The Sati, also known as ‘Suttee’ was an ancient Hindu custom where a faithful wife is supposed to burn into the pyre of her husband when he dies. It is a ritualistic practice practiced amongst Hindus until the late nineteenth century. In India, it was abolished on 4 December 1829. According to the official history of Nepal Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher abolished the Sati system from Nepal on 8 July, 1920.
We have been reading and believing this official history for a long time in school texts, history books, historical documents, classrooms, and other places. Consequently, we interpreted that Ranas, whom we had imagined as someone very cruel and totalitarian, and whose system was purely autocratic, released our great-great grandmothers and great-grandmothers from the custom of going Sati. After reading this history, most of us had, like me, imagined that Ranas were not as cruel as we had thought. They were against the inhuman system and custom.
We, who did not get an opportunity to live the history that was transferred to us, live in oblivion–thinking and believing that whatever was put in words in history books was true. We also uncritically trusted that history books were written by great men whose only desire was to transfer the TRUTH to the people who are not fortunate enough to live it.
But isn’t it counterintuitive? Isn’t official history contradicting one another—when one has to think that the so-called cruel and autocratic Ranas were kind and thoughtful least towards women? Further, women were released from the custom of going Sati by the great men who were powerful enough to grant women the permission to live after their husbands died. Of course, it is counterintuitive to believe these sorts of official narration.
Thinking in a linear fashion like this would give a clear picture of the official narration of Nepal while blurring the real history of Nepal–the real feminist history of Nepal. Those of us, who want to yet believe that it required the Ranas to tell our great-great-grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and grandmothers to tell that their fidelity to their husbands cannot be proved by jumping into their pyres, may want to go back to that particular period in history to rethink, self-reflect, and revise it—asking some genuine questions: Did that really happen? Were our great-great-grandmothers told one day that “do not go Sati ” on some legal documents and they stopped doing so? What required them to stop going to Sati? Could there be an epiphanic moment for women of that generation that whatever that they were forced to do could be stopped by themself? Had they marched towards it? Do the feminist revolution of Nepal dates back to that socio-cultural milieu?
And for the international audiences, since the Sati system was eradicated in India on 4 December 1829, Why did it require nearly a century to come forward to abolish the same in Nepal? Or given that in the West, women got the right to vote in the 1920s, was Nepal waiting for the western miracle to happen to change their inhuman custom?
Asking these questions–both right and wrong questions— will help one to understand the emergence of feminist movements in Nepal. Further, asking these kinds of questions will help Nepalese women to understand their root of feminism.
Nepal, which has always denied external influence whether in politics or in culture–again referring to my previous article that Nepal was never colonized— has its own history of feminism. And that history dates back to the abolition of Sati System through the relentless efforts of pioneering feminist figure Yogmaya Neaupane. Yes, you read it right, Sati system was abolished NOT by Chandra Shumsher, but by Yogmaya Neaupane and her followers who supported her on the feminist movement that she started in the decade of early 1900s.
Introduction of Yogmaya
Yogmaya Neupane (1860-1941) was a feminist, activist, rebel, and political and social thinker in Nepal. As a thinker and an activist, she organized people and initiated awareness against stereotypes, superstitious religious practices, the caste system, child marriage, discriminatory treatments of women, corruption, and unequal distribution of wealth, among other issues.
Around 1906, she established, Nari Samiti, the first feminist coalition of Nepal. Through this coalition, she started numerous awareness activities where she would teach people about the discrimination done against them by the patriarchal social structure, stereotypical Hindu norms, and totalitarian political structures.
The grassroots revolution that she had started was so strong that it forced the then government to eradicate the Sati system. The revolutionary voices that were blazing from the easter shores of the country and were going to take over the whole country nearly soon threatened Ranas. Consequently, yes, officially Chandra Shamsher declared that the Sati system was eradicated. However, had Yogmaya not come up with the radical ideas of the right to live for women, it would not have changed the political structure. However, it is interesting to know that it required legal sanctions for women to provide them the right to live.
Yogamaya had appealed for the 'alms of the holy order of truth and justice' (in Nepali: सत्य धर्मको भिक्षा) in 1931.
Yogmaya’s revolution extends beyond the fight for the eradication of Sati system. In 1931, she submitted a 24 points petition to the Juddha Shamsher. In one of the points, she had appealed for the ‘alms of the holy order of truth and justice’ (in Nepali: सत्य धर्मको भिक्षा).
The idea of holy order is an interpretive idea that extends beyond feminist appeals. It has a value that binds the judicial system with the idea of religious and social justice. Those appeals made the Ranas intimidated by Yogmaya and her revolutionary practices. That did not stop her. In fact, she used her embodiment to threaten the government and political system. She arranged self-immolation by fire in 1938 along with 204 followers, but she was instead arrested and put in prison. After spending more than three months in prison, she again marched for self-immolation, this time in the water. On July 5, 1941, she threw herself into the river Arun, where she died. Sixty-seven of her followers also followed her path and jumped into the Arun. She continued the revolution for truth and justice till her death.
Legacy Of Yogmaya Neupane
Knowing about this history of feminist ideal is important for both national and international audiences. For national audiences, we may want to learn our roots in feminist revolutions. When getting to read, write and borrow feminist ideas in another country, and struggling to situate those ideas in our context, we might find ourselves lost as to relate on where feminism began for us.
It did not begin with the right to vote like that for the White feminists or fighting against race and gender like that for the color feminist in the west. Neither did it start with fighting against foreign invasion like that of feminists in India. For Nepal, it started with the radical call for the hindu orthodox norms. Or for other cause which is yet to explore.
If we closely read the history of Yogmaya and pay attention to the idea that there were sixty-seven followers who died with her. All those followers who marched for self-immolation, and who lived following her feminist principles started the feminist revolution in Nepal. In this sense, Nepalese feminism has really unique and powerful history.
- Aziz, Barbara Nimri. Yogmaya & Durga Devi: Rebel Women of Nepal. Mandala Book Points, 2020.
- Ghimire, Asmita. “Yogmaya Neupane: The Unknown Rhetorician and the Known Rebel”. Peitho, Spring 2022.
- Featured Art: Yogmaya Neupane, the first Feminist figure of Nepal marched for self-immolation into the Arun River on July 5, 1941, with 67 other followers. by Prijung Gurung