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Bhumika Ghimire: Nepal’s Culture War

Nepal’s Culture War

by Bhumika Ghimire

Just months after Nepal was declared a secular republic, the country is abandoning centuries old cultural practices and in some cases saying no to the modern Western influence. Women in the country, who face discrimination everyday-many based on religious practices and social structure, are turning out to be at the centre of this Cultural Revolution.

The state of Nepal was established by King Prithvi Narayan Shah on December 21st, 1768. His predecessors ruled the country- a Hindu kingdom-until 2006.Home to significant number of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and indigenous population, Nepal as a country followed Hindu traditions and customs. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion and faith based discrimination was outlawed, yet the country’s cultural identity was tied to Hinduism.

Ten years of Maoist lead uprising that resulted in a civil war marked a beginning of the new. Minorities in the country, who felt neglected by the national mainstream preoccupied with events in capital Kathmandu, found a voice to ask for their rightful position in the country. Their desired to see their heritage-language, culture and religion accepted. Women also climbed on to the change wagon.

Maoists recruited large number of women, especially in villages, as their militia members. After years of being pushed aside by the society as “second class” citizens, these women finally found a place where they were accepted and felt empowered. Their sisters around the country were also beginning to change. Those whose lost family members in the civil war and were forced to fend for themselves for the first time in their life, those who had to deal with the government and local officials to get compensation for property loss or had to get citizenship certificate for their children-the civil war pushed thousands of Nepali women outside of the confines of their home and into the public.

It took a decade for the rise in level consciousness around the country on women’s rights and rights of minorities to reach Kathmandu. The national media centered in the capital were content covering the combat side of civil war and missed the social changes that came along with it.

2006 people’s revolution against Monarchy which changed the country’s power structure paved the way for the social changes to be institutionalized. New constitution is being drawn up that will ensure a more representative government and discriminatory legal statues are being replaced. Being a secular state has also pushed the country to get rid of cultural and religion sanctioned bias against women and minorities.

This week it was reported that the Nepal’s Supreme Court has said that the practice of Kumari-the living goddess violates the rights of the girl to get an education. According to the tradition-which is derived from Buddhists and Hindu practices-a girl is chosen to be the Kumari at a young age and is sent to live in a medieval palace, where she will be worshipped as a goddess until her menstruation starts. Then she is sent back to her parents and another girl is chosen.

The young Kumari is educated within the palace and her parents can visit her but they are not allowed to live in the palace. A young child is essentially sent to live in an ivory tower-missing her childhood until she outlives her welcome. Now with the court’s decision, the Kumari will have to be sent to school and get normal education. The current goddess is set to quit by the end of this year and this centuries old practice may die after her departure.

Never before in history of Nepal a child’s rights, that too a girl child, has been placed higher than tradition. This move by the Court is certainly a turning point for Nepali women and girls.

Practice of discrimination against menstruating women and girls-they are thought to be “impure” during that period, bias against widows, single and childless women; preferring a male child-sometimes resulting in infanticide and feticide; all sanctioned by culture and in some cases religion are slowly being given up in Nepal. Encouraging times for women in the country, but a troubling side of the Cultural Revolution has also come to light.

No doubt Nepali women have for long been denied their rightful position, country’s culture and religion has contributed to this. For the country to be a true democracy, all discrimination against women has to end. But in the race towards achieving that democracy, the country has ignored to use reason. Not every tradition has to be killed, not every festival is sexist-but they are a lot of them which are, sadly-not every practice demeans women. People have chosen not to use critical thinking and power of reason and are blindly following the trend to do away with the old.

It would be tragic if at the end of this race Nepal ends up losing its cultural heritage completely in the name of establishing a secular democracy.


The Telegraph, 21 Aug 2008


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