In Nepal, women have not generally played a great role in politics but in the Maoist movement, they fought side-by-side with men and were also sent to the interim parliament by the Maoists, although the party is overwhelmingly dominated by men. Many women see the recent political upheavals as a chance to become more active. DW’s Thomas Bärthlein met one housewife-turned-politician in southern Nepal.
32-year-old Karima Begum stood for the Madhesi Forum and won
The young woman is eloquent and confident. Surrounded by older men, it’s clear that she’s the boss here. The 32-year-old Karima Begum stood for the regional party, the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, in Nepal’s recent constituent assembly elections and won in her constituency Birganj in the country’s south.
“I am from a poor Muslim family;” Begum explains. “I always wore a veil and stayed at home. As a child already, I always had sympathy for people with problems. I would sit with them and say: ‘Oh Allah, why did he become ill? Let me bear this illness instead.’”
Campaigning for the Madhesis
This feeling of solidarity, a strong sense of injustice, and great courage brought Karima Begum to politics. As did the Madhesi Movement -- the inhabitants of the plains on the Nepalese-Indian border have been actively campaigning against discrimination on the part of the ruling elite in Kathmandu since 2007.
“When the movement began and everyone went out onto the streets the police would often shoot. Nobody knew who was going to die next. I couldn’t stand it anymore,” Begum recalls. “When the shots came, everyone ran, all the men. I was alone and I made sure that the injured got to a hospital. There wasn’t one politician there and I had no idea what the Madhesi Forum was.”
Many women in Birganj have been mobilised by the sense that they are more courageous than men. Sheila Sarag, another young activist in the Madhesi forum, remembers: “Karima Begum yanked off her bracelets and said: ‘If you’re not men, then put them on and stay at home! If you don’t want to participate in the movement, then stay at home and look after the kids. From now on, we are the men! We’re going out onto the streets!’
“I said the same thing to my husband: ‘If you don’t want to go out onto the street, then I’ll do it. Look after your child!!’ Begum continues. “If we Madhesis want to get our rights after all these years, then we have to do something about it. We want to make a name for ourselves in this life.”
It’s clear how far Karima Begum has come when she talks about her conservative Muslim family: “All the time my father was alive, I never left the house. At the most, I went out secretly when I really wanted to.”
“But now Muslims here are proud and happy that a young Muslim woman, a housewife, is fighting for their land, their Madhes. I have to thank my husband. First of all, he was against it. But then he knew, after seeing my will and my anger, that he couldn’t stop me. And he started supporting me.”
In this region, not only are Muslim women barely to be seen in public life, but most Hindu women too -- there are so many taboos. Before the Madhesi Movement, the 25-year-old Sheila Sarag would cover herself even in front of her brother-in-law. Now he sits and listens to her proudly.
“The women here in Nepal are going to fight for the rights of Madhes and they’ll fight anybody. Now we’re going to get a constitution. Women have to get rid of their veils for the sake of their rights. And what better time than now? Who do these men think we are?”