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South Asia’s Irrepressible Women

Dr. Richard L. Benkin

In February, I was in India to investigate the ongoing program of ethnic cleansing against Bangladeshi Hindus. I visited over a dozen and a half refugee camps—some semi-legal, most not even that—along the volatile India-Bangladesh border; and often in the proximity of Maoist and Islamist camps. Speaking out against their conditions can be a life and death decision for these refugees who lack any legal status and the protections that come with it. To make matters more difficult, the West Bengal government sometimes would get wind of my impending visit and send a Commissar ahead to intimidate the refugees into keeping silent. In one camp, refugees were particularly reticent to talk about ongoing incursions into India by Bangladeshi Islamists, especially because a representative of the communist West Bengal government was present. They spoke freely of atrocities that occurred some years back in Bangladesh but would become mute when I asked about cross-border attacks by Bangladeshi radicals today. Finally, one elderly woman stood up,looked the communist official in the eye, and said, “I’m not afraid of anybody,” and proceeded to describe the frequent violence the refugees still face in West Bengal. In another camp, a group of young girls were especially adamant about their pride in being Bengali and their determination to help others regain the same. One of them told me how she wanted to be a schoolteacher and teach young Bengalis their history and culture so they will demand the same rights others have. The common thread linking these two incidents is that the people who had the courage and determination to take a stand publicly—and to make a difference for their people—were women. These women spoke out in potentially dangerous situations while their male counterparts remained silent. In some of the camps I visited men were my major informants; in others, women were the ones who testified to Islamist violence. That tended to intrigue me as our image of rural Hindu societies is one in which women occupy a decidedly lower status than men. One common story both men and women repeated to me involved abductions of young Hindu women in Bangladesh. They might be walking by the road or on their way to school when groups of Islamists would force them into vehicles, carry them off, and then rape them. The attacks were abominable, but the victims also had reason to believe they might be victimized again; this time by their own people who would not let them return home where they were thought to have shamed their families. In fact, they often had no choice but to remain with their victimizers and even bear them children.

Now, from Nepal—not very far from some of the villages I visited in Northern Bengal—comes another remarkable story about women speaking out. Earlier this year, Nepalese Communists captured power through a parliamentary election. Not too long before, these same Maoists were carrying out a brutal insurgency that had caused over 15,000 deaths in the impoverished Himalayan country. Through an arrangement with Pakistani intelligence, Maoist rebels provide safe haven for Al Qaeda troops on the run from coalition forces in Afghanistan. In exchange, the Pakistanis secured them a place in Nepal’s emerging coalition. With their transformation into a political party both recent and tactical, Nepal’s new communist rulers have been systematically destroying both opposition and individual rights in that country.

Journalist Niraj Aryal writes in Telegraph Nepal, “It was in the district of Dailekh-Nepal, women folks took to the topsy-turvy Ghodeto and Godeto (Horse and Foot trails) protesting against the Maoists’ atrocities.” He made sure to add, “No male counterparts as of then had the courage to protest against the Maoists.” Aryal also notes that in the bloody days before the communists got their rebel feet in the constitutional door, it was the women the Nepali countryside who worked as “underground party cadres or even carried weapons in the Peoples’ Liberation Army fighting against the age-old discrimination and bravely resisting the State led highhandedness.” His point was not that women favor a particular political faction but have had the strength and courage to take dangerous stands. There was danger from the monarchy then, and there is extreme danger now that the Maoists have taken power. According to the South Asian Terrorist Portal, “Maoist atrocities” are coming in from all over the country. In some cases, it appears Nepal’s new rulers are exacting a brutal revenge on those who previously opposed them, especially in the countryside. Yet, these women stood against that tide.

Sharada Silwal, an official of Nepal’s Sancharika Samuha [Women Journalists’ Association] told Aryal that women now comprise about a third of the nation’s Constituent Assembly, while previously they were only about five percent. Aryal quotes Silwal as saying, “Above all women’s inherent rights must also be well drafted in the new constitution…the women legislatures must be careful to not let the patriarchic mindset prevail in the Nepali politics that may finally get reflected in the new constitution.”

While Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan all have had female heads of state, their examples of leadership never translated in a way that affected the lives of most South Asian women. Whether in Muslim, Hindu, or other communities, the old patriarchal attitudes remained strong. In India, Silwal said, “women legislatures are still baton charged whenever they demand equal treatment.” All of that might be changing. If the incidents above from the camps are any indication, female refugees are those with the inner strength to force both Indians and Bangladeshis to secure their people’s safety and their legal status. We could be witnessing a bottom up power revolution far more widespread and grassroots than anything represented by the female heads of state; something that might be signaling a real transformation in gender relationships in South Asia.