Lately, I came across two female communist leaders who merited recognition for themselves as we are bracing ourselves for the communist government. But I first stumbled upon these communist leaders the roundabout way; the first one as the mother of the 'most beautiful girl' in Nepal and the other one as the wife of the most powerful man in the country.
Munu Sigdel, the mother of Miss Nepal 2018 Shrinkhala Khatiwada, was some sort of a revelation to me. Commenting on her daughter’s achievements, she said, “We used to think of beauty pageants as the extension of capitalist endeavour to commodify women as objects of desire. But my daughter has convinced me that it is an intellectual competition, and I have come to see that myself.”
I personally have nothing against beauty pageants. I never thought of them strictly as an enterprise of commodification and nor am I convinced by Munu Sigdel’s epiphany of rediscovering it as an intellectual competition. But I find the process of her adjustment very fascinating.
The interviewer never asked Sigdel what led her to change her opinion. Is it simply a maternal rationalization now that the daughter of communist parents, who for long stood against beauty pageants, has turned out to be a ‘beauty queen’? Or is it a gradual understanding that appearing attractive, and competing to prove it, is one of the many legitimate pathways for women to pursue success?
But what does a ‘successful woman’ mean?
And this question brings me to another encounter. Radhika Shakya, the wife of current Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, was mostly an unknown figure to me. But just today, I came across an article written by Binu Pokharel for Annapurna Post, when I actually got to know her as a personality. The article titled “Radhika : Ek Sadhika” (Radhika, a saint), not surprisingly, tries to deify Shakya. But what are these qualities that elevate her to the alleged sainthood?
The article begins from an interesting premise, where Shakya is hailed for her rave academic achievements. And justifiably so as she turns out not only to pass her SLC in the first division, which was a big deal for those times but also graduate with history and economics majors. Her first encounter with the name of Mao Zedong and its lingering fascination kind of unravels her early socialist sympathy. She goes ahead and pursues her academic and political quests simultaneously. By the time Oli, the young, albeit sickly, communist leader, proposes to her, she already holds an MA degree and is working in a bank. Her willingness to juggle between family, politics and career marks a making of a woman who is already breaking the stereotype of a gender-normative domesticized woman, who is simply trying to find a good husband. Oli had no means to impress her with the prospect of a luxurious life but only with his intellectual tenacity. Shakya was the sort of woman who found intellectual tenacity of a man a good enough reason to marry him. It is not every day we meet women like these.
Then suddenly, fast forward a few decades, she seems to have lost all that. She is hailed as being saintly for having sacrificed herself to become a careful attendant to Oli. In the article, she fumes and fumbles around the house, running after the secretaries of her prime minister husband to make sure he took his medicine on time or had his food, or took his nap. Considering the earlier premise of the article, this part feels so anti-climatic. So, what happened to this woman, who had been thus enamored by Mao’s socialist dreams? Did she just recoil to being a caretaker, an appendage to a powerful man?
Even if she actually did, what contributed to this deviation? Does she sometimes sit silently by herself and wonder about her intellectual curiosity of the heydays? Does this woman, so qualified, sometimes regret being so bereaved of her individuality? What does she miss about her younger self? What is her vision about poverty and development? What is her assessment of historical progress and economic structure of our country now?
Her deification is a celebration of the loss of individuality.
Juxtaposed against each other, Munu Sigdel and Radhika Shakya represent the faces of communist idealists, who are trying to grapple what it means to be a communist and a woman in a communist-dominant nation, chasing, like everyone else, the capitalistic dreams.
Both of these women have retained their paternal last name and not taken after their husband’s last name, as is the tradition. But is the rejection of husband’s patrilineal surname enough to carve an independent identity? Or, is it enough to validate beauty pageants as a veritable institute of female empowerment simply because a flock of admirers will listen to you because you have a pretty face?
Honestly, I don’t know.
A few years ago, I was sitting with a bunch of my friends who identify themselves as feminists. A new Miss Nepal had been recently selected. Over the cup of espressos, we were discussing how beauty pageants objectify women and reinforce them to take gender-normative roles. Gender-normative roles simply mean seeing men and women as binary opposites and insisting that the ‘normal’ person would naturally fall into the traditional gender roles. That way, Radhika Shakya, has eventually taken the traditional role of a caretaker and reinforced the ‘normal’ role of a woman.
But soon enough, we were all exhausted by feminist rants, and to lighten the discussion, one of my friends, a woman, told us how she was rooting for a certain American soccer team. I can neither remember the name of the match or the soccer team and that pretty much sums up my interest and knowledge about what we usually know as football at this part of the world. Because I had nothing to contribute on the topic I started to compare football with beauty pageants. Surprisingly, they aren’t too different from each other. Beauty pageants insist that an ideal woman must be appealing to eyes, football, on the other hand, insists that men must be macho and competitive. Otherwise, how do you justify a bunch of men running after a ball to shove it into a post?
Football is no more an intellectual competition than beauty pageants are, although of course, both the competitions require some common sense and intelligence. They are both means of reinforcing the idea of beautiful woman and powerful men, as the mark of desirability. But we never hear anyone protest against football match as an enterprise of the commodification of masculinity. Why?
One way of understanding this moral dilemma is through what the feminists call “male gaze”. Originally coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, this term denotes the way of looking at the world, particularly in relations to women, from the perspective of a man. We see a lot of advertisements where appealing women are juxtaposed against the commodity they are trying to sell. What does placing those women against the product say about the kind of audience the advertisers are trying to reach?
They are assuming their primary targets to be men, to whose taste the image of female models has been crafted. Or maybe for the lesbians, who find that kind of women attractive. But do we, as women relate to such as the authentic representation of our idea of beauty? High heels, thick layers of makeup, skimpy clothes or perfect hair - do we resort to these looks when we are alone at our house when no one is looking at us? Maybe some of us do. But I, for one, don’t and therefore I find the idea of ‘male gaze’ convincing. And knowingly or unknowingly, we craft ourselves to please this invisible gaze. Certainly, appearing ‘beautiful’ is not the only way we respond to it.
By seeing beauty pageants as the objectification of feminine body but failing to see how these soccer games reinforce the idea of macho man, our debate of individuality falls into the penumbra created by 'male gaze'. The worth of an individual shouldn't be judged in their ability to live up to the set standards of perfections; neither for women nor men. But until this point, even our feminism is incapable of coming out of the hangover of 'male gaze'. The women who protest against beauty pageants should be protesting against football matches, too. Or the women, who enjoy football matches as a release, should enjoy beauty pageants the same way, too.
I find Shrinkhala Khatiwada beautiful and articulate. But even before winning the pageant, she was already an accomplished individual. She was academically outstanding, not unlike Radhika Shakya, and she was as much of a humanitarian as her mother Munu Sigdel, who had also been jailed during her youth for her radical call to social justice. But what crowned Khatiwada’s achievement was her winning a beauty competition. For whatever Munu Sigdel might say, they still call it a beauty pageant and not an intellectual pageant.
So, whether we want to believe it or not, women are still defined by their looks or their domestic docility, as we saw in the apotheosis of Radhika Shakya.
Why was Shrinkhala Khatiwada recognized as Miss Nepal and why was Radhika Shakya deified? Why did Khatiwada’s intelligence and humanitarian pursuits only got recognized after being declared the most beautiful woman of Nepal and why is Radhika Shakya compared to a saint, not for her academic achievements or her political astuteness, but for efficiently running errands for her powerful husband?
Is it all there for women to be celebrated? Or being powerful and macho is all there to being manly?
For all our progressiveness, I still find our mass media, subliminally propagating these gender-normative values.
Revisiting the theory of Marx on his admirable book Marx's Concept of Man, Erich Fromm writes, '“This popular picture of Marx's wish for uniformity and subordination - is utterly false. Marx's aim was that of the spiritual emancipation of (wo)man, of their liberation from the chains of economic determination, of restituting them in their human wholeness, of enabling them to find unity and harmony with their fellow man and with nature. Marx's philosophy was, in secular, nontheistic language, a new and radical step forward in the tradition of prophetic Messianism; it was aimed at the full realization of individualism."
As we find ourselves on the brink of re-experimenting with Marx's vision as a nation again, I hope the likes of Radhika Shakya and Munu Sigdel would be recognized and celebrated for their own merit and not as the shadows of powerful men and beautiful girls.