Remains of a matriarchy

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JAN 14 -
It is said that in the history of the Tharu community, women exerted great power over men. Indian anthropologist D.N Majumdar defined the Tharu community in India as matriarchal in 1941, and studies that followed posited that the cultural patterns

of Tharu women in the Tarai and Himalayan regions could be profoundly influenced by that of the community in India. Such conjectures ring true today when one hears of some extraordinary stories unfolding in the south-a recent incident I have been told of in Bardiya confirms my notion that Tharu women in Nepal today have indeed retained the strength and power of their cultural past.

A majority of the Tharu women in Bardiya work in community forest management today, owing to the policy for 50 percent participation of women in governance. The Prakritik community forest of Bardiya is a source of income for them; but this prized land often turns into a ground for conflict against the people of Banke, their neighbouring district.

Purna Ram Tharu, president of the Bardiya based Federation of Community Forestry Users (FECOFUN) says that a conflict between the people of Banke and Bardiya has existed ever since the forest’s plantation in 2001. People from Banke used to pluck new plants from the forest and graze their cattle inside, though without the intention to exploit. The squatter community that they are, they were not interested in the forest, but rather wanted an area to settle in and cultivate food grains. Bardiya’s forest users group, however, did not take it kindly and reported the Banke cattle grazers to the police. In fierce retaliation, a horde of men from Banke ganged up to attack the forest guardians of Bardiya.

Thirty five-year-old Fariya Tharu, resident of Dakkchinbhakari, Sorahawa-5 of Bardiya district recalls the day, Sep. 10, 2010, when she got abducted. Fariya was guarding the Prakritik community forest with nine other women when suddenly a group of about a hundred men from Banke district came marching into their territory. The guardians of the forest were outnumbered and tried to escape, but Fariya got caught as hostage as she tripped and fell unconscious.

Waking from her unconsciousness as the men crossed the Maankhola River at the border between Banke and Bardiya, Fariya scratched the men’s faces and necks and pulled out their hair, but her struggles went in vain. She got locked inside a room, and was thrashed and tortured all night.

Back at Bardiya, Fariya’s husband Mishri Tharu was clueless about where his wife was abducted to, and approached the women of Jutela Kakchya, an informal group under OXFAM for women’s issues, for urgent help. Krishna Khattri, facilitator of the Jutela group and secretary of the forest said, “We asked the men in Banke to give Fariya back. We offered to solve

the conflict over the forest through dialogue, but they were indifferent.”  All the women of the group, determined to give Fariya justice unified, collected money and decided to fight against the people of Banke. “If we become silent now, we won’t ever be able to speak in the future. Fariya has become a victim. Tomorrow it might be our turn,” they stressed.

Upon the Banke men’s indifference, the women of Jutela Kakchya immediately filed a case at the Bansbari Police Station. The Banke men then realised that their kidnap could turn into a police case. And so fearfully, they released Fariya at midnight and left her at the Chautari at Banke, threatening to kill her family if she spoke the truth.

Fariya was found bruised and beaten blue. Raged by this treatment of their community member, the Jutela group filed a public offence case at the District Police Office in Guleria and had the kidnappers arrested—Chandra Chaudhary, Gokarna Tharu, Barshati Tripathi, Bhupal Tharu, and Bhakta Bahadur Buddha-who were crushed upon being arrested because of women. They were, however, released with a fine within 11 days.

“At first they stopped troubling us forest user groups. But later, we learned that they filed a case against us at the Supreme Court,” said Krishna Tharu. After the long series of filing cases in police stations, the fate of this conflict between the men of Banke and the women of Bardiya

over the Prakritik community forest is now going to be decided at the Supreme Court. Fariya has not received compensation or justice yet, but her rescue from Banke and the fact that she survived the hostage was celebrated with grandeur by the women of Bardiya during Teej.

These women and the Jutela group in particular, were certainly not kowtowed by an attack from a big male gang. They came of aid to Fariya’s helpless husband, were persistent in their fight, and will surely continue to be so as the case unfolds at the Supreme Court. The Tharu women of Bardiya may take help from INGOs that remind them of their rights, but something about the courage to fight a horde of brutal men tells me that it wasn’t induced externally. Perhaps an inherited instinct kicked in-perhaps they are the remnants of a matriarchal past.

Date:- 2011-01-15






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