Home Institution

Harvard University

Publication Date

Fall 2007

Program Name

Nepal: Culture and Development


“In the 1970s, women were discovered to have been “bypassed” by the development interventions. This “discovery” resulted in the growth during the late 1970s and 1980s of a whole new field, women in development (WID), which has been analyzed by several feminist researchers as a regime of representation” (Escobar, 13). This “regime of representation” was a way in which development discourse linguistically, and consequently practically, imposed a homogenized identity on these “bypassed” women, in order to bring them into development programs. This homogenizing discourse was constructed by Western development efforts and takes place by constructing all third world women as the opposition to “Western woman”. According to Chandra Mohanty, as quoted by Escobar, “This average third world woman leads an essentially truncated life based on her feminine gender (read: sexually constrained) and her being third world (read: ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, etc)” (Escobar, 8). Further, this third world woman exists as these thing in opposition to and by the imposed constructs of the idea of the liberated Western woman who are self-represented “as educated, as modern, as having control over their own bodies and sexualities, and the freedom to make their own decisions” (Mohanty in Escobar, 8). Because Western women have these advantages over third world women, the latter are posited in a dependent relationship to the former. While “third world women” are constructed as “in need of help”, Western women are constructed as those able to give that help, thus positing “third world women” in a dependent relationship to their Western counterparts. “What emerges…is the image of an average third world woman constructed through the use of statistics and certain categories” (Escobar, 8). Statistics and categorizations allow outsiders to treat others’ lives as homogenous and thereby a tendency arises to treat all women as representative of a specific, non-fluid identity, regardless of individual and group differences. Also contributing to this tendency to homogenize is the fact that “Women's empowerment” and “gender equality” have become catchphrases of sorts within development discourse. Donors sometimes require these things to be built into programs that are largely unrelated or on too small a scale or of too short a duration to do any real work towards achieving such aims (Chan, 9/28/07). The necessity of their inclusion leads many programs to homogenize women and their needs in order to fit their program into a donor specified framework that may be largely disconnected from the actual needs of target recipients of said programs.

The Nepali woman, as a sub-category of the third world woman, has not been impervious to this imposed construction of identity by such discourses. Nepali women, like other ‘third world women’ have been homogenized and stereotyped in order to form a single, manageable idea of female oppression for development to attack. Not only is the “Nepali woman”, as constructed by development discourse, ‘ignorant, poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, domestic, family-oriented, victimized, and sexually constrained’ because she is a ‘third world woman’ but also because she is specifically victimized and oppressed by the Hindu caste patriarchy of Nepal (Schneiderman, 10/2/07). This definition of the Hindu woman has been supported by the "Panchayati conceptions of the modern Nepali woman' [which] involved an active feminization and thus narrowing of roles deemed acceptable and indeed necessary for the Kingdom's women" (Tamang, 164). According to Tamang, this Panchayati conception, though ahistorical, has been widely accepted as representing historical truth. She goes on to say that "what is ignored [in this current acceptance of the 'Nepali woman' as product of historical factors] is that the specific form of 'traditional Hindu patriarch' that exists in Nepal today is actually quite 'modern', traceable via legal and developmental activities to the attempts by the male, Hindu, Panchayat elites to construct unifying national narrative with which to legitimate their rule over a heterogeneous populace" (Tamang, 170). “State-initiated reforms on political actions during the Panchayat era served to actively demarcate what constitutes ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ activities by women-demarcations that continue to inform current activist initiatives” (Tamang 167). These identities created and upheld by the Panchayat elite dovetailed nicely with the identity that development discourse was shaping for all third world women and therefore were adopted as the picture of the typical Nepali woman. What were constructed as the specifics of this identity’s repercussions for the women this patriarchy subjected will be detailed later on in this paper.

Despite being nominally a Hindu kingdom, Nepal also has a large population of Buddhists and adherents to other non-Hindu religions. Therefore, if certain women did not fit into the main constructed identity, probably as a result of not being Hindu, the Nepali woman was of the opposite breed, one that didn't need to be helped by development discourse because she was a "Buddhist, liberated, free, empowered woman of the hills" (Schneiderman, 10/2/07). Because of these two opposing stereotypes of Nepali women, all development efforts were focused on liberating the former type of woman from the oppressive Hindu patriarchy. In reality, most of the benefits of these efforts were indeed reaped by Hindu woman but mainly by upper caste elite women (Brahmin, Chhettri, Newar) who were taken as the paradigm of female oppression but who in reality already had greater access to state institutions like health-care, education, and involvement in the political process due to their higher socio-economic and/or class status in the country. The Janajati or “ethnic” women of Nepal who were supposedly outside the Hindu caste hierarchy and therefore “more free” were perceived as already empowered and were either ignored by development efforts or encouraged to conform to the idea of the 'Nepali woman' in order to access these development programs. As a consequence, the freedoms of these women in some cases actually eroded.

The problem then was two fold and it resulted not only from stereotyping in the manner previously discussed, but also by the application of “empowerment” as a single, homogenous goal for every woman without breaking it down to look at its implications on various levels. The Janajati women, while perhaps more empowered at the level of individual, family, and community, had no power at the level of the state. But because of their “empowerment” at some of these levels, they were viewed as totally empowered women (in opposition to their Hindu counterparts) and their areas of disenfranchisement were consequently ignored. At the same time, Hindu women, who were disempowered at the individual and family levels, if they were of a higher caste, still had more access to state-level institutions (Schneiderman, 10/2/07). Disregarding these nuances of levels of empowerment, the development effort ‘offered empowerment’ at the state level to those already in the best position to access it and, after encouraging the Janajati women to conform to the ideal of the ‘Nepali woman’ disempowered at lower levels, sought to empower (or re-empower) them at these individual levels-the levels at which they’d previously been empowered.

Siera Tamang, later in her article, “The politics of ‘developing Nepali women’”, speaks on the idea of “new politics of solidarity in difference” saying, “each participant brings into the conversation her own membership and identity, but is also able to shift her own orientation in order to understand women whose background and identity are different from her own. Such a method of building solidarities without erasing difference, it seems, is critical for the progress of women from Nepal’s diverse communities” (Tamang 173). The ideal scenario for development, then, would be if women could retain their individuality while simultaneously attempting to understand others’ viewpoints. This would allow efforts to best target individual needs while creating the greatest good for the greatest number. A principle underlying this idea seems to be allowing women to dictate their own needs and therefore their own identities instead of being draped with an identity imposed by outsiders. Taking this idea, I began my project as an effort to deconstruct the homogenizing development discourse which has been so much criticized of late. While Tamang takes significant steps in theoretically deconstructing discourse by pointing out its flaws, and making recommendations for these ‘new politics of solidarity in difference’, I decided in my research, to further these ideas by taking more practical steps towards de-homogenizing the discourse at the ground level. In order to do this, I decided to let Nepali women tell their own stories. My hope is that in presenting a number of viewpoints of Nepali women in different life situations, their stories will differentiate themselves from one another and begin to de-homogenize the discourse surrounding “Nepali woman” as a static identity. Jennifer Rothschild’s statement in her book, Gender Troublemakers, seems particularly relevant to my research. She writes, “Because women and men’s gendered experiences vary individually and by socio-cultural context, an examination of the social construction of gender inequality needs to be rooted in individual standpoints and understood in the context of different experiences” (Rothschild 6). Uncovering and understanding these “individual standpoints” was the focus of my research.

With this aim in mind, I decided to look at the way women talk about women, and themselves, in two different ways. I wanted to look at discourse created by NGOs at the national level about their work regarding women as well as to individuals about their own life and the ways they view the lives of other women. The NGOs I decided to talk to were NGOs who claim women as their main beneficiaries. Because many of these NGOs are now run by Nepali women, I wanted to reaffirm whether or not this homogenization holds true at this level, and not just the international level. After talking to about a dozen of the myriad woman-focused NGOs operating in and around Kathmandu, I began talking to individuals.


Gender and Sexuality | Inequality and Stratification | Politics and Social Change


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