[The central office of the Young Communist League, located in the Kathmandu Valley. Credit: Apekshya Prasai]
While war has long been a dominant strand of study in political science, scholarship on women’s experiences in conflict has been relatively limited. When scholars analyze war from a gendered lens, the predominant approach has been to treat war as a masculine enterprise and investigate how war victimizes women. Although during war, many women (like men) are victims of violence, –sexual or otherwise– and it is imperative to understand their experiences, it is not uncommon for women to also be perpetrators of violence. My research interests focus on women’s roles and experiences in Nepal’s civil war.
Contrary to the widespread portrayal of women as victims of wartime violence or natural peacemakers , women have been active contributors to political violence across the world: the Tamil Tigers’ secessionist struggle in Sri Lanka, Boko Haram’s suicide campaign in Nigeria, and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal are all examples of violent political movements characterized by significant female participation.
During the ten-year (1996–2006) civil war that plagued Nepal, the predominantly male Maoist leadership was able to recruit and mobilize thousands of women despite prevailing patriarchal gender norms in the communities they were recruiting from. What motivated women from such patriarchal communities to challenge societal norms, and often their families’ expectations, to join the Maoist insurrection? What was their path to becoming an insurgent and what roles and responsibilities did they take on once in the movement? How were gender dynamics within the Maoist movement? How were women uniquely affected by the termination of the war and the Maoist advancement in mainstream politics as a political party?
Why women fight
These are examples of some of the questions that I am interested in. With support from MIT GOV/LAB, I was able to explore these questions through interviews with women who had previously participated in the Maoists’ campaign. Almost all interviewees mentioned oppressive patriarchal norms and gender-based discrimination as one of the, if not the primary, motivations for them to join the Maoist insurgency. For instance, one interviewee recalled the frustration she felt growing up when she was not allowed to go to school, but still had to drop off and pick up her brother from school while completing household work in between. She, like most others, mentioned that the Maoist message of equality, class, caste and gender-based equality resonated strongly with them as they struggled to navigate a male-dominated society in conjunction with an oppressive monarchical state. This aligns well with a significant strand of the literature on women’s engagement in political violence which attributes the phenomenon to women’s frustration with traditional gender norms and pervasive gender inequality and their consequent desire for change .
While ideological appeal seems to explain part of the motivation for women to join the Maoist insurgency, some of my interviewees suggested that taking up arms against the state was also a strategic choice for self-preservation. Often, despite keeping a distance from the Maoist movement, the wives, sisters and daughters of men who became affiliated with the Maoist insurgency were targeted by armed government forces. One interviewee explained that violent behavior by the armed forces and the persistent threat of rape and torture left her with little choice but to join the Maoist insurgent ranks.
Political path to gender equity?
Regardless of the specific context that encouraged these women to seek affiliation with the Maoists, all the women I interviewed reflected positively upon their experiences within the group as being characterized by remarkable equality with their male counterparts. While women had been and continued to be treated as subordinates to men in society at large, within the Maoist movement women claimed that men and women had equal rights and responsibilities. Their accounts of daily life during the war suggest that women received the same military training as men, and women were encouraged to and did serve in a variety of capacities including as combatants, spies, intelligence officers, and propagandists, as well as members of their cultural and political wing. Moreover, when asked whether women held leadership positions, most interviewees referred to women who occupied positions as commanders, commissars and brigadiers. In fact, one of the women I interviewed proudly recalled leading an all-female military unit, when the Maoists had experimented with gender segregated military units for a few years during the war.
Interestingly, while the positive reflection upon wartime years as being egalitarian was almost universal, there was more variation in women’s attitude towards the Maoist party in the years that followed the peace process. On average, most of the interviewees agreed that the Maoists’ advancement into mainstream politics meant, for many female ex-combatants, a return to a society where patriarchal gender norms still prevailed. In particular, interviewees who were no longer active in politics expressed frustration at being tied down by the responsibilities of family life despite having gone to war to dismantle the social structures that confined women to the private sphere.
Those who were more active in politics, and especially those who held esteemed political positions (including ministerial positions) in the government, acknowledged that it is harder to recreate the kind of egalitarian environment that prevailed during the war in the national political arena, but insisted that women in the country are doing better on average due to the changes brought about by the Maoist insurgency. Although there seems to be general agreement amongst women formerly affiliated with the Maoist insurgency that women’s issues have become relatively less salient within the party (and its numerous factions), explanations for this change vary. However, what may be causing this variation is yet to be explored and going forward it would be interesting to analyze if and how wartime and post-war experiences may be shaping women’s attitudes towards the various factions of the Maoist party and the state.
Apekshya Prasai is a PhD student in the MIT Political Science Department and Security Studies Program. Her research interests lies at the intersection of gender and militancy with a focus on women’s participation in armed groups. Her work in Nepal is funded in part by the MIT GOV/LAB seed program. Apekshya has a B.A. in Government and Legal Studies from Bowdoin College and prior to joining MIT she worked on a research project examining the impact of humanitarian cash transfers on women’s economic empowerment post-2015 earthquake in Nepal. Apekshya can be reached at email@example.com.
 Goldstein, J. S. (2001). War and gender : how gender shapes the war system and vice versa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.42.
 O’Rourke, L. A. (2009). What’s Special about Female Suicide Terrorism? Security Studies, 18(4), 681-718. doi:10.1080/09636410903369084 p.683.