so-called upper caste group. This was the third major opportunity of my life, again presenting new challenges.
As I took charge of my new position, the new constitution was being drafted and intense efforts by women’s rights groups to incorporate gender equality measures failed, at least in regards to citizenship rights. The new constitution was also opposed by the Madhesi, Muslim and indigenous ethnic groups. Over fifty people including security personnel were killed in the aftermath of protests following the promulgation of the constitution. Curfews were imposed, military was deployed; and months-long blockade at the India-Nepal transit points crippled the nation with acute shortage of essential supplies. During the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meeting in Geneva in November, 2015, I mentioned that Nepal’s constitution failed to ensure equal citizenship rights for women compared to men. I also said that a credible investigation should be made about the killing of civilian and the security personnel during the protests. Upon my return from the UPR meeting, I was critically scrutinized from the highest level of government for raising the citizenship issue at an international forum. Some media members and individuals were mobilized to create propaganda against me questioning my impartiality, targeting my ethnicity and trying to politicize my image so that my work could be undermined. It was a tough time. But soon, my national and international support network came forward to stand by my side. Prominent media houses published features supporting my stand and international human rights organizations called to stop harassment of the Human Rights Commissioner. Spontaneous social media campaigns were launched by ordinary people saying #stand with Ansari. I am continuing to raise the constitutional discrimination of women at the national and international forums without fear.
Women working in government and politics face many challenges. The bureaucracy is often inflexible and stubborn. Patriarchal societies find it difficult to take orders from women and accept their authority. Gender biases also play a role in devaluing women’s work and undermining their authority in many ways. There will be attempts to devalue their ideas and undermine their work. Women’s autonomy, independence, proactive approach and leadership can make their male counterparts uneasy.
What I can assure from my experience is that hard work and commitment can eliminate all obstructions to leadership. But strategic tactics are also needed. It is advisable not to displease everyone at the same time. Likewise, one should not hesitate learning good qualities and skills from male colleagues. The most important thing for women is to develop a wider acceptance of their ideas and leadership among fellow colleagues and counterparts. They should not shy away from publicizing their good work and creating admirers; and, support groups is useful for female leaders. To change a system, it is necessary to understand the system very well. So it is also important to learn the system and the subtle gender dynamics at play there. Then, they will know how to intervene and change the system in their favor. Each situation is unique. But keen observation and patience will certainly help.
The new constitution guarantees equal property inheritance rights to women. And coincidentally, the President, the Speaker of the House and the Chief Justice are all women currently. However, having women heading the top state posts does not mean the end of patriarchal values and structural discrimination against women. There still lies a long battle ahead to bring real change in the lives of the ordinary women in Nepal.
(Ansari is a member and Spokesperson of the National Human Rights Commission. The article is excerpted from the lecture delivered by her at a women leadership program in Manila in October 2016)