Meet Mohna Ansari: Nepal’s first female Muslim lawyer

As the only female member of the country’s human rights commission, Ansari fights for Nepal’s most marginalised.

Mohna Ansari - Nepal
When Mohna Ansari became the first in her family to graduate, she also became Nepal's first female Muslim law graduate [Prabhat Jha/Al Jazeera]

Kathmandu, Nepal – In November 2014, Mohna Ansari received a telephone call from the office of Nepal’s prime minister. They asked her to join the Nepal Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the government body tasked with safeguarding human rights.

The lawyer from a lower middle-class Muslim family in the southern city of Nepalgunj says she couldn’t quite believe it.

“I never believed that I would get this. In my family, nobody is in politics,” Ansari, now a commissioner at the NHRC, explains.

Her position is the highest held by a Muslim woman in Nepal’s modern history.

“Hard work paid off,” says the 39-year-old softly as she sits in a hotel lobby in the capital, Kathmandu.

Her rise has also been seen as a reflection of the change that has been taking place in Nepal since the monarchy was abolished in 2006 – after a decade of Maoist rebellion.

As the only woman in the five-member commission, which has tackled issues such as security force excesses and gender discrimination, Ansari says: “It’s very difficult to operate.”

Speaking out and facing criticism

Ansari is active on social media, where she often challenges Nepal’s entrenched political class over their commitment to addressing the issues facing ordinary Nepalese – from women’s and indigenous rights to the plight of the Madhesis and delays in post-earthquake reconstruction.

“I was the first to oppose the deployment of the army to deal with Madhesi agitation. I was the first to speak publicly against that,” she says, referring to recent protests by members of the ethnic group that forms more than a third of the country’s population but feels economically and politically underrepresented.

“I faced a lot of criticism,” she continues. “People phoned me; a senior journalist wrote an article against me.”

Still, she says, other newspapers supported her stand. But she has had to deal with more than just the media.

Last week, the office of Prime Minister KP Oli summoned the NHRC chairman and four other members of the commission after Ansari addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in mid-March, raising the issue of the force used against Madhesi protesters.

At least 50 people, mostly Madhesis, had been killed since last September, when protests erupted in the country’s Tarai region against Nepal’s new constitution, which the Madhesis say does not address their historic underrepresentation.

But rights groups and activists have backed Ansari. 

Fighting violence against women

Ansari is not new to working with the government. Before joining the NHRC, she was a commissioner at the National Women Commission (NWC) for four years – her first major government assignment.

She was invited to join the NWC in 2010, while working on a UN Development Programme (UNDP) project.

“This was the first time a Muslim [woman] was appointed at such a high level,” she says.

“We are proud of her,” says Urmila Devi Vishvakarma, who worked with Ansari at the NWC for nearly two years.

After the Maoist rebellion ended in 2006, Nepal’s democratic space was opened up as those who had been marginalised, such as women and indigenous groups, began to demand their rights.

“I raised a lot of issues, especially violence against women, and advocated for a gender bill to end discriminatory practices,” Ansari explains.

Sheikh Chand Tara, a former chairwoman of the NWC, praises Ansari for her professional acumen: “Since she came from an NGO background, she was organised and her experience in international law and women’s rights helped her in the new job.”

Becoming Nepal’s first female Muslim law graduate

But the journey to where she is now hasn’t been easy, and the odds have long been stacked against her.

Her family’s sole source of income was her father’s carpentry shop. However, Ansari explains that her “parents are illiterate, so they wanted their kids to be educated and to have careers in different sectors”.

“In Nepal, Muslim parents generally don’t want to send their kids to formal education” at secular institutions, Ansari explains. However, she “went to a co-ed government school”.

Still, she wasn’t given the same opportunities as her brothers as her family, like so many others in this nation of 27 million people, believed that “sons will look after [the family], while daughters will go”.

“My brothers went to [English medium] boarding school, and I went to government school,” Ansari says. “But I am happy they sent me to school where I got my education – not only Islamic, but also a modern education.” 

But financial issues plagued her college education and she was forced to drop out after her first year. She returned three years later upon getting a scholarship.

“Later, I enrolled in a bachelor’s degree [programme] in law from Mahendra Multiple College – the only government college in Nepalgunj – and passed in 2003,” she explains.

During her studies, she supported herself by teaching in schools and working as a private tutor. She also found time to write articles about issues affecting women and children for local newspapers. 

Ansari became the first in her family to graduate and the first woman law graduate from the Muslim community, which forms just under five percent of the country’s population and is typically poor with low levels of education.

But in a small town like Nepalgunj, her legal career struggled to take off. Most of her clients were poor, vulnerable women.

But, she explains, “It was [too] difficult to begin my career in Kathmandu with my background.”

“My family supported me all along,” she says, describing how she went on to work for leading global NGOs.

‘I never compromise’

Her work has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, she was honoured by the president with the Suprabal Jana Sewa Shree award, a presidential medal for public service. That same year, she received the Nava Devi Award, which recognises Nepal’s female role models and achievers.

She has become a source of pride for many in the Muslim community.

“She is doing a good job and is a role model for many others in the community,” says Athar Hussain Faruqi, a local Maoist leader from Nepalgunj.

Ansari has travelled across Nepal, hearing from women and marginalised communities.

WATCH 101 EAST: Nepal’s slave girls

“I never imagined that a person from my background would go on to work in policy-level work representing all women,” she says.

And, she believes, the Muslim community is “slowly … coming up”.

“The new constitutional amendments give them a ray of hope,” she says, referring to a clause in the constitution that ensures a job quota for Muslims. 

Ansari also supports the decision to reserve 33 percent of government jobs for women, and hopes that Muslim women – who are at the bottom of social and education indicators – will also benefit from this. 

WATCH: Fighting to end child marriage in Nepal

Ansari will certainly be fighting to make sure they do. 

“I am a little provocative,” she says. “I never compromise on issues, and I believe in justice.” 

Then, by way of a goodbye, she adds: “I receive a lot of threats, but I don’t care.”

Source: Al Jazeera