Sunday, November 07, 2004

Picture of oppression: The meekest in Nepal

By Chris Bergeron / News Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2004

Growing up as a low-caste woman in Nepal, Bishnu Maya Pariyar faced obstacles as steep as the surrounding Himalayas.

She was born to illiterate parents who belonged to the Dalit caste, the lowest strata of society in the predominant Hindu religion. Raised in a family of eight girls and one boy, Pariyar lived in a rural village where discrimination overshadowed the beauty of the remote mountainous kingdom north of India.

She translated Dalit as "oppressed." In Nepal, Dalit is a hereditary social class comparable to the "untouchables" of India who suffer from far-reaching social and economic discrimination. "I never got an opportunity to get to a higher level," she said recently. "People in the West don't know how terrible the caste system is in Nepal."

Pariyar is spreading that message through the photographs of Eva Kasell, a friend and benefactor who is helping her bring hope to other Nepalese women. Kasell is exhibiting 17 photographs of Dalit women at the Morse Institute Library in Natick to publicize joint efforts to break the age-old bonds of the caste system.

The show, "Women and Girls of Taklung: Gender and Cast in Rural Nepal," runs through November and December. Now 28, Pariyar has shattered several of those barriers through her own determination and with help from others like Kasell.

She overcame improbable odds to receive a college education in a country where only 12 percent of low-caste women are literate. After she finished high school, a Peace Corps volunteer helped Pariyar secure a college scholarship in the capital city Kathmandu. Pariyar had finished college and was serving as a social worker in the countryside where she'd started "Empower Dalit Women in Nepal," an organization to help low-caste women improve their lives. The group sponsors literacy programs and helps women save money to start small businesses. All proceeds from the sale of Kasell's photos will benefit that organization. Since its founding, EDWIN has grown to 42 branches in 20 communities. Kasell described her portraits as "a visual feast." "People received me with open arms. Their trust of me comes through," she said.

An architect from Lexington, Kasell met Pariyar in 1998 while visiting her son who was spending a year in Nepal as part of a college program. Impressed by her determination, Kasell and her husband invited Pariyar to live in their Lexington home in 1999 and helped her apply to college. Kasell has since started a U.S. chapter of EDWIN to inform Americans of the evils of caste. Inger Neilsen, of Wellesley, serves as the group's treasurer.

With a population of 24 million, Nepal is the only country in the world in which Hinduism is the national religion. About 70 percent of Nepal's people and the ruling royal family practice the Hindu faith which began more than 3,000 years ago in India. Though exact statistics are not known, a study by Cornell University estimates 15 percent to 20 percent of Nepal's population experience caste discrimination in some form Pariyar said the government "has not been supportive" of efforts to reform the caste system. "They say they'll do something," added Kasell. "But they never do." Pariyar said Westerners visiting and working in Nepal "have no clue" about the effects of caste which began in India.

"They were shocked when I told them about Dalits," she said. Kasell said the corrosive effects of caste "are not obvious to us because everyone looks the same." Nepalese recognize different castes by their distinctive family names rather than physical appearance. Upper caste members often cleanse themselves with water if the brush against Dalit people who are also denied entrance to temples and schools. Pariyar said the government recently rejected a proposed law to set a quota guaranteeing 15 percent of university and civil service openings to low-caste people.

"Dalits rarely get a chance to get to a higher level," she said. "People can't raise their voice against this system." With help from the Kasell family, Pariyar graduated last May from Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill with a degree in political science. She now works for the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence in Boston.

Pariyar plans to visit Nepal next year and hopes to eventually return permanently to carry on the fight against the caste system. "I want people to know what's happening to Dalit women in Nepal so we can help improve their lives," she said.

The essentials:
The Morse Institute Library is located at 14 East Central St., Natick. It is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Pariyar and Kasell will discuss the photographs and the impact of the caste system today at 3 p.m. For information about the program, call the Morse institute Library at 508-647-6520 or visit the Web site, www.morseinstitute.org.

"Empower Dalit Women of Nepal" is hosting its third annual holiday bazaar on Saturday, Nov. 20 at Kasell's home at 14 Normandy Road, Lexington from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visitors can purchase shawls, scarves, silver jewelry, necklaces, linen, handmade paper goods and other crafts from Nepal.

Source: Milford Daily News, November 7, 2004

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