Nepalese women: Symbols of historical achievements and political leadership

Barbara Nimri Aziz reflects on the experience of Nepal with regard to the position of women and argues that there is a case for the symbolic promotion of women as this does make a difference.

'Tho I myself am despised by society, and cast aside, it is I who must prove my innocence.' - Yogmaya Neupane

NEPAL is perhaps unique among nations today with its three top public offices occupied by women: Bidhya Devi Bhandari is president; Sushila Karki is chief justice; and Onsari Gharti Magar is speaker of Nepal's parliament. This record is particularly noteworthy in a fledgling democracy, a new Asian republic that, for most of the last nine years since its founding in 2008, has been headed by members of Nepal's communist and Maoist parties.

Those three appointments are surely a credit to leftist politicians currently dominating Nepal's elected positions: prime minister, and cabinet and parliament members.

Nevertheless one must caution that these 'socialist' administrations have done almost nothing to advance parity at institutional levels through land reform, economic equity, job creation and worker protection, or by tackling caste discrimination.

Parity for most Nepalese women is advancing only slowly as well. In the recent constitutional referendum, campaigners failed to win a 50% quota of parliamentary seats for women. In the family, discriminatory customs deny women their inheritance rights. And older women, even professionals, face strong resistance when asserting their independence from brothers and sons.

Nepal's appointments of women to high office may be seen as merely symbolic. But symbols are potent - as effective today as in the past, in the West, across Africa, and in the East. Note how (not so very long ago) a US presidential hopeful set her sights on her nation's top job, partly as a symbolic demonstration that American women were truly equal and the country was fully democratic. (She didn't succeed. And many Americans view this defeat as clear evidence of the many obstacles women still face.)

There are compelling indications that the symbolic promotion of women, such as those three Nepalese appointees, does make a difference. Its impact may even surpass the work of multitudes of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) devoted to 'uplifting' women. (Gender projects registered in Kathmandu constitute a sizable industry; it's a burgeoning branch of human rights, absorbing many educated women in fundraising and planning, although with questionable results.)

Yes, the number of educated Nepalese girls is less than boys. Yes, sisters and mothers are refused inheritance rights by domineering brothers and sons. Yes, there's widespread wife abuse by drunken husbands. Yes, children are abandoned or sent to work far from home. Yes, many Nepalese women are victims of human trafficking. But most of these social ills can be tackled by good government, by policies which create more jobs for everyone, and by enforcing laws already in place to protect women and children. (Regulating out-of-control liquor consumption would certainly help as well.)

Symbols can be powerful incentives to motivate women too. So President Bhandari and other political women are to be applauded. We should welcome any actions that champion women's achievements since these projects remind us of our historical precedents (and potential). And they correct the historical record.

Scanning world history even in the era of Google, one is hard-pressed to identify more than a handful of women who are widely acknowledged as outstanding public figures. (English-language web-lists are regrettably dominated by American personalities.)

So what has Nepal to offer beyond its current president, chief justice and speaker of parliament? Perusal of Nepali postage stamps by my colleague Sukanya Waiba offers more models than expected. In a list of 18, in addition to goddesses Sita and Shrina (wives of the Hindu god Ram), Maya Devi (mother of Gautama Buddha), a 'living goddess' Kumari, Princess Bhrikuti, daughter of an ancient king, and three 20th-century queens of the Shah dynasty, we find noteworthy secular leaders. There's the eminent singer Melwa Devi Gurung, the much-admired radical Marxist agitator and award-winning poet Parijat Lama (Bishnu Waiba), and two Everest mountaineers Pemba Doma Sherpa and Passang Lhamu Sherpa. (The latter's statue overlooks a prominent square in Kathmandu Valley.)

The most recent addition to this collection is one of several political activists. She's the yogi, poet and revolutionary Yogmaya Neupane. A firebrand operating at a repressive time in Nepal's history, at the turn of the 20th century, she chose a remote valley far from the capital as her centre of operation. This past November (16 November 2016), a postage stamp issued in her honour marks her restoration and her recognition as a major historical figure, a champion of women's rights, and an opponent of exploitation by religious functionaries and the rich.

An individual of profound insight and courage, Neupane confronted the rule of Juddha Shumshere Rana, an entrenched dictatorship. No dissent was tolerated during Nepal's Rana era. Hindu priests' authority was unassailable and religious law dictated that women endure cruel conventions.

Yogmaya Neupane was eventually driven to her death (in 1940/41), whereupon all historical references to her and her movement were suppressed. Mention of her was forbidden; her surviving followers dispersed and fell silent. Only after 1990, when free speech was permitted, have Nepalese begun to examine Neupane's career and conduct research into her movement.

This is aided by a treasury of extraordinary poems newly brought to light, known as 'Sarwartha Yogbani'. The declarations embodied in her quatrains are receiving serious attention from Nepali-language scholars, historians, the Nepali press and interested Nepalese citizens as well as a London-based professor of Nepali literature.1 Even novelists seem inspired by her. Here are more examples of Neupane's fiery invocations composed in the 1920s in that ostensibly 'faraway' Himalayan village:

Your fat bellies burst, and look: those bribes you hoarded and now ooze from you are poison/ so savour your riches while you can.


Kill the corrupt, jail the thief/ judge with virtue, eliminate lies/ truth will reign when our redeemer arrives/ smashing king and courtiers alike.

A substantial and reliable Wikipedia entry ( devoted to Neupane is certain to increase interest in her. In addition to the stamp, a Yogmaya National Women's Prize founded by Nepal's Srasta Samaj organisation is awarded in recognition of her fight for women's rights. The 2016 winner was Durga Ghimere, recognised as the first person to campaign against women trafficking.2 With this award, a circle seems to have been completed.

The stamp honouring Neupane continues a tradition of recognising women's political activism in Nepal. In addition to the outspoken and revered poet Parijat, five other contemporary women are featured: Setu BK, martyred during the 2005 revolution that finally overthrew the king; Congress Party activist Chhaya Devi Parajuli; Mangala Devi, a major figure in Nepal's Congress Party along with her husband Ganesh Man Singh; activist Sadhana Adhikari; and Moti Devi Shrestha, one of the founders of Nepal's Communist Party. From this we may reasonably conclude that there's nothing symbolic about President BD Bhandari, Justice S Karki and Speaker OG Magar.                   

Barbara Nimri Aziz, a New York-based anthropologist and writer, hosted Radio Tahrir on Pacifica-WBAI in New York City for 24 years. Her book Heir to a Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published in Nepal in 2001, was the first contemporary documentation of the subject of this article. She is also the author of Swimming Up the Tigris: Real Life Encounters with Iraq (2007), which is based on her 13 years covering Iraq. Her writings and radio productions can be accessed at The above article is reproduced from the Global Research website (


1.  See articles by BN Aziz (1993), M Hutt (2011) and D Neupane (2015) listed in the Wikipedia entry on Yogmaya Neupane,

2.  Kantipur (Nepali-language daily), 18 September 2016. With special thanks for assistance to U Pant, DJK Sherpa, N Subedi, NM Tuladhar and S Waiba. 

*Third World Resurgence No. 317/318, Jan/Feb  2017, pp 58-59