Tracing History with Feminist Memories in Nepal


As one of the youngest democracies in the region, Nepal has witnessed fierce people’s movements, from the rebellion against the Rana regime in the beginning of the 20th century to the Maoist uprising towards the end of it. Nepal Picture Library goes beyond the official accounts of the nation’s political history to reveal powerful stories of women’s leadership and participation in these struggles. 

Black and white portrait depicting a womanstaring directly at the camera. Certain aspects of the image are in red, yellow and green.
Tharu woman from Karjahi, Dang who was one of the leaders of a peasant revolt against the abuses of local landlords in 1980. The landlords had started intimidating peasants and vandalized their property with police help following the national land tenure reform of 1979, compelling these women to take action. / Karjahi Movement Collection, Nepal Picture Library.

Since 2011, Nepal Picture Library has been collecting, digitizing, and documenting photographs from multiple sources with the objective of preserving a visual archive of ordinary life embedded in the social history and public culture of Nepal. We believe that this would shift the focus from dominant figures and narratives, and center the local population as the authors of their own history, marking the diversities, differences, and dissensions of Nepali history. In the same spirit, we initiated in April 2018, The Feminist Memory Project, which disrupts hegemonic historiographies not only by foregrounding those who were always kept outside the frame, but also by considering oral histories, testimonies, correspondences, and pamphlets as cogent tools to write history. This archive places women in Nepal in conversation with feminist struggles elsewhere.

Over the years, our research team has met more than 200 individuals who have directly shaped the feminist landscape of Nepal or have been working to preserve the memory of the women to whom we owe our present. We came across many instances where women were attempting in formal and informal ways to build chronicles and chronologies of a feminist past, so we attempted to connect these scattered efforts.

This archive also has a sonic component because it is through listening that we have not only tried to have narratives illustrated by photographs, but also for narratives to emerge from the photographs themselves. The process has taught us to be wary of homogenous storytelling, because we found it more difficult to capture the stories of women who were oppressed by caste elite or class stratifications, of women who were not part of any popular women’s history.

There are photographs of women pioneering the anti-Rana oligarchy movements, photographs of women traveling across the country to promote women’s literacy, photographs of women leading both electoral and non-electoral forms of political mobilizations, of letters to daughters by underground Maoist women during the Civil War, and of women’s magazines and journals sporadically carrying the dream of a women-centric reading public. From schools and factories to streets, dense forests, and remote highways, these photographs demonstrate how women have claimed their space in public life and how transient even the strongest structures of power are against the collective spirit of fighting for egalitarian futures.

Anti-caste struggles in Nepal have a slightly different trajectory than elsewhere on the Subcontinent, and have grown predominantly within the Left. While this has addressed questions pertaining to landlessness, debt peonage, and labor exploitation, it has also meant that the emergence of an independent Dalit movement has been frequently stalled in the nation. In one part of our project, we have addressed the fierce Karjahi rebellion led by the Tharu women in 1980 against the injustices of samantabad (feudalism) grown worse under oppression by local landlords and police forces. There exists no celebration for this movement in the broader trajectories of Nepali history, not even in the communist genealogy, where other peasant revolts of Piskar, Chhintang, and Makwanpur are documented. We hope that by preserving these fragments of a lost history and revitalizing them in public memory we are able to open up new possibilities of understanding and assessing the past. ■

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Known as “Mechiki Didi,” Saraswati Rai campaigned for girls’ education in Ilam (eastern Nepal) through the 1950s. She had fielded her name for the 1959 election, but was told by the male leaders of the Congress Party that the timing was not right. The following year she started her long career as Ilam’s district president of the Panchayat’s women’s organization. During her tenure, she traveled widely across the country to promote women’s literacy and raise awareness about social discriminations. / Saraswati Rai Collection, Nepal Picture Library.
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Kanchanpur, 2010: A mass meeting of former kamaiyas (bonded laborers). / GEFONT Collection, Nepal Picture Library.
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Kathmandu, 1981: Women from all walks of life gather for a mass meeting in Kathmandu to submit a letter of protest to the government following the rape and murder of sisters Namita and Sunita Bhandari in Pokhara that rocked the country. / Hisila Yami Collection, Nepal Picture Library.
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Starting as the general secretary of Women’s Voluntary Service in the 1960s, Kamal Rana was the frontperson of the women’s class organization during the Panchayat years. Pivotal campaigns for social welfare and reproductive health were spearheaded under her leadership. / Kamal Rana Collection & Badri Binod Dhungana Collection, Nepal Picture Library.
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Syangja, 1990: Women at a mass assembly following the success of the people’s movement. / Shanta Manavi Collection, Nepal Picture Library.
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Palpa, 2004: Information team members of a Maoist battalion by Kali Gandaki. / Lila Sharma Collection.
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Kapilvastu, 1995: Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj joins a rally of landless people against an eviction drive initiated by the government, which was mobilizing elephants and military men to remove the squatter colonies in Terai. Nepal Mahila Ekata Samaj was an NGO set up to work specifically with landless and homeless women. / Nepal Mahila Ekta Samaj Collection, Nepal Picture Library.