Nepal’s Maithil women break traditional gender roles

‘These women broke the ground; now there’s been some societal changes and more women are gaining independence.’

A young Maithil woman holds her son while other Maithil children play in a remote village near Janakpur, Nepal [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]
A young Maithil woman holds her son while other Maithil children play in a remote village near Janakpur, Nepal [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Mithila, Nepal – Like many women in the Maithil community in Nepal, Manjula Thakur found her life severely restricted and controlled by the male members of her family. The community follows deeply entrenched patriarchal traditions. 

“I used to stay  at home all the time, with my head covered, doing the cooking and other household chores,” says the 56-year-old. 

Once known as the kingdom of Videha, with its capital in Janakpur in Nepal, the historical region of Mithila encompasses some 13 districts in southeastern Nepal, as well as most of North Bihar province in India.

Mithila is home to approximately three million people in Nepal alone, making Maithili the second most widely spoken language in the country. The Maithil community is divided into castes, as are other communities in Nepal – and the successes and challenges of overcoming this system have largely stayed under the radar.

“What I have seen in my family, and in all other families [in the Maithil community], how you raise your son is different to how you raise your daughter,” says Dollie Sah, a Maithil woman and one of the founders of Nepal Lending Hands, a non-governmental organisation that helps women in the community. “It does not matter if your father is a doctor or an engineer: it’s just different.” 

The NGO was launched just a few months ago, out of frustration, she says, at seeing this cycle repeat itself year after year in her community. 

Yet over the past several decades, Maithil women, such as Shah and Thakur, have been making strides to gain independence, helped by projects aimed at providing them with income-earning opportunities outside the home.

Maithil women take a break for lunch on the grounds of the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre where they work near Janakpur, Nepal [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Traditional roles

Traditionally, women from the Maithil community have almost never worked in official positions or in the formal economy.

Coralynn Davis, an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Bucknell University, who has been researching women’s rights in the Maithil community for decades, says that although many of the issues faced by Maithil women are similar to those faced by other communities in Nepal, she has found through her research that “Maithil women are generally economic dependants in their families – first as daughters, then as wives and mothers, and often as widows”.

“[T]raditionally and for the most part still today, Maithil women do not hold [nor can they pass down] significant property, nor retain control over their own incomes if they have incomes. Their labour is in service to their husbands’ families,” Davis says.

Davis further notes that “women’s sexuality is closely controlled, first as unmarried virgins and then [upon marriage arranged by senior kin] as wives who must reproduce for their husband’s lineage. In order to ensure such control, women’s movements, communications, and bodily exposure are tightly regulated”.

It is this control of women’s lives that has resulted in a culture where women have largely stayed in the home.

Maithil women paint traditional art on to canvasses in a workshop inside the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, where up to 40 Maithil women work [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

Art and opportunity

This home-centric culture has also resulted in the development of a rich artistic culture, passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter. Maithil homes are often decorated with extensive wall paintings, which depict religious scenes and motifs, especially in the lead-up to religious festivals and other important occasions, such as weddings.

Despite its origins, it is this culture that is enabling the empowerment of Maithil women today. Maithil women are increasingly finding opportunities to capitalise on this art outside their traditional community, opportunities which are helping them find independence and a voice of their own.

One of these is the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre (JWDC), which pioneered the commercialisation of Maithil art. Founded by Claire Burkert in 1989, the centre today employs dozens of Maithil women in a variety of crafts, the produce of which are then sold in shops in Nepal’s tourism hotspots of Kathmandu, Chitwan and Phokara, and abroad, including in the United States, the Netherlands, India, France, the UK and Japan, among other places.

Burkert explains that starting up the centre was difficult at first.

“Some of the women … wouldn’t speak. They always had to have a male chaperone with them; now they just hop on the bus and have learned to read a little bit, and I think those changes were in large part due to the centre,” Burkert says.

“These women broke the ground; now there’s been some societal changes and more women are gaining independence, but these women really had to fight at the beginning; it wasn’t an easy thing,” she adds.  

Today, the mood at the centre is bright, and the women currently working there – although there are far fewer of them now than in the beginning – agree with the founder’s analysis of the changes that have been created.

Maithil women sew traditional motifs on to cloth in the JWDC worskhop [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

“Since I’ve started to earn money, the opinion of my family and my community has started to change,” says Manjula Thakur, who has been working at JWDC since the centre opened.

“With the money I’ve earned, I’ve been able to send my children to school, build a toilet and even support my husband to buy a small plot of land,” she adds with pride.

Beyond the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, Maithil women are increasingly finding employment outside of the home.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), for instance, employs Maithil women in its road reconstruction projects in the region – jobs that not only provide economic independence for the women they employ but that also contribute to breaking gender stereotypes in Nepalese society.

A group of Maithil women clear grass from the sides of a rural road where they work as road maintenance staff [Omar Havana/Al Jazeera]

A brighter future?

Although JWDC and other similar initiatives have undoubtedly improved the lives of many women and helped create change within the community, most agree that there has yet to be a radical change in the community.

Davis says that change has been a mixed bag, with improvements in some areas but only for some people.

“Access to education and employment is greatest for those from better off families. Things have changed least for the lowest castes. Still very few Maithil families educate their girls beyond secondary school,” she says.

Dollie Sah agrees.

“Since 2006 [the end of Nepal’s civil war], a lot of things have changed; people have been more and more aware [of these issues], but what has been holding progress back is the caste system and poverty: people not having a choice.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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