11/21/2014 07:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

10 Lessons I Learned While Working With Women Activists in Nepal

In my recent memoir on becoming a wife and mother in a high caste family in Nepal, I also share stories of my work with women activists there. More than negative reviews, I dread some praise, especially characterizations of my book as "giving voice to the voiceless." It's true that because of local and global inequalities most women I lived among in our village in Nepal didn't have the means to broadcast their voices far. But they still had voices -- many voices: loud, kind, gruff, joyful, argumentative, funny, critical, quiet, curious, smart, compassionate, teasing. I just had to learn some lessons on how to tune in better.

1. Begin with some humility

A Euro-American, I followed love to Nepal and began living with in-laws there in 1987 when I was four months pregnant. I was studying to be a cultural anthropologist but had prepared for dissertation research elsewhere: East Africa, then India. In Nepal, I had to start from a humbling position of near-ignorance. If I could have a do-over, I'd study the language before I arrived and read more books on culture, religion and history. But in retrospect, that beginner's mind I gained from altered plans forced me to discover aspects of Nepal and myself I might not otherwise have noticed.

2. Move beyond first impressions

At first, I observed what strikes many foreigners in Nepal: friendliness and hospitality from all castes, ethnic groups and classes. Yet the longer I lived in our village (and especially after I gave birth), the more women shared with me some of the pain behind their smiles: arguments with an in-law or husband, the boredom of daily farm and household work, undiagnosed health concerns, worries about whether grain stores would feed their families until the next harvest. Some talked of violence too: postpartum women denied food and medical treatment after giving birth to girls, beatings, rapes, suicides.


3. Hear the echoes from back home

I cringe to think what a foreigner would make of my homeland -- the Pacific Northwest -- if she only noticed and wrote about meth production and domestic violence in economically depressed counties, lethal shootings in schools and shopping centers, and rampant sex trafficking along Interstate 5. How easy it is to exoticize and sensationalize horrors elsewhere while overlooking those nearby.

4. Listen for joy and pride

Even as Nepali women told me tales of hardship, they urged me to taste their spicy chutneys and home-brewed whiskey, understand how much they loved children and cared for elders, admire tidy flower and vegetable gardens and well-swept courtyards, laugh at silly puns, enjoy clever song rhymes and graceful dance moves, know their devotion to Krishna or Buddha and listen to their plans for their daughters' education. They wanted to be seen and heard for all they were, many told me, not just as poor, oppressed and "underdeveloped."

5. Trust a local process of change

At his mother's prompting, my husband began literacy classes for women in 1987. Emboldened, students and other women in the village organized to demand that local officials give them a plot of land so they could establish a women's meeting and training center. Women also talked about other problems for women: harassment in public places, domestic violence, inequality in inheritance rights, lack of earning opportunities, religious views on women's inferiority.

6. Respect local leadership

Although they welcomed thoughtful support, women did not need any outsider to initiate change. Activists in Nepal -- both men and women -- had been fighting for democracy since before I was born. Some gave their lives for it. Some spent months or years in jail. My mother-in-law could barely read and write, but she had walked from village to village in 1980 -- several years before I showed up -- to urge people to vote yes on a referendum for democracy. And even before then she had called women in the village together to perform sit-ins to protest husbands beating their wives.

7. Honor local resourcefulness

Women in our village began organizing in 1988 when Nepal was still under the authoritarian Panchayat system. Free speech and free assembly were banned then. We lived in a district where supporters of opposition political parties may have outnumbered Panchayat followers. Government officials avoided large-scale rebellion by overlooking some local transgressions. Women took advantage of that relative openness but also understood the limits and worked creatively within them. They met in religiously protected spaces, expressed themselves in song, organized around approved activities like "development" and put forth seemingly modest demands: a place to plant trees and hold meetings and classes.

8. Understand local culture

Being an agnostic suspicious of patriarchal threads in all religions, I initially wanted to attribute every sexist statement and action in our village in Nepal to Hinduism. And I found some sympathy for that position among local atheists and agnostics, including a few of my in-laws. But again and again, women activists inspired me to think more deeply. For example, some high caste Hindu women said they wanted to learn literacy so they could interpret religious texts for themselves. They drew on Hindu stories and imagery to argue for greater equality and respect. And they took pride in their temple and demanded more representation on the committee that made decisions for it.

9. Listen for silences

The idea of speaking for "the voiceless" is not unique to those wandering foreign lands. Some class and caste elites in our village also claimed to speak for the oppressed. I learned to listen and watch for subtle practices of caste and class discrimination and to ask questions of those being ignored or silenced in public gatherings.

10. Honor diverse approaches to speaking and storytelling

Women did not always tell their stories or express their opinions in linear ways. For example, my mother-in-law often launched into a story about a past event as she remembered a song she had composed. Then, she might list distant relatives involved and cry for a moment over the hardships that resulted. The more I attended to her roundabout way of telling stories, the better I appreciated all that she was trying to convey.

Lessons on listening and observing in Nepal continue to inform how I write, read the news, travel, work in multicultural groups and make decisions about engaging in causes. Rather than assuming a role of "giving voice to the voiceless," I hope more will take up the cause of improving listening and broadening reception for the world's many voices.