Nepal: Girls First, Goddesses Later

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The Kumari Devi is one of Nepal’s best-known images a young girl wearing a crown with a third eye painted on her forehead who gazes out impassively from an intricately carved wooden window in Kathmandu, drawing tens of thousands of tourists and devotees every year.

Regarded as an incarnation of Taleju Bhawani, the goddess of power and the protector of the royal family, the Kumari is believed to have divine powers, the only living being before whom the Shah kings of Nepal bowed in obeisance during their 239-year dynasty. Her horoscope must match the king’s to ensure compatibility. She is chosen in an elaborate ceremony in which she must meet 32 strict physical requirements ranging from the shape of her teeth to the sound of her voice. She must remain calm in a dark room, surrounded by terrifying noises and dancing men in horrific masks.

Now, however, with the seating of former guerrilla Pushpa Kamal Dahal – known universally by his nom de guerre Prachanda as the new Himalayan republic's first prime minister, the myth of the virgin goddess may end eventually, as the reign of Nepal’s kings ended with elections in April. That is because a 30-year-old lawyer named Pundevi Maharjan quietly ushered in another revolution in a country that has been ruled by tradition and strong religious beliefs.

Maharjan is a lawyer who has won a battle against Nepal's Kumari tradition. Behind the exotic setting, the mysticism and the myth of the virgin goddess is a life in which these children are deprived of the rights granted to every child under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. She also argued that the Kumaris were not allowed the right to move or speak freely. They could not even eat the food they wanted.

Nepal boasts 11 Kumaris, who are chosen by priests from the Bajracharya community. Not only do the chosen one's horoscopes have to be in harmony with the monarch but the girls have to be free from any physical blemishes. A Kumari must be a prepubescent girl who loses her divine status once she begins menstruation. She is then succeeded by a new Kumari.

Once selected, the Kumari leaves her family to go and reside in the Kumari Ghar the palace designated for her in Kathmandu where she has her own retinue. She is not allowed to leave the palace on her own and she must not walk on the ground. The most important of the 11 Kumaris is taken out in a chariot and has a red carpet placed before her so that her feet do not touch the ground.

"When I was in college, I began to marvel at the Kumaris," says Maharjan, who had filed public interest litigation in the Supreme Court three years ago, saying that the Kumaris' rights as children had been grossly violated.

"Once they lost their divine status and had to leave the palace, most found it hard to assimilate. Some had no education and had to start school at the age of 11 when they were placed in the same class with five- or six-year-olds,” Maharjan said. “They were also the victims of superstitions, like the belief that if a man married a Kumari he would die. But no one ever thought of the trauma a former Kumari undergoes."

A glaring example of the restrictions, Maharjan said, is the case of Sajani Shakya, who until recently was the Kumari of Bhaktapur town. In an unprecedented move, her priests sacked the nine-year-old after she went to the US to attend a documentary festival that also screened a film on the Kumaris, including herself. Sajani's priests said she had lost her holiness by going abroad and eating "impure" food.

After fighting the suit for two years, Maharjan got a shot in the arm when she joined the Forum for Women, Law and Development, a leading NGO in Nepal that has been fighting for the legal protection of women. On August 18, Nepal's highest court ordered the government to protect the rights of the Kumaris.

"Though the Convention on Child Rights and interim constitution of Nepal have guaranteed minor girls the right to education and health, only some Kumaris enjoy these rights," judges Balaram K.C. and Top Bahadur Magar said. "There should be no bar on Kumaris going to school and enjoying health-related rights. They should not be treated as bonded labourers and there should be no restriction on their free movement."

The judges have ordered the government to form a five-member committee from related ministries to study the condition of the Kumaris and submit its report within a year. In addition, they have asked the Ministry for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation to draw form a committee to recommend schemes for providing former Kumaris with social security.

Maharjan says she faced ostracism and harassment from her community when she filed the suit. She was accused of trying to humiliate her own people and of destroying a tradition that is the backbone of national culture.

"I did not seek to have the Kumari tradition abolished," she says. "I only wanted it to be modernised and freed from harmful practices. Instead of being treated like divine beings, the Kumaris should be seen as cultural icons that are unique to Nepal."

Sapana Pradhan Malla, one of the founders of the forum for women and currently a Member of Parliament, who has been entrusted with the task of drafting a new constitution for Nepal, says the community should be asked to modernise the Kumari tradition.

"There are other traditions related to women and religion that are harmful to women," she says. "Like Deuki (akin to India's devdasi tradition in which a young girl is offered to a god and who finally ends up as a sex worker) and Jhuma (the tradition of a Buddhist family offering at least one girl child to become a nun without considering her wishes). While the Kumari is not like that, yet, it has to be viewed with different eyes."

"Nepalis decided to abolish the monarchy," said Janardan Sharma, one of the deputy commanders of the People's Liberation Army, the Maoists' guerrilla army, who is now a legislator. "We need to abolish all institutions associated with the crown. There is no need for Kumaris, Jhumas or Deukis."

But the moderates in the party have decided to skirt the issue for now, fearing a public outcry. "The Kumari is not just associated with the king as his protective deity," says Dinanath Sharma, another Maoist lawmaker. "She is also a cultural symbol."

Women's Feature Service