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farmer/chair of women’s savings group
originally Gorkha district, now Chitwan
This interview has a lot of interesting detail and opinion but the complicated personal story is at times a little hard to follow. Bhagawati is a thoughtful and brave woman; she is the person referred to by Bimala (Nepal 28) as the only Bahun (Brahmin) woman to treat lower castes as equals and not to “practise untouchability”. She seems to have inherited some of this dislike of discrimination from her Brahmin father, who defied convention and decided that a lower caste Brahmin woman (“a Jaisini’s daughter”) was “very good and fit” to be his wife. However, Bhagawati’s own childhood was a sad one. Early on in the interview she sings a song she composed herself:
What does the parrot say, confined in a cage?
What does the parrot say? Father left me at an early age…
I always looked after goats as a child
Wanting to write a letter, scribbled with pen on paper
Complained of the hot August sun burning me
“My daughter! My daughter!” my mother did not say.
The words refer to the losses and hardship suffered during her childhood, which she then expands on – her father died when she was very young, her mother remarried and went away and she was left in the care of relatives. She longed for education but had to tend goats and didn’t go to school until age 10. She recalls: “As I sang in the presence of the women’s group, I was scared in case some passed comments, but as I looked around everyone had tears in their eyes at the end.” She was married at 16, hoped to go on studying but wasn’t able to.
There are good passages on gender, men and women’s responsibilities, and changes taking place: “Society itself has changed a lot. Before, a woman didn’t have money, and going to a hotel to have a snack would have been an exceptional thing. Taking money out yourself, and without asking your husband, used to be that way. Now if you tell women that we are going on tour, taking a hired bus, all of them will go. We have been up to Janakpur and back. With our own money.” She has tried to teach her children to regard the sexes as equal but admits society’s conditioning of boys is still stronger than parental influence, and “a son [still] boasts of being a son”. She talks movingly of how “a daughter understands” and mother-daughter empathy.
On caste discrimination, she observes: “Neither can we tell the oppressed caste not to sit there, nor can we tell the Bahun caste that all should be treated equally. We are in a dilemma, [caught] in the middle. In all I feel it’s not the ‘ignorant’ oppressed class but the Bahuns who have failed to understand. The Bahun caste has to be counselled, I feel.” Ultimately prejudice is “not due to ignorance but to arrogance.” Her father died because of his defiance of caste norms; he was arrested after a fight, having been accused of “polluting” a Brahmin ceremony, and later was found burnt to death in the jail. The official story was that he had set himself alight.
The second half of the interview (p13 ff) is largely about the women’s saving group she belongs to, how it functions and its benefits for women. Before, “[we] used to get together in one place, pick lice, [just] women sitting in the shade under a tree, talking about others. It was that way then…” But since women’s groups have been formed, “there is self-reliance”. Women use savings to set up businesses. Now that women have some money of their own: “It makes a big difference… you can manage the way you want… Tomorrow I can give it to my daughter, can give it to anyone I like, and if family members want to sell [a calf] and use the money for a daughter’s marriage then one could say: No, I want to educate [my children]…”.
Her testimony ends with the assertion, “We have to struggle… If anyone does an injustice, we must not sit there and put up with it. We put up with too much before.”
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|Section Section 1-3
||Married at 16, four children. When she came here after her marriage she “had not seen a motorcar or motorcycle”.
Brought up by an uncle and his wife after father died and mother re-married and left. Had “a real passion to go to school” but “due to family problems” didn’t go until she was 10. Her “elder brother’s wife” taught her to read and write.
Recites a song about hard childhood, having no parents, being bitten by leeches when tending goats, and longing to go to school.
Kept begging to go to school until uncle and aunt agreed. “I had no dress (uniform?) and books. But the moment they said I could go I was so happy that I went running to school dressed in the frock I was wearing.”
|Section Section 3-5
||Had to do an entrance exam, including maths: “Now… I didn’t even know…where minus is used and where plus is used… but the maths I did by guessing [and it] also turned out to be correct… What a surprise it was!” Did well at school despite having to do housework and farming before and after school.
By age 16, marriage suitors were lining up: “once you are 16 in the hills there is this set practice.” Had a paddy field in her name so anyone “ marrying me would be able to get his hands on that paddy field on the one hand and also a girl that is good enough on the other.” Pressure on her to marry; was told she could continue to study once she went to “the husband’s house”. So, she thought, “if there is a chance to study it is all right… and for the sake of studying I married at that time. Otherwise…I would not have married.”
||One older sister married at age of 9.
Discussion about whether it was a legal or a customary requirement at the time of the narrator’s marriage for girls to marry by age 16.
|Section Section 5-8
||Long and rather confusing passage about her father’s death who “may have been killed by exploiters as he believed in equality”. It seems his fellow Brahmins regarded him as “polluted” by his wife, who was of a lower caste status. They wanted to exclude him from a religious ceremony; he insisted and so “defiled and made impure” the ceremony. There was a fight, he was jailed and where he later died. Her “elder sisters” – women in her “clan and lineage” – had no chance of education until recently. Most girls in her generation went to school but (for some years) “among my contemporary sisters I was the only one who didn’t study”.
|Section Section 8-10
||Says family never gave her kerosene to study at night, and that there was some jealousy from other girls in the family, who felt she “should not go ahead of us.” Seems she was accused of some bad behaviour: “Just for talking [with male farmers] they made accusations about me…”
Husband failed to get school leaving certificate (SLC). She observes that “his story was like mine” as he had no family support.
She describes coming to Chitwan, seeing motor vehicles for the first time, and her disappointment at not getting chance to study etc.
Was 17 when daughter was born. Compares life in the hills and in Chitwan, where facilities are better, and educated people can put their knowledge “into practice”. Not possible in the hills, especially for women: “… you had to cover your head in the presence of your husband’s elder brother, and a daughter could not stand in front of others… had to keep quiet and just sit there even though she knew about the matter.”
Didn’t inherit land because of gender. Feels a daughter should get share of property “because she does a lot of work at the parents’ home. My daughter does quite a lot of work at home; my son does not.” Tries to instill belief in equality in her children. “But it does not work even if I don’t want to practise any discrimination. It is due to this society or due to the dominant way of thinking that a son boasts of being a son.”
||Slightly confusing bit talking about the trials in her life. Accused of causing her father’s death (when she was 10 months old) by “biting” him; drudgery expected of daughters and daughters-in-law. Also mentions vulnerability of girls and especially orphans to rumour.
Now gets the love she missed: “What I was supposed to get in childhood I now get from my children.” Mother-daughter empathy: “My daughter has understood many things. Sons may be lacking ability to understand or may be thinking that he is a son. They do not understand as much and only a daughter understands.”
Some tensions with husband but generally satisfied with his support.
|Section Section 11-13
||Husband has a shop – sells cassettes. Domestic and farming tasks. Rising cost of living: “what their father earns is not enough at all.” Returns to subject of own marriage and fact that the Hindu ritual “oblation of fire” was not carried out, because she was an orphan.
Farming methods. Types of crop grown and animals kept. “At the beginning…I didn’t know that much. But these days I do better than the others. Compared to the others I get more harvest.”
Reference to general disruption caused by the state of emergency.
|Section Section 13-18
||Irrigation pumps not functioning for 3-4 years – not repaired by authorities. Makes the point that for successful farming, “you have to grab the season”.
Rears goats. Set up business through women’s savings group. She was the one to set up the group and is the chair.
Explains how it works, who’s involved, amounts deposited and raised, types of businesses established, etc. Says she’s done lots of small training sessions. Her husband is too lazy but at least he doesn’t object to her attending training session.
More on goat-rearing and selling.
|Section Section 18-21
||Before, groups and associations were all-male. Didn’t work as men “were more greedy, drank a lot of alcohol”. Women “didn’t know what to do and how”. Now women have “come forward”, become self-reliant and have influence within the family, can choose to educate their children. Having money “makes a big difference”.
Personal changes: now prefers to plough money back into the group instead of buying expensive bangles; stands up to men; is confident.
Says the uneducated can learn lots of things with right training.
|Section Section 21-24
||Changing attitudes/behaviour within family and society. Women had to eat after husband and “Before, if your mother-in-law didn’t come till late you also had to wait without eating.”
Her sons/husband do more chores than used to, including washing their own clothes and making tea. The mother-in-law no longer objects to this. Daughter got her grandmother to give up cigarettes!
Money gives women more freedom – group excursions.
Women now ride bicycles. “The cycle did so much of the work for me.”
High hopes for daughter; doesn’t want her to marry young.
|Section Section 24-26
||Eats with “low caste” people and blacksmith caste. “I feel all are equal.” For caste prejudice to end, Bahuns (Brahmins) need to be re-educated. Relates her own efforts to “counsel” women – slightly confusing passage.
Caste discrimination within lower caste groups too.
But ultimately “…the Bahun caste are arrogant.”
|Section Section 26-28
||Discrimination among “oppressed women”.
Eliminating caste discrimination: “Of all things, this is the [most difficult] one at present.”
Composing songs for the group (words about women’s oppression).
Need to fight injustice, stop being passive.