(WOMENSENEWS)–The sun arced toward its zenith. Although we would never hear a clear explanation, I assumed that the temple leadership felt threatened by women’s new militancy and had locked women out to make a point.
Aama stood, picked up a large stone, and stepped to the gate. She grabbed the heavy lock and said to the crowd, “Let’s smash it. We built this temple with our sweat. It belongs to us, too.”
“Bring some wire cutters,” another woman said. “We’ll cut through the fence.”
There was a lengthy discussion and then a consensus: no violence or destruction. We would sit in the shade and speak about injustices against women.
“It’s a fundamental violation of Hindu ethics,” Vijaya said. “Public temples, public shelters and public resting places should be open to the public. Hot, weary travelers should never be denied water or a place to rest.” He had become a regular attendee at the women’s meetings, one of the few men besides my husband Pramod and Siddhi. At every meeting, he calmly urged unity and told women he supported their campaign for a meeting place.
The speeches continued. Fervent discussion followed each.
At one point, Pandit Kedarnath raised his hand and pulsed it, palm facing outward. The crowd quieted.
“No person in the community should ever be kept from the temple,” he said. “The Vedas tell us that is wrong. Evil.” His voice grew louder and harsher. “Women supported the building of the temple along with men. They should not be kept from it. It’s inhuman.”
Aama looked at her husband with a kind of pride I hadn’t seen for a while. “Now everyone can see why women need a women’s center,” Aama said to the crowd.
Like his friend Vijaya, Pandit Kedarnath had begun attending women’s meetings to show his support and distance himself from more conservative Brahmans. But he still expressed some reservations. He supported women’s education and wanted them to have a safe place for it. But he also worried about young girls like Pramila becoming outspoken and disrespectful. Although he’d done his share to open schools in disadvantaged communities, he had never been an activist for change the way Vijaya was. He preferred books and discussion on Hindu reform. But what I was learning to appreciate about Pandit Kedarnath that spring was how he leveraged his community standing in critical moments to advocate for justice.
The Next Day
The next day, about 75 women and men gathered at the big chautari across the pasture from our house. Leaders stood on the stone platform under the trees. Followers spread out on the grass nearby. Some prominent Congress Party men swaggered onto the platform. I hadn’t noticed them at previous meetings.
“Why don’t you submit a petition?” one Brahman man said to the crowd. “It’s not right that you were locked out. The temple is for women as much as for men. Women worship at the temple to ensure family honor and well-being. You have a right to complain. But you must do it in the proper way.”
The crowd did not applaud. Other men lined up to make speeches. Women leaders, including some communists, waved them aside and took over.
“We want to do something now,” said a Congress activist and a teacher at the elementary school. “We’ve had enough of petitions. Nobody pays any attention to them.”
In pairs and small groups, women began talking all at once and drowned out the official speeches. Some stayed on topic, debating the merits of petitions versus demonstrations. Some reiterated what all could agree on: the need for a women’s center. Others listened to speeches with one ear and lent the other to whispered news: deaths, births, weddings, the cruelty of mothers-in-law, the laziness of daughters-in-law. They scolded, then laughed at children running through the crowd. They shushed crying babies, not out of respect for the speakers, but because crying babies needed comfort. The hum of voices mingled with the dry rattle of ficus leaves.
Finally, a strong, clear voice emerged from the din: “Let’s march to the temple.”
The crowd hushed. A few questions rang out.
“What if no women will follow us?”
“What if the police come and arrest us?”
“What if they shoot us?”
Women grew quiet and somber. Despite press censorship, everyone had heard stories about what happened in other parts of Nepal where Panchayat leaders had more local control: arrests, torture, police blocking exits and shooting into crowds.
“Let’s not worry,” one elderly Brahman woman said. “Let’s go to the temple together and lock the gate with our own padlock.”
“Yes, how can they arrest us for that?”
“Or shoot us.”
“It’s good to claim the temple for ourselves,” someone said. “But we don’t want to lock others out as they did to us. A temple should be open to all.”
Swaying the Majority
“Let’s not lock anything,” Aama said. “Some sisters have talked about planting trees. We need more trees in the village. We need trees by the temple. Let’s do that. Plant trees.”
Aama’s idea swayed the majority. Chanting slogans about women’s unity and women’s rights, we proceeded together through the village to the temple compound. On the way, we passed the sukumbasi settlement. Landless women ran to their huts for hoes. They shouted for others to join.
On the final stretch before the temple, more women and a few men fell in with us. The gate had been left unlocked, so we streamed into the compound and sat under the aluminum roof of the meeting area. More supporters arrived and swelled the crowd to over 150.
Two men who had earlier urged the petition idea tried to dominate, but women silenced them and took over.
Aama gave a speech. “We must continue fighting for this land for a women’s center. But we must also fight for control of Ram Temple and this meeting place. We helped to raise money for them; we helped to build them. We should also decide how they will be used. And women should read religious texts themselves. We shouldn’t trust the pandits to tell us what the Vedas mean. We must find out for ourselves. I’ve heard there are passages that will show the rightness of what we’re doing. The Vedas teach us respect for women in their homes and the community. We must see this for ourselves. And the temple committee must go. We need one with more women and lower castes. We are all members of this community. Those of us who are Hindus, we should all decide how the temple will be used.”
The men responsible for locking women out were not present. Women didn’t expect them to be. Still, they spoke as though they hoped their criticisms would be relayed.
After many more speeches on the injustices of the previous day, the women ended their meeting with triumphant cheers and clapping. We gathered at the compound’s edge, where women envisioned their future meeting center. With hoes brought by the sukumbasi women, each of us took turns digging holes. We would have to wait another month to plant the trees, but holes dug in the dry season would collect early rainwater and be ready by monsoon season for saplings. The trees would not add much to village firewood and fodder supplies, but they were a customary method of laying claim to land.
Excerpted from “While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal” by Elizabeth Enslin. With permission from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.
Elizabeth Enslin, anthropologist and author of “While the Gods Were Sleeping,” grew up in Seattle and gave birth to her first son in Nepal. Inspired by local Nepali women, she researched women’s organizing, poetics, politics, and agroecology, before returning to the Pacific Northwest. She has published creative nonfiction and poetry in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The High Desert Journal, The Raven Chronicles, Opium Magazine and In Posse Review and received an Individual Artist Fellowship Award from the Oregon Arts Commission and an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize.
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