“A woman is like a tea bag, you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water,” Nancy Reagan has once said. True in the sense that every woman is strong and inspiring and can rise and shine as bright as anyone else.
However, the prevailing social structure of Nepal is such that the true personality of a woman is only manifested once she treads through situations which are commensurate to the aforementioned “hot water”. When a woman does that, she becomes a symbol of hope and inspiration and a cause of unbounded joy to every person in the society.
The election of Bidhya Devi Bhandari as the first female president and Onsari Gharti as the first female Speaker of the transformed legislature parliament has created a similar environment in the country today.
This historic milestone achievement is the culmination of years of struggle, debate and deliberation which ultimately led to the promulgation of the new constitution that envisages a federal, republican, secular and inclusive democracy based on the principles of social justice, proportional inclusion and participation.
Post the reinstatement of multiparty democracy, Nepal has always been quick to adopt measures to ensure gender equality in representation and participation in state apparatuses. A provision for the allocation of 1/3rd of the total reserved positions in civil service to women was adopted to increase the representation of women in bureaucracy.
Similarly, Nepal earned international acclaim when the first Constituent Assembly consisted of over 32 percent women representatives. This was a result of the provision in the interim constitution which provided that “women must constitute at least 33 percent of candidacy for the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system combined (Article 63 (5)” and it was President Bhandari who played a leading role to ensure that such a provision was in place.
The provision has been given continuity in the recently promulgated constitution as well. Likewise, it has also been provisioned that President, Vice-President, Speaker and Deputy Speaker mandatorily be from different genders and communities. These provisions will definitely serve to provide an increased space in political decision making and leadership.
Thus the constitution, notwithstanding some of its provisions which are widely deemed to be discriminatory against women with regard to citizenship rights, as it stands should be lauded for its progressive elements which seek to promote the participation and representation of women in areas of influence.
In this backdrop, it is pertinent to delve into the possible impact that the above mentioned events and constitutional provisions could have in creating an enabling environment for women to break free from their traditional roles and gender stereotypes and venture uninhibitedly into the public domain. It may be argued that such steps are mere symbols and serve little purpose in bringing about actual change. However people have and do react to symbols and it does help in changing existing perceptions.
It is quite amusing to note how people are positively surprised that such a momentous change has occurred in Nepal and in their lifetime. Such symbols will help in expanding women’s inspirational horizon and encourage them to strive to alter the status quo. Similarly for women who have already embarked upon the path of change and progress, recent events will further embolden them.
It also shows the willingness of the state to change its course from which was fraught with discrimination and exclusion to which is colored with the spirit of inclusivity, equality and acceptance. Sometimes an example has to be set at a publicly visible top level so that the effects trickle down and are emulated at the broader level of the society, the effect of which may not be instantaneously visible.
This is what the vision of new Nepal is; a vision which is characterized by the abnegation of past deficiencies, a vision where examples are set through which feats which were hitherto considered impossible are realized, and a vision which inspires everyone to dream big.
On the other hand, the recent events and provisions, though high on symbolic factor, may end up producing little in substance if it is not translated into actual change in every level of the state. It is a marked achievement in the political sphere.
Now the challenge is to make similar achievements in the economic and social sphere. Mere tokenism will not do. The participation of women should be meaningful while their vision and decisions should be naturally accepted. True inclusiveness and equality can be realized only when people start viewing the increased role, responsibility and participation of women as a norm rather than an exception.
Transformations do not occur overnight, but is a product of a sustained change in the collective consciousness of the society through the construction of a new normal. The recent events show that Nepal definitely is in the right direction. They are not an end in themselves but mark the necessary steps to achieve the desired end. I eagerly wait for the day when the election of the next woman president is a cause for commemoration, not because it is a woman who is being elected, but because it marks the recognition of the credentials and merits of the person concerned.