A revolutionary living underground during the Nepal Civil War (1996-2006) writes to her daughter, who has just had her first period. “My dear ovulating lady,” Hisila Yami, a future union minister, says, having explained the essential experience. “Once you know the source, you can easily tackle the pain.”
There will be other kinds of pain to come, she adds, as you make your way through puberty.
Images of the letter appear in The Public Life of Women, a new photobook released by the Nepal Picture Library (NPL). The book traces, through images, a feminist awakening of women in Nepal, from the mid-1930s on.
The fight for equal rights for women overlaps, throughout, with a turbulent political history: protests in the run-up to the anti-monarchy revolt of 1951; a people’s uprising and a constitutional monarchy in the 1990s; a 10-year civil war between the government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), from 1996; and finally, in 2008, the establishment of a democratic republic.
Amid images of protest marches and rallies, are snapshots of women in solitude, or in prison; travelling, performing, writing; seeing the ocean for the first time on visits to foreign shores. Preserved documents add nuggets from letters, notebooks, diaries and magazine interviews.
“I longed to be looked upon as a person rather than as a woman,” activist Mangala Devi Singh, founder of the Nepal Women’s Association in 1951, says in a print interview from the 1990s.
The mood shifts from section to section of the book. In one, are snapshots of letters written by Rajani Shahi in 2012, asking other activists for help. She had been taken to a “rehabilitation home” after her estranged husband Pradip Shahi reported her as homosexual (an orientation that was decriminalised in 2007). Shahi’s letters, handwritten in Nepali, contain only three English words, in a line in the post script: “Please please please”.
The Public Life of Women is the second photobook by NPL, a photo archive established in 2011 by photographer NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and cultural conservationist Bhushan Shilpakar, to preserve counter-historical narratives and the voices of marginalised, minority segments of Nepali society.
The first book, Dalit: A Quest for Dignity (2018), was a photographic record of Dalit lives and resistance in Nepal over six decades.
“We wanted this to be an intersectional account of our feminist history, which often meant looking beyond institutional characters which tend to be limited by class, privilege, caste, achievements and empowerment,” says Diwas Raja Kc, lead researcher on the archive’s Feminist Memory Project. “As we worked on the archive, one of the conundrums we faced was how some of the really important moments in history don’t necessarily furnish photographs. So we relied on the broader definition of the visual and tried to include the visual and aesthetic dimension of documents.”
By next year, NPL hopes to have a new website with a fully searchable database for the Feminist Memory Project and, slowly, over the years, the entire NPL archive.
For now, alongside stalwarts of the women’s movements in Nepal – such as Mangala Devi Singh and educator Sahana Pradhan – the book features lesser-known, often-forgotten rebels.
A 1961 image shows Prem Kumari Tamang and Lal Maya Tamang behind bars at the Dillibazar Prison in Kathmandu, after they were arrested for an anti-monarchy agitation.
“We often hear about women from marginalised communities participating in anti-autocratic movements against the state, but we rarely see archival records of it,” says Raja Kc.
Another rare find included in the book is a series of portraits of indigenous Tharu women who led a peasant revolt in 1980, against harassment and intimidation by local landlords.
“We managed to trace some of the women who had participated in that movement, and spoke to them.”
So much history fades unless it is captured and preserved in material form. Many of these tales are not being retold. “It now feels more urgent to preserve images even from something like the Maoist movement in Nepal, which wasn’t that old when we began work on the Feminist Memory Project,” says Raja Kc.