Need for Black Feminism
by Kalpana Jha
The problems that Nepali Madhesi women are experiencing today are similar to those that black women faced when the feminist movement began in the West. The need for black feminism emerged out of the realisation that black women faced double discrimination. The discrimination did not directly fit into the legal definition of either racism or sexism, but a combination of both. And this is where Nepali Madhesi women find themselves today. Like in the West previously, the injustices suffered by Madhesis, including women, have been explained as ethnic discrimination. Meanwhile, sexism has been used to refer to the discrimination against women from all ethnic backgrounds.
This framework has rendered Madhesi women invisible and without legal recourse. In the Madhesi context, the term black should be understood as a concept that represents the issue of the marginalised among women and not only of coloured women. This gave rise to the question of intersectionality among women which today has also become a pertinent issue in Nepal, especially vis-à-vis Madhesi women.
Madhesi women are mostly excluded from feminist discourses as well as anti-ethnic discrimination policy discourses because both are predicated on a discrete set of experiences that often does not accurately reflect the intersection of ethnicity and gender. These problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Madhesi women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of ethnic discrimination and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Madhesi women are subordinated.
Thus, there is a need for feminist discourses and the feminist movement at large and anti-ethnic discrimination policy discourse to embrace the experiences and concerns of Madhesi women and recast the entire framework that has been used as a basis for translating ‘women’s experience’ or ‘the Madhesi experience’ into Madhesi women’s experience. The boundaries of sex and ethnicity discrimination doctrine are defined respectively by Pahadi women’s and Madhesi men’s experiences. Under this view, Madhesi women are protected only to the extent that their experiences coincide with those of either of the two groups.
But where their experiences are distinct, Madhesi women have little protection. This is mirrored in the fact that Madhesi women lag very much behind their Pahadi counterparts in almost all human development indexes.
One pressing example is the literacy rate of girls above the age of 15 years. The literacy rate in the Mid-Tarai including Chitwan is 23.6 percent. This is lower than that of women in Karnali which is considered to be the most underdeveloped and backward region in all Nepal. Indicators of violence against women also show the highest prevalence among Madhesi women. Similar is the situation in the civil service where their representation is negligible. This directly mirrors the socio-economic context of Madhesi women.
The situation is worse for Madhesi Dalit women. Madhesi women have a hard time due to a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset and traditional malpractices such as dowries, preference for sons, purdah system and household chores and farm work. At the same time, negligence by the state is reflected in lack of accessibility to education, health and employment. These two factors have played a catalytic role in aggravating Madhesi women’s suffering. To top it all, the absolutely skewed citizenship provision has contributed towards rendering them stateless too. Under the current constitutional arrangement, naturalised citizens do not have the right to hold eminent positions like those of prime minister, chief justice or president. The full force of such discriminatory provisions is directly borne by Madhesi women.
Nearly 70 percent of the marriages in Madhes are cross-border marriages with partners from the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The status of women in these states is as appalling as that of women in Madhes. The level of deprivation faced by women on both sides of the border is shown by the fact that acquiring citizenship is contingent on who they marry. Until they are married, they do not have legal status. This context has been totally overlooked by the citizenship provision in Nepal. It is very disappointing that the feminist movement has been reluctant to take up this issue. These women renounce their rights in the country of their birth and are stripped of their rights in the country of marriage. While the state has never taken enough initiative to break the age-old patriarchy and improve the educational and socio-economic status of Madhesi women, the legal constitutional arrangement has further exacerbated the situation by designating them as second-class citizens.
The concerns of Madhesi women are unique, and the Madhes-Pahad dynamics within women are also compelling. This is reflected in the fact that Madhesi Dalit women are in a more disadvantaged position compared to Pahadi Dalit women. Although both are at the bottom in the Human Development Index, it is clearly Madhesis who are worse off. It is self-explanatory why the issue of intersectionality is of greater significance in the entire feminist movement in Nepal, especially vis-à-vis Madhesi women. Nepal is a heterogeneous country with multi-faceted problems, thus treating women as a homogeneous category is not going to work.
Recognising the tremendous heterogeneity that operates within the category of ‘Madhesi women’ is also crucial. One important thing that needs to be kept in mind is that inclusion should not be confined to a symbolic addition that remains limited to text books and op-ed pages. It should be translated into actual physical integration of Madhesi women and their concerns. Therefore, the need of the hour is a diversified understanding of feminism in Nepal. A concrete strategy must be rethought and recast that will address the diversity adequately, otherwise the women’s movement will institutionalise another form of patriarchy.
Jha is a research associate at Martin Chautari