The public life of women – tracing Nepal’s feminist history
An exhibition documenting women’s empowerment in Nepal is currently on show at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala, India, having toured galleries since 2018.
The Public Life of Women – A Feminist Memory Project, is a huge project that aims to shine a light on the history of women in Nepal, in particular how their presence in the public sphere has contributed to the country’s female empowerment.
While women in Nepal face a number of challenges due to a deeply ingrained patriarchy (the dowry system, trafficking and a lack of property rights being some of them), this archive is evidence of the progress women have pushed through over the last century. It also demonstrates the importance of documenting and sharing women’s history, too often lacking in the public arena – whether in southern Asia or the Global North.
WE THINK THIS CAN SHOW HOW THE STRUCTURES OF HISTORY THAT PUSH WOMEN INTO OBLIVION ARE IN FACT CONTINGENT AND CHANGEABLE
It is the work of photo archivist NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and curator Diwas Raja Kc, who together are responsible for the Nepal Picture Library (NPL), a digital photo archive established in 2011 that documents Nepali visual history and culture.
The multipart exhibition is split into broad themes including women’s entrance into politics, literature by women, education, private and public spaces, and grassroots movements.
“By organising this exhibition around women’s relationship with public life, we want to highlight what feminist experience has felt like in Nepal,” the curators explained in a statement. “Furthermore, we think this can also show how the structures of history that push women into oblivion are in fact contingent and changeable.”
A history of women’s empowerment in Nepal
From the mid-19th century onwards Nepal was ruled by the Rana dynasty, founded by Jung Bahadur Rana, who seized power in a coup in 1846 and established himself as the prime minister. For almost a hundred years after this Nepal was governed by a small group of aristocrats who held all the political and economic power. The Ranas were known for their authoritarian rule and repression of dissent, and had close ties with the British Empire, which enabled them to keep their grip on power.
Photographs document the formation of the Nepal Women’s Association, founded in 1947 to support the anti-Rana, pro-democracy movement. The Rana dynasty came to an end in 1951 when a popular movement forced the Ranas to step down and a constitutional monarchy was formed. Mangala Devi Singh became the leader of the Nepal Women’s Association and the most recognisable face of mainstream feminism in Nepal. The women’s movement had gained momentum.
The 1970s saw the creation of the National Women’s Commission by the government, with the purpose of promoting women’s rights and welfare. Meanwhile, grassroots cooperatives were forming to promote women’s economic empowerment.
A series of striking photographs depicts the Tharu women of southern Nepal, who led protests against local landlords after they began intimidating peasants and vandalising their property – with the help of the police.
Women’s rights were finally recognised as human rights in 1990 when the Constitution of Nepal was amended. Gradually, women’s participation in politics increased, and there are now quotas in place for women to enter government positions.
As well as portraying pioneers in the political and public space, the exhibition highlights how education has transformed everyday life for Nepalese women. Another portion of the display is inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own essay, recreating a room belonging to Parijat, an influential Nepali writer whose works, known for their social and emotional themes, are considered among the most important contributions to Nepali literature.
An archive for Nepali feminism
Along with the curators, the Feminist Memory Project was put together by a team of dedicated researchers who met with more than a hundred people who have either been actively involved in feminist movements, or work to help preserve the historical achievements of women in Nepal. It has previously been on display in Delhi and Istanbul, before its current showing in Kerala.
“This multi-part exhibition is an act of willing Nepali women en masse into public memory,” the curators said. “It flashes instances from the past when women have taken on political struggle, addressed assemblies, paved new paths through education, published and shaped opinion, travelled and described the world, become figures of authority, and broken social norms. What we see is a view of how publicness itself has emerged as a key feminist strategy in Nepal.”