Beyond History: Celebrating Women's contribution in nation-building

Feminists have decoded ‘History’ as his-story, the documentation of the past predominantly from a male perspective. In a public discussion organized by FES Nepal, the panelists called for revisiting and rewriting history to tell complete story.

A public discussion organized by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Nepal with the title “Beyond History: Celebrating Women's contribution in nation-building” echoed on the need to revisit and rewrite history. Moderator Anbika Giri, writer and also the author of ‘Yogmaya’ one of the stories in the Icons of Gender Justice recently published by FES, started the discussion with the question on why women have always been left out of mainstream history.

“We talk about different phases of human history, but there’s so little about women,” said Prof. Raj Kumar Pokhrel, head of the History Department at Tribhuvan University. “There are accounts of battles, but the oppressed have been left out. In all of this, women have been left behind.” Against this background, he emphasised that ethnic and oral history movements are necessary.

Blind spots of political history

Ishwari Neupane, head of women’s department of the Nepali Congress party, added that in Nepal’s political history the contribution of women is often missed out: “We set up organizations for BP and Girija Koirala [instrumental figures of the early party history and democracy in Nepal], but never for Shailaja Acharya or Sadhana Pradhan. If we are taking inspiration from these women, then the women who come after us will also take inspiration from us and so it is important to write their history”.

Communist politician and writer, Dhan Kumari Sunar, also stressed that women’s contribution has not been documented enough, even when their contributions have been significant. And this holds even more true for women from Dalit and indigenous communities: “Purna Devi Khadgi was arrested along with Shailaja Acharya when they protested against the king, but we never hear about her because she was a Dalit”. She added that history only mentions a few women who were related to royalties and that very little information is available on women from marginalised communities.

“Women are missing from history because women were not there in writing roles. If women had received an education first, we would have written more inclusive,” said Neupane, emphasising the importance of education. The panelists also mentioned Dalit women like Rammaya Chyamini, Thuli Kamini, Setu Bika, and Gyanje Damini, whose stories have never been written despite their contributions.

A need to revisit religion and history

The speakers also discussed the idea of the impact of religion on the status of Nepali women. “All religions have discriminated against women. As researchers, it is also our job to find solutions to these problems,” said Pokharel. In addition, Neupane pointed out the need to reform religions: “My mother-in-law did not question mythological stories, but I do. How we interpret religion is also important”. Moderator Giri also stressed the importance for girls to have female heroes to look up to when growing up.

“History was about kings who protected their country, but others who must have also contributed were missing from the narrative. History needs to be rewritten or revisited. The government needs to think about resource for research while the universities need to make their syllabus more inclusive”, Sunar added.

Part of this problem is that Nepal’s recorded history only existed in the documents kept by the durbar (the rulers court) before the 1951 people’s movement.

Time to ‘write your own story’

Currently, history is not the most popular subject among university students, because of the lack of career perspectives, Prof. Pokhrel explained. “The state needs to invest in history writing. If we do not revisit, it will stay male history,” Neupane added.

All the three panelists concurred that although women’s representation in politics has improved in terms of quantity, it is still men who are mostly in decision-making positions and hold the key to resources, while women often have been relegated to tokenism. Nepal has a female President and has had women as Speaker and Chief Justice in the past, but men continue to dominate politics and bureaucracy. 

“Women politicians have also formed a caucus, to stand together for women’s issues. But there have always been attempts by male politicians to break it. We need to at least create the first posts, so that women may follow in the future,” said Neupane. The speakers said that gender-based unity was the only way to push for change.

The discussion closed with the important question of how we can change the writing of history? Sunar responded by referring to a long practice of storytelling and that it is all about changing the narrative. She said the young generation of women in Nepal is already on their way for change. Sunar closed with an encouragement quoting Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t like someone’s story; write your own.”

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Nepal

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