The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal
By Hisila Yami (writing under the name Parvati). She is the wife of current Nepalese Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and is a leading figure of the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (née the CPN (Maoist)) in her own right, making many important contributions to the study and practice of women’s liberation. She is also the author of important work People’s War and Women’s Liberation in Nepal.
As part of the lead up to International Women’s Day (March 8th) The Speed of Dreams is posting this important essay written during the now stalled People’s War in Nepal. In it Yami is sobering in her honesty about the historical role of women in revolution. She examines the role of women in the CPN(M)’s peasant-based People’s Liberation Army and also draws conclusions on the defeat and degeneration of past communist revolutions and the role played undefeated patriarchal social relations, within the vanguard party and in wider society. She tells us what should be obvious, but which many communists miss: that women and women’s liberation must be absolutely central to any successful communist revolution.
People’s War (PW) in Nepal, which was initiated in February 1996 under the leadership of the CPN (Maoist) has been developing in leaps and bounds. The fire of revolution, which initially sparked in a few districts in Western Nepal, has swept all over the country. According to the Government’s own account, out of 75 districts in Nepal, PW has affected 73 districts. All these gains could not have been possible without the mobilization of the masses that are the backbone of PW in Nepal. The mobilization of women in particular is apparent in PW in Nepal.
Consider their daring feats. They were the first to break the tense silence throughout Nepal caused by the first historic strike that marked the initiation of PW in Nepal on 13 February 1996. On the occasion of March 8th 1996 the All Nepalese Women’s Association (Revolutionary) [ANWA(R)] dared to organize a seminar (amidst strong speculation that they all would be arrested) and to voice the need for overall revolution to solve women’s oppression. It was after that bold step that other mass organizations started giving their own programmes. Dalit [lowest caste – ed.] women in Kalikot district in western Nepal were the first to snatch rifles from reactionary armed forces and hand them over to the local Party, thus accelerating PW in that district. The first daring historical jailbreak from the heavily fortified Gorkha district jail in March 2001 by six Maoist women is one of the rarest events, perhaps even in world history. Until the clamp down of emergency rule in November 2001, of all the mass organizations the women’s organization was the most active and in the forefront of the movement. The successful antiliquor drive, which rocked the whole country in October 2001, in fact forced the government to negotiate with ANWA(R). Consider another feat; even before men in the Party started renouncing their parental properties to the Party, women of Rolpa started forsaking voluntarily their personal jewelry [the main form of women’s property – ed.] to the local Party. After the promulgation of the Emergency, more and more women have been raped, killed, incarcerated and disappeared. Despite all this there is a growing participation of women in PW in Nepal.
There are now objective grounds for developing women’s leadership in all fronts. Realizing this, CPN (Maoist) has created a separate women’s department under the Central Committee of the Party. The function of this department is to make policies to develop women’s potentialities to higher levels so that more and more women are able to reach policy making bodies in all the three fronts: Party, Army and United Front.
The Question of Women’s Leadership in CPN (Maoist)
The question of women’s leadership became more and more important in Nepal as revolutionary united fronts were replacing the reactionary state machinery at village and district levels. It was seen that women were joining the movement in unprecedented numbers, showing tremendous endurance, sacrifice and devotion; however they lacked expert knowledge to lead the movement. With the establishment of a central level United Revolutionary People’s Council (URPC) to co-ordinate the activities of all the united fronts at various levels, this question became all the more pertinent. Also with the creation of higher military formations within the People’s Liberation Army, the question of women started being raised by the women themselves. This has become more important as military formations have now reached the level of Brigade, and there are separate women’s platoon and sections with the brigade. It is seen that while men are continuing to develop in the military field even when they have reached beyond 40 years of age, women are hardly seen to continue in this field beyond 25 years. While from the field, objective conditions were demanding the need of developing women’s leadership qualities from the women cadres, within the Party itself there was a theoretical debate on women’s role in the communist movement. It was in the Second National Conference, in the process of analysis and synthesis of achievements of PW in Nepal which led to the adoption of Prachanda Path, that women’s role in institutionalization of continuous revolution and their role in preventing counterrevolution were seriously discussed. In fact the creation of separate women’s department is the product of Prachanda Path. Their role in the three instruments of revolution—Party, Army and United Front—was discussed. The Party being the most decisive amongst the three instruments, the question of developing revolutionary women leaders in Communist Party was given prominence.
The Leadership Question and Women
Leadership is basically actualization of political ideology, hence in the Communist Party it is the command in ideology that determines the leadership quality. This quality is developed through continuous class struggle, inner-party struggle and inner-struggle. Hence real tested leadership can only come in countries where there is class struggle, where the Party thrives on healthy inner-party struggle demanding a higher level of transformation of individuals through relentless inner-struggle. Indeed Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Chiang Ching were all products of intense class struggle and inner-party struggle that was being waged in Germany, Russia and China in their time. And being women in addition, they had to wage a more complex inner-struggle than the men of their time.
The question of leadership is also linked to objective necessity and the chance factor. In the dialectical relationship between the two, it is true that the objective condition necessitates birth of a leader but the question of who emerges as a leader is left to chance. It is here that the women’s leadership question becomes slightly complicated. It is seen that revolutionary communist movements have always unleashed women’s fury, but they are not able to channelize this energy into producing enduring women communist leaders. The question has been raised again and again as to why there are so few women leaders in communist parties when Marxism offers such a deep penetrating analysis and solution to women’s oppression. Hence the question arises as to why the chance factor is constrained in producing women leaders in communist parties despite growing objective conditions for it? This needs deep analysis.
Women are Late Arrivals in the Political Arena
Right from the period of the slavery system men from the privileged class developed their skill in running political state affairs. They developed their leadership quality at the cost of women of both classes and the enslaved men. This continues to this day, in some form or other. Here it is worth remembering Engels, who said that the overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex and that men took command in the house also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. By virtue of their sole right over property men became the rulers, the women upon losing their historic mother-right became the ruled. The prevailing division of labor, according to which men undertook mental work, while women were relegated to physical work, led to cumulative experience of men in the field of analysis and synthesis of the world, while women were lost in the hidden world of household activities. Men thus monopolized the field of worldly knowledge; they have been actively involved in not only defining the world but changing it too. Consider this—women got voting rights long after it was achieved by men. Even in today’s 21st century, women in Kuwait do not have the right to vote. With the imperialist countries backing religious medieval feudal rulers like the Taliban in Afghanistan (now replaced by a coalition of smaller feudal lords under Hamid Karzai) and sheiks in Gulf countries, women are restrained from entering public life. Also in Western countries, despite much noise being made by feminists, there are few women leaders in political parties. Take the case of Nepal where women are denied the right to rule right from the womb, because of the feudal monarchical system prevalent here. All these have a cumulative effect on the struggle for developing women’s leadership in political parties, even in the communist parties whose history is comparatively recent and which are so antagonistic to the prevailing mainstream political parties.
Prevailing Mode of Production is Not Favorable
The base and superstructure of the present society is based on exploitation in general and in particular on exploitation of women’s reproductive and domestic labor. In property relations women are looked upon as maintainers of men’s property and producers of sons to pass on the property within a male lineage. The prevailing superstructure, such as the social, cultural, educational, and political system, are all geared to support this exploitation. Take the example of the marriage institution. It is an alliance of convenience for men to perpetuate their hegemonism in property relations. For women the same alliance in fact marginalizes them to domestic slavery. Sadly this holds true amongst the communists too, although to a lesser degree.
Nepal with strong left movements has periodically produced many women activists, but they seem to vanish as soon as they are recognized. One of the most apparent reasons is the institution of marriage, which has robbed us of promising women leaders. People’s War seems to be changing that pattern, however, even within PW the question of continuity of women’s leadership keeps coming up, especially when they get married and decide to have children. This is because in countries like Nepal, where the feudal patriarchal system is yet more oppressive than the capitalist patriarchal system in advanced countries, the married life of women communists can be more complex. Although the element of the notion of private property is slowly disappearing in Nepal with the waging of PW, however the cultural root of feudalism eventually creeps in in many forms, such as the conventional division of labor in the name of necessity. Added to this is the unilateral burden a woman has to carry when she becomes a mother. With the birth of every child she sinks deeper into domestic slavery. In fact many women who have been active in People’s War in Nepal are found to complain that having babies is like being under disciplinary action, because they are cut off from the Party activities for a long period. In this way many bright aspiring communist women are at risk of being lost in oblivion, even after getting married to the comrades of their choice. This is specially so in white dominated areas [areas still dominated by the local traditional elite-ed.] where women seldom get support system from the mass as well as from the Party to sustain themselves in their reproductive years. However, it is heartening to see that this problem is being solved in the base areas of Rolpa and Rukum, where the mass support and the consolidation of the Party has made it possible for the Party and masses to support such maternal burdens of women leaders. Another aspect of Nepalese feudal society is that there is a strong pressure on women to bear children, especially sons. With the launching of PW this aspect has been negated to some level, however, there is still pressure to have at least one child.
There is also the tendency to create pressure on women cadres to get married covertly or overtly as unmarried women draw lots of suspicion from men as well as women for their unmarried status. This results in marriages against their wishes or before they are ready to get married. Also there is a tendency to take sexual offenses more seriously than political offenses.
Women’s Struggle is More Complex than Men’s
For communist women, it is not enough for them to participate in class struggle, inner-party struggle, and inner-struggle. Often they may remain in the minority even if they belong to the majority line within the party. And because they are the product of this patriarchal structure, hence their inner-struggle consists in not only struggle against themselves as individuals but also struggle against the effect of patriarchal values on them, such as fatalistic tendency, inferiority complex, guilt syndrome, victim syndrome, etc. They have to face an even more complex struggle if they happen to be single, divorced or married more than once. This is well documented in Alexandra Kollantai’s collection of articles. In fact she represents the best example of revolt against such marriages. She left her first husband and child in order to concentrate more on revolutionary work, then later she left her second (communist) husband on the ground of his stereotyped expectation of the marriage alliance. And because of her rebellion against conventional marriages she not only faced difficulties with the bourgeois society but also from conservative communists as well. As a result Alexandra Kollontai is more known for the “glass of water theory” (the theory that sex should be as easy and uncomplicated as drinking glass of water) among the conservative communists than her contributions to the communist movement and the proletarian women’s movement. Take another example, that of Chiang Ching. She had to face slander from the bourgeois press and personalities because of her past marriages, and even within the Party she was not received kindly. Chiang Ching had to agree to political isolation for many years as a condition for her to marry Mao. This decision was taken when the rightist Liu Shao Chi was in the Party headquarters.
Manifestation of Patriarchal Values in Communist Party
Since the feminist movement is the product of the bourgeois revolution, quite often communist parties tend to become hyper-sensitive to women’s issues. As a result they fall prey to patriarchal values even while agreeing in theory to women’s liberation. This is manifested in many ways. For example instead of taking women as reliable long-term equal partners in the communist movement it takes women’s role as supportive. As a result the Party is often found overemphasizing the class struggle at the cost of gender exploitation, forgetting the dialectical relationship between the two. There have been cases of delaying the formation of separate women’s organization or even temporarily dismissing existing women’s organization within communist parties. In parties where separate women’s organization exists, there are cases where the women’s mass front is not given the required degree of freedom so as to make their own plans and programmes, thus robbing them of initiative and creative power. This ultimately breeds alienation and tailism in the Party. This can also take place by not coordinating the women’s programme with the party programme and as a result the party programme gets priority over the women’s programme. Conservatism in the party can also be seen through relegating women cadres to only women related work, thereby robbing them of the chance to develop in party policy matters and other fields.
In the practical front, this leads to spontaneity whereby women’s issues are addressed but not implemented because one leaves it to circumstances, leading to gradualism. Often it is seen that the party does not actively intervene in the existing traditional division of labor between men and women whereby men take to mental work while women are left to do physical labor. This is also manifested in taking men and women as absolute equals by not being sensitive to women’s special condition and their special needs. This becomes all the more apparent when women are menstruating or are in the reproductive period.
Lack of Subjective Effort on the Part of Women Cadres
Women have to wage a longer struggle because of their double oppression. However due to lack of subjective efforts they lose half way. For example, where they have successfully rebelled against feudal values, they have not been able to sustain themselves in class struggle. And where they have been able to wage class struggle, they have not been able to sustain in inner-party struggle. And by not participating or participating poorly in inner-party struggle they lose sharpness on ideology, thus robbing them of their chance to determine the course of the communist movement, which has so much relevance to their own liberation. Their lack of subjective effort is manifest in many ways. In the field of ideology, they fall prey to pragmatism, economism, sectarianism because they are not serious enough to study theoretical knowledge and be involved in inner-party struggle to overcome their objective conditions, which in turn breeds these tendencies because of their past objective conditions.
In the practical field they often fall into tailism whereby they follow the directives of the party blindly without questioning, just as traditional women have been following their fathers when unmarried, and their husbands when married, and their sons when widowed. They thus become the victims of circumstance. This manifests in unplanned motherhood, which affects them most if they are in the military field. It manifests in following the husband’s political line blindly instead of developing one’s own political line, thereby affecting their independent political life. By not being assertive of their rights they fall into the trap of traditional division of labor. As a result they covertly become the vehicle of traditional conservative ideas leading to counter-revolution. In many cases they take marriage and motherhood as a break in their political/military career as if it is temporary work. Similarly they become willing partners to their husband’s field of work thereby losing hold of their own previous work. Hence frequent change of place and work affects them more than men. The effect of all these tendencies leads to developing an inferiority complex among women which is counter-productive to the revolution.
Men’s Willingness to Give Up their Special Privileges
While women cadres have the problem of asserting themselves, men cadres have the problem of relinquishing the privileged position bestowed on them by the patriarchal structure. This is manifested in many ways. This is mainly seen in the form of formal acceptance of women’s leadership, while in essence not accepting their leadership. Thus there are delays made in establishing women’s leadership in the Party, PLA and United Front. This also results in their being impatient with women’s mistakes and general lack of skill in fields from which women have been excluded. Often they relegate women’s issues to women as if it does not concern them. This is manifested in not reading literature on women’s issues, and not taking part in implementing programmes given by the women’s mass front. Sometimes this covertly is seen in the form of being overprotective about safety of women cadres when it is not warranted and by undertaking women’s mental work on their behalf. This is also seen in their sticking to old traditional division of labor, without relinquishing their monopoly on mental work and relegating women to everyday drudgery work. Not wanting to give up their privileged position they tend to discourage promising wives from taking up independent work, which would take them far off from their husbands.
Political Line and the Question of Women’s Leadership
It is the correct ideology and policy of the communist party that will determine the quality of women communist leaders produced and the path of women’s liberation. It was the correct political line of the Bolshevik Party headed by Com. Lenin that produced fine women communist leaders like Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Inessa Armand, Krupskaya, etc. It was the correct political line because of which communist women leaders like Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg were able to evolve the concept of celebrating 8th March as International Working Women’s Day every year globally, the decision being taken by the first international socialist women’s conference in Stockholm in the year 1910. And it is being followed by not only communists but also the bourgeoisie (in their own way) even till this day.
It was the correct political line of Com. Rosa Luxemburg of exposing and struggling against Bernstein in her book “Reform or Revolution” and later her struggle against Kautsky that brought her to the notice of revolutionary communists of the world. She dared to warn Lenin that bureaucracy may breed in the structure of the Party if the question of centralism and democracy are not understood in their dialectical relationship and under the specific condition of the individual country where it is applied. With the occurrence of counter-revolution in previous socialist states and with the tendencies of bureaucracy which seem to sap revolutionary parties engaged in PW time and again, her warning seems to have relevance even today.
Similarly it was the correct political line carried by Com. Mao which heralded Cultural Revolution that unleashed women’s fury. It was a woman who put up the first poster denouncing Liu Shao Chi heralding the revolt against rightist headquarters. It was the Cultural Revolution that unleashed Com. Chiang Ching’s suppressed leadership quality making her one of the resolute fighters against the capitalist roaders until her death (or murder?). One must also remember that in the period of occupation of headquarters by the rightist Liu Shao Chi, he was the one who ordered women to go back home in order to solve the unemployment problem that was looming large. It was the rightist policy, Perestroika, and the capitalist policy of Deng which slowly introduced commercialization of women thus bringing back prostitution, gambling, beauty contests etc. in Russia and China.
Having said all this, let us not forget that just as women themselves are divided into different classes, so are the communist women divided along rightist, centrist, and revolutionary lines. Due to anti-working women’s liberation policy taken by the rightist and centrist line, those women who belong to these lines are eventually marginalized in their own parties and remain exposed outside the party because of their anti-women’s stand. Whereas those women who stood by the revolutionary line even while failing to make revolution in their own country remain popular. Take the case of Rosa Luxemburg, who is the most popular woman communist leader so far. She was killed before she could realize her dream; this all the more enhanced respect for her as a devoted woman communist leader in the communist world. Similarly it was the tough stand taken by Chiang Ching who defended Mao’s revolutionary line even in her captivity until her death in revisionist China that made her the defiant heroine.
It is interesting to observe that revolutionary communist women have always been on the offensive when they are fighting against the revisionists. The reason may be because they are painfully aware that revisionism breeds bureaucratization, which in turn strengthens patriarchal values, ultimately negating women in politics.
It should be noted that in third world county like Nepal, where class differentiation is not sharp enough, inner-party struggle may often appear in the form of gender, ethnic, regional struggle. Hence the gender issue becomes quite an important component of the class issue. In such a case dismissing the gender issue as an alien force will ultimately affect class struggle.
Private Property and the Question of Women’s Leadership
It is time and again seen that women masses do come in a tide to participate in revolutionary movements producing some potential women leaders. But this tide along with the prospective women leaders seems to recede once the revolution is completed or is defeated. The chief reason behind this phenomenon is the existence of the concept of private property. As long as private property remains women will always have to go back to tend individual household activities, maintaining private property for men, no matter how many social revolutions take place. Hence the concept of continuous revolution until one reaches communism has strategic relevance for women, because it is only then that private property gets abolished, unleashing the creativity of women. That is why it is important to make conscious efforts by revolutionary parties of the world to create a conducive environment for developing revolutionary women communist leaders so that they can play a role as catalyst agents in arriving at communism. Hence the question of developing women communist leaders cannot be left to chance, they need to be consciously nurtured, cultivated and safeguarded.
Some Experiences of Women’s Leadership in Nepal
Realizing the importance of revolutionary women and their role in the communist movement, CPN(Maoist) has come forward with some encouraging results. Today there are several women in the Central Committee of the Party. There are dozens of women at the regional level and hundreds in the district levels, and several thousands in the area and cell levels in the Party. In the People’s Liberation Army there are many women commanders, vice commanders in different sections within the brigade, platoons, squads and militia. There are separate women’s sections in the brigade: women platoons, women squad teams, women militia teams functioning in the field. In the United Revolutionary People’s Council, which is an embryonic central people’s government organizing committee, there are four women out of 37 members. Women’s participation in all levels of People’s Councils has been made mandatory.
Just to give some idea about their participation in different fields, let us take the Western region of Nepal. This region alone has 1500 women’s units. The total number of women membership in the women’s mass organization is six hundred thousand. In the military field there are ten women section commanders in the main force, two women platoon commanders in the secondary force and several militia commanders in the basic force. The team commander of the health section of the battalion force is a woman. The women there have started a campaign called “One village, one unit, one house, one friend.” This has helped in organizing and politicizing village after village. Similarly in the field of production, there is a campaign called “Where there is contact, there is organization; where there is organization, there is production.” Hence women are also involved in production activities. They are actively involved in conducting people’s courts where informers, drunkards, gamblers, womanizers, and cheaters are punished. In such trials usually local women militias are actively involved together with the villagers. Hence one can say the objective basis for producing women leaders in various fields are ripening in western region.
Today more and more women are encouraged to rebel against their oppressive marriages, and politically incorrect marriages. Take the case of Com. Shilpa, who was first a commander in a guerrilla squad and later a sub-regional committee member of the Party and vice-chairman of a district level people’s committee. She had a heroic death while laying an ambush against the reactionary armed forces in May 2002. She dared to denounce and divorce her husband who had reneged against the revolution after being captured. There is an increasing trend of widow remarriages [condemned by orthodox Hindu tradition, ed.]. The definition of the family of martyrs has now been extended to those wives of martyred comrades who have remarried without forsaking the revolutionary cause. This has indirectly helped widows of martyred men to remarry without feeling guilt. Take the example of Com. Shilu, the commander of the historic women jail breakers in Gorkha in March, 2001. She has remarried another comrade after losing her husband Bhim Sen Pokharel who got martyred while giving protection to Com. Basu, the first martyred politburo member of CPN(Maoist). There have been cases of husbands and wives being given challenging works. It is worth mentioning that Com. Phul Maya BK, who was a section commander of a battalion in the historic Dang Barrack attack on November 23, 2001, was martyred along with her husband Com. Bijok in the same battle. Also it is worth mentioning that the political commissar for the Satbaria barrack attack in Dang in April 2002 was a woman. In the course of promulgation of the Emergency and military mobilization many husbands, wives and sons and daughters have been martyred, this also indicates the level of politicalization of the family in Nepal.
From the above it can be concluded that the importance of revolutionary women’s leadership in the communist party has strategic importance as they are a reliable, long term and mass based force which will help push the communist movement from New Democratic Revolution to socialism, and from socialism to stateless and propertyless communism where complete women’s emancipation is guaranteed. Taking on the relationship between communism and emancipation of women, Inessa Armand has rightly said that if the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women. The concepts of right to rebel, cultural revolution, continuous revolution, overall revolution, mass based politics etc., all have strong appeal and application for women because of their double oppressed status. Their double oppression and the continued false promise of equality given to them by the ruling class (including the revisionist left parties) keeps them alert and on their toes to check any counter-revolution or revisionism, because they have seen the gains of women’s rights slowly eroding with every capitalist stand taken by the party in both Russia and China.
The Communists should be politically aware that if patriarchal values are not checked periodically through rectification campaigns then it may slowly breed bureaucracy in the party. The result of bureaucracy in the party is that it gets cut off from the masses. Once the party becomes an end in itself, serving the interest of its own existence, it will eventually strengthen revisionism. This will result in the party becoming the vanguard of the exploiting class instead of the exploited class, thus losing both class and gender perspective.
For the communist movement to flourish it is not enough to produce individual outstanding women communist leaders such as Rosa Luxemburg or Clara Zetkin, but also equally important to produce women communist companions like Krupskaya and Chiang Ching, who were leaders in their own field, who stood by their husbands who were leaders of the communist movement. They were not only providing their husbands with comfort and companionship but were also actively engaged in two-line struggle in the party. We also need women like Jenny Marx who stood by her husband like a rock in the hours of political and personal turmoil, and helped him in whatever capacity she had. For in order to preserve the gains of revolution and its continuous advancement, we need to not only produce revolutionary women leaders but also equally it is important to sustain and preserve revolutionary communist men leaders. Let us not forget that it was also revolutionary men like Karl Marx, Engels, August Bebel, Lenin, Mao etc. who provided deep analysis of women’s oppression and have shown the path of women’s emancipation.
Also it is important to note that just as communist women know that for every gain in the proletarian people’s power there is a relative gain in women’s power, similarly communist men should know that the revolution and the gains of revolution can only be preserved and furthered when more and more women join and lead the revolution. Similarly just as the proletarian movement needs the input of all those who have rebelled against their class outlook, similarly the proletarian women’s movement needs the input of all those who have not only rebelled against their class outlook but also against their stereotyped sexist outlook. Hence the alliance between revolutionary men and women is not only to be desired but is also historically necessary. This is all the more necessary in producing revolutionary women communist leaders.
Lastly it is important to note Mao’s remark “keep being dissatisfied, the world belongs to the dissatisfied.” This is all the more true for women revolutionary leaders who have to tread a longer and more complex path of class struggle, inner-party struggle and inner-struggle.
Posted on March 1, 2012, in Revolutionary Theory, Women's Liberation and tagged Hisila Yami/Comrade Parvati, Nepalese Revolution. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Question of Women’s Leadership in People’s War in Nepal.