Hisila Yami: People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal
“Here it is important to make [a] distinction between poor women and rich women. I am not referring to those few super-rich women women who by virtue of being wives are wasteful consumers or very few rich capitalist women who compete with other rich capitalist men to exploit the working class…Here I am talking of poor working-women belonging to all oppressed sections of society…To be more specific, this book is about Nepalese poor women, poorest of all poor women in the world, who are struggling against poverty, rugged geography without basic infrastructure, [and the] discriminatory Hindu feudal state by participating in People’s War [PW] lead by Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist] since February 1996.¹
Women’s liberation is an essential task that cannot be attained by a subculture or a mere idea. A mere idea, no matter how popular or well-articulated, is nothing if not taken up in practice and transformed into a force in real history. This post is a book review and not a discussion of the rancid state of feminism in the grip of bourgeois identity politics. Nor is it a survey of more promising signs of revival and renewal that spring eternal despite the overall weakness of women’s movements (especially proletarian women’s movements advancing on women’s and class terrains) in North America. Still, the spectre of a possible Hillary Clinton presidency and the narrow opportunism of lobbying and reform movements in Canada hang over any discussion of feminism in my own historical moment. This is the air I was breathing when I came to read People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal, and it’s worth at least mentioning to clarify my response.
Yami, a leader in the Maoist party that waged People’s War in Nepal and won considerable gains despite the party’s later turn towards peaceful coexistence, wrote the essays collected in this volume over a long career of service in the party. All of them articulate a vision of women’s liberation in a semi-feudal social context, where capitalist development has been obstructed by imperialism and archaic social forms continue to dominate. Unlike in Canada where women can own property and are mostly not bound by religious and feudal patriarchal family structures backed up by legal repression, in Nepal these forms are still very much alive. In fact, the advent of capitalism in South Asia has even worsened women’s oppression from the old days of feudalism proper, commodifying their bodies and shackling a startling number of Nepali women to prostitution and wage slavery in addition to their burdensome responsibilities caring for children and households. Most of the essays explore this context in some detail.
Additionally, quite a few documents report on internal party surveys and investigations/criticisms of the party’s handling of women’s liberation. Women were enthusiastic soldiers and party members despite facing considerable challenges that male members and soldiers did not. Pregnancy was often devastating to a woman’s political career, with the usual physical burdens compounded by a lack of basic healthcare infrastructure in the country and semi-feudal ideological attitudes towards women that still festered in the party itself. Not to mention the ever-present threat of rape at the hands of the Royal Army, who used brutal sexual violence to enforce the monarchy’s reactionary rule. Yami’s work documents, at least partially, the party’s attempts to deal with the contradictions internal to the party as well as within Nepalese society and the means they used to try to overcome them in a progressive way.
Notably, the party had much more success in winning over women’s support in the countryside after launching their war against the state. She describes how the war transformed the women’s movement in the country:
“While it has shifted the geography of the women’s movement from urban centres to real areas, within urban areas, it has qualitatively changed the women’s movement from a feminist movement to a broad-baed women’s movement with class perspective as the key link. Today wider issues such as state repression on women, human rights of women, state repression on the masses, etc. are being focused along with other feminist issues…PW has also forced different women’s organizations to come under the same platform to organize protest rallies or joint press conferences against state repression, to rally against Beauty contests, etc.”²
One of the distinguishing features of the communist women’s movement in Nepal was its focus on struggling for increased unity between men and women in the party. One of Yami’s major concerns is what she calls “sectarian feminism,” which she identifies as a tendency within urban areas for women to join gender-based movements that lacked a class analysis or class politics. In the parlance of the left, this would be called identity politics. By focusing entirely on women’s identities as women, they tended to split off the movement from potential male allies and also ignored antagonistic distinctions between proletarian and bourgeois women. At the same time, Yami is careful not to liquidate women’s liberation into a class question. In her context, after all, the state was semi-feudal, and gender oppression was an objective component of the class contradictions in that situation––as it is in capitalism even at the centres.
As she puts it: “One should bear in mind that…postponing women’s issues at the Party level would hamper the proletarian cause in the long run, as women are the most oppressed fore among the oppressed classes and groups.”³ In other words, proletarian issues are women’s issues, and vice versa, and they are neither mutually exclusive nor simply to be dissolved in a class essentialism that will inevitably favour a male chauvinist line without a strong feminist struggle.
These insights represent real revolutionary experience, a valuable and rare asset in theoretical writings. None of the documents are technical manuals about the ABCs of how to manage the women’s question in the revolutionary movement, but they have an eminently practical thrust to them. For example, the chapter on women’s participation in the People’s Liberation Army (the armed wing of the party) discusses what women’s strengths are within the army, their ideological shortcomings, and the practical and political challenges they face in the PLA. Questions of how to nourish (physically and ideologically) women, how to maintain a dynamic unity between unity and struggle within an organization, how to deal with reactionary attitudes among the people––these are essential questions for revolutionary movements, and it’s refreshing to see them addressed by someone who has had real experience and insight into these questions. Particularly coming from a context where most of the “hot-button” feminist issues have to do with language use and media criticism, I find these documents essential reading, worthy of serious contemplation.
Though it’s not the central point of the book, the author also digs fairly deeply into the Nepalese national question, both externally as it relates to Indian expansionism and internally as it relates to oppressed nationalities. It’s an excellent treatment of women’s issues as concrete instances that vary between national groups and social classes within those nations. It never abandons class politics but it articulates a definition of class exploitation that is not stereotyped or chauvinistic but as a social relation that is structured according to varying national, gender, and geographical situations.
Despite the fact that People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal makes no bones about being geographically and temporally specific, I believe it articulates a material advancement in Marxist feminism that ought to be taken seriously by the entire left. Places where rightism and identity politics reign need an infusion of revolutionary thinking, of revolutionary activity, and though we Westerners like to think of ourselves as being uniquely advanced on social issues, much of the most truly impactful work on women’s liberation has come from places like Nepal and India, where the reign of patriarchy is leagues harsher compared to the norm in a country like Canada. We’re held to account by books like this, shown that, even in harsh and repressive situations huge strides can be made if the conditions are right and the subjective will is strong. Our tasks are great, but women’s strength is far greater if only it can be unified and put to work on a mass scale and guided by politics that are neither identitarian nor class essentialist. Women are among the most repressed and exploited members of the proletariat, and it would be insulting to offer them movements that couldn’t advance women’s liberation on a class basis.
- Hisila Yami: People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal (Janadhwani Publication, 2007), Preface.
- Ibid, 23.
- Ibid, 24.