In South Asia – a predominantly Hindu region – women and girls suffer severe discrimination, which begins at birth.
Hinduism, as it is practised in South Asia, is patriarchal. In simple terms, patriarchy means that a system of government is controlled by men and a society is focussed and centred on the father and everything in society relates to or is based on the relationship with a father or descent through male lineage. Although Nepal is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious nation, its society is predominantly Hindu, and its norms are heavily patriarchal. In addition, patriarchy is reported to occur within all ethnic groups in Nepal. In fact, Seira Tamang, a political scientist who has extensive experience in researching dimensions of social exclusion and promoting practices and policies of good governance in Nepal, says that Nepal’s issues with patriarchy are more complex than this. She says:
“The roles played by men and women are certainly not uniform, and ‘to be a woman’ in Nepal will vary between, as well as within, variously defined societies. It may well be more productive to talk not of ‘patriarchy’ but multiple patriarchies. As the term ‘gender’ makes clear, rather than biological categories, men and women are social and political categories that are produced historically.” (Tamang 2011, p. 281)
Nepal became a Hindu country almost 2000 years when the Liccavis from Northern India invaded Nepal and introduced Hinduism – and the first iteration of a caste system – to Nepal. However, Hinduism, its patriarchal value system and the caste system (which is still pervasive in Nepal despite being outlawed) were particularly entrenched in Nepali culture by the dictatorial ruler Jang Bahadur Rana, who ruled Nepal from 1846 until 1877, through a Hindu legal code called the ‘Muluki Ain of 1854’. This legal code was strictly enforced through an extended Rana Family Rule, which lasted for over 100 years, or until 1951, when the Ranas were eventually overthrown. The ‘Muluki Ain of 1854’ was a very complex document that set up controls over the hierarchy of people from all ethnic groups in Nepal (including foreigners), and the touchability and untouchability of people. In addition, it embedded purity and impurity rituals, rules on sexual relations, and rules related to temporal and personal impurity at childbirth, menstruation and mourning. Furthermore, regulations were imposed on how labour should be divided among people in the hierarchy, on the mobility of people within the hierarchy, and on the role Nepal should play with neighbouring, India, and much more. The most profound effect of the ‘Muluki Ain of 1854’ was on rural Nepali women.
In Nepal, gender roles and relations vary according to class, caste, ethnicity, education, religion, age and marital status. However, it is uneducated, rural, and impoverished women who tend to suffer particularly severe consequences of living in a strongly patriarchal household and society. For example, girls, from birth, are socialised to be homemakers, which limits their access to education and, later, becoming a full participant in other roles in society. The general status of Nepal’s women and girls is extremely low, but rural women and girls suffer even more disadvantage than urban ones because their access to knowledge, skills, resources and opportunities is also extremely low. Although reports are changing, it is also these women who are trafficked into the sex industry within Nepal and across the border to India and outside of the region of South Asia.
Tamang, S 2011, ‘The politics of ‘developing nepali women’ ’, in K Visweswaran (ed), Perspectives on Modern South Asia: a reader in culture, history, and representation, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden.
*Originally published on Asha Nepal’s blog