Women leaders seen, but not heard
As the struggle for supremacy in Nepal’s politics enters a new and uncertain phase with a session of the restored Lower House on Sunday, noticeably absent are the country's women politicians.
Whether it is about the no-confidence vote that Prime Minister K P Oli may face in the Parliament he dissolved, or the tactics his party rival Pushpa Kamal Dahal may use, or speculation about NCP members switching sides, or even the king-maker role being played by the NC’s Sher Bahadur Deuba, female leaders are nowhere in the picture.
“If the leaders of both factions had handled their disagreement in a logical and appropriate manner, the party wouldn’t have been divided in the first place,” says Nepal Communist Party (NCP) MP, Binda Pandey. “As is the norm, there is more finger-pointing than an acknowledgement of weakness from all sides concerned.”
Pandey, who has been outspoken on gender rights and development matters in parliamentary committees, says that women and a new generation of leaders need to be given a chance.
“It would be great if leaders had an understanding that it is not in anyone’s best interest for them to hold on to office after having already become chief executive or party chief once,” she says, in what could be an unpopular opinion for male leaders of both the NCP and NC who want to be prime minister again, despite having held the post multiple times before.
Formerly Maoist and now Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) leader, Hisila Yami says both Oli and Dahal are to blame for the political turmoil. "The NCP leadership is wrangling for power like a selfish couple fighting to own a piece of property without regard for their children, which in this case is the citizenry,” Yami says in an email to Nepali Times.
“When the time comes, a new alliance must be formed based on capacity and strength… which is our constitution,” she says. “PM Oli must resign for this to happen, so that the country can overcome this political crisis.”
Female leaders interviewed for this report said they are often sidelined in political discourse if they disagree with the male bigwigs. Janata Samajwadi Party (JSP) leader Sarita Giri says the current political crisis is rooted in infighting within the NCP, but she is not in favour of Oli stepping down.
“Why should he have to resign?” Giri asks. “I have been victimised by party politics, so I understand very clearly what he is going through.” Giri had been dismissed from the then Samajwadi Party-Nepal in July last year when she refused to vote for a constitutional amendment bill following the Lipulekh dispute with India in July last year. She said she received little support from male colleagues in her party.
“I had to take a stand on my principles,” she says. “Women cannot take for granted that they will be heard through regular channels. So they have to step out of the box and raise their voices.”
While women’s representation in politics is a popular topic for discussion, female leaders face open and often public derision and ridicule from their male counterparts. They range from doubts about political competence to disparaging language and misogynistic attacks on their appearance. This in turn informs the public’s opinion of women in leadership, perpetuating a vicious cycle that delegitimises their social and political platform.
"Raghuji Panta has revealed his disgusting mindset,” NCP National Assembly member Komal Oli tweeted in response to NCP Dahal-Nepal loyalist Raghuji Panta’s recent misogynistic remarks on her career as a singer and politician. ”I want to ask Pantaji, which female leaders in your party who hold any office achieved their position at the expense of their bodies? Any woman in this country who has reached a position of power has fallen prey to regressive attitudes like yours.”
Bibeksheel Sajha Party’s Ranju Darshana also weighed in on Panta’s comments, posting a video on Instagram where she touched upon sexist comments that she receives regularly on social media, and discussed how female politicians and leaders experience misogyny and opposition from male leaders.
“We won’t tolerate comments and attacks intended to dominate, belittle and bring women down,” said Darshana. “Everyone must get an equal chance to represent their communities in office — men, women, and sexual minorities.”
According to a generally observed trend, female leaders and women’s issues are used as convenient political tools during campaigns and movements, but are relegated to the sidelines as soon as it comes to decision-making.
“Women are also actively involved in politics, but female leaders are only considered dedicated so long as they agree with the positions of their respective parties. When they dare express any form of disagreement, their sexuality and femininity are questioned and they are considered to be pushing the feminist agenda,” says Pandey.
Giri and Pandey acknowledge the increasing participation of women in politics set against the backdrop of an environment that is not conducive for women to air dissenting opinions. But Hisila Yami says that the future of women in politics looks promising.
“The need of the hour is for different groups of women to form an alliance in order to move towards an equitable society, and this can be made possible through gender-friendly parliamentarians backed by civil-society activists that we have been seeing during recent protests,” says Yami.
In 1959, Dwarika Devi Thakurani became the first female minister of Nepal, and only 137 others have joined the ranks over the years. There are currently 3 women in the Council of Ministers. That Nepal had a female president before even the United States has been cause for much back-patting, and the country may boast of having one of the largest female representations in Parliament. But, much of it is still confined to tokenism.