‘Sati system was the manifestation of structural and cultural violence inflicted on women’

Sujit Mainali, the author of new book “Sati: Itihas ra Mimamsa” explains the history, politics and social factors behind perpetuation of Sati system and many other harmful practices still enforced on women.

NL Today

  • Read Time 5 min.

Kathmandu: Sujit Mainali is a history critic. Since he began to write for Nepali media, he has made it a point to define the current events from the prism of history and vice-versa. It gives a new perspective, says Mainali. His first history research book Silanyas: Nepal Nirmanko Nalibeli ruffled some feathers in Kathmandu: it was a counter-narrative to those who have long been undermining, even denigrating, the role of King Prithvi Narayan Shah in Nepal’s state formation. His most recent book marks a sharp departure from political history and it delves into probably the worst and the cruelest conditions women were subjected to probably until 1920, when the Sati system was abolished by Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher. Sati has found a wider readership, Mainali shared with Nepal Live Today.   Here is an excerpt from the conversation with Sujit Mainali.

The title of the book is self-explanatory. But can you tell us what exactly is your focus on this book?

The Sati system was probably the biggest blot in Nepal’s history.  Yet, there is little you get to learn about it in documented forms. Sati system was in practice in Nepal and India both. While one finds some literature and iconographic evidence on the Sati system in India, there is little in Nepal.  So the book is focused mainly on Nepal, while it also touches upon the practices of India and South Asia as a whole. Here I have tried to explore why a woman was forced to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her dead husband? What was the politics behind it? What was the patriarchy that forced women into such barbarian practice like? And many other issues.

Lack of research on the Sati system shows how history writers and commentators have paid little attention to, or even ignored, the suffering of women in Nepali history.

In Nepal, most of what we learn about the Sati system is through oral anecdotes. Documented history is rare. How did you find the sources for your research for the book?

Yes, Sati stories have come down to us mostly through oral traditions. We grew up hearing such stories from our grandparents, who may have heard about such stories from their parents and their parents, and so on.  And because the written history, as we know today, began rather late in Nepal, this practice may have gone undocumented. But this does not mean the cruelty was not there. It was very much there and a woman was sent to burn herself along with her dead husband on the funeral pyre.  Even the imagination sends you goosebumps. It terrifies me.  You can imagine how cruel it must have been.

During my research, I relied on both primary and secondary sources. There are very few published documents and the important ones are compiled as an annex of the book along with their brief explanation. I found that most of such compiled documents had not been consulted by many scholars writing on gender issues. Besides archival sources, there are anecdotes associated with places named after Sati such as Satighat, Satiban, Satidwar etc. The famous ‘satile sarapeko des’ (the country accursed by the Sati) anecdote is found in written history as well. We have no documented history on the Sati system but there are many clues. You have to glean from them.

Why do you think there has been little research and exploration on this biggest blot of Nepali history?

I think this is because it was never considered as a big issue.  And this also shows how history writers and commentators have paid little attention to, or even ignored, the suffering of women in Nepali history. The history of Nepali people and Nepal has some bit of glory, some bit of injustice, poverty, exploitation, resilience all combined in it.  But what was the position of women in that history?  How did they live? What was their thinking? Seriously, we have not yet realized the need to explore the position of Nepali women in history.  

The other reason why there is no documented history on the Sati system is because Nepal has a very weak archiving and documentation system.  There was no system in place to keep the institutional memory intact.  In Muluki Ain, 1854 of Junga Bahadur and an edict issued by Bir Sumsher there was a provision that state officials have to prepare muchulka (report from the ground) in the presence of others before sending the women into Sati.  Thus we can say that forceful Sati was being restricted by the state. Several such muchulkas may have been made but those officials may have taken them to their own homes, which must have decayed or rotten in course of time.  This is the tragedy of our failure to preserve the historical documents.

Sati system was used as a weapon to control women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, women’s rights of reproduction and women’s agency.

Can we draw any parallel in terms of various kinds of injustices and prohibition still inflicted on women from the Sati system?

I see the continuation of the tendency of men not to give agency to women in many of the ill practices still forced on women.  The Sati system was the manifestation of structural and cultural violence inflicted on women. For example, the narrative was created that women went into it out of their own will. Which is a lie.  Stories were created that women as Sati do not feel the pain. All such lies were created to justify the violence. The main purpose to perpetuate the Sati system was to control chastity and sexuality of women.  Once a woman was forced to burn herself along with her husband, she did not have to be given property. This was one thing. And once she was forced to burn herself, any chances of her marrying another person, or starting life anew would be gone. It was used as a weapon to control women’s bodies, women’s sexuality, women’s rights of reproduction and women’s agency.

Like elsewhere, Nepali state has been very cruel to women in many instances. For example, even during the Rana rule, a woman accused of having committed adultery would have her nose cut and sent out of home from that respective family.  Such women were subjected to live with this sense of humiliation throughout their lives. Many of the cruelties inflicted on women would remind one of the witch trials and punishment to women for adultery that were in practice in Salem of Massachusetts of America during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Violence on women in the names of harmful traditional practices such as Chhaupadi is a blot on Nepali culture and civilization. We all need to write about it, and against it to spread the message that such ill practices have to be uprooted.

Even today, women are forced to observe certain traditions the purpose of which is, again, to establish control over women’s body and agency. Take Chhaupadi. It is the means to control the sexuality of women. By compelling a menstruating woman to remain secluded inside her homes or in menstrual huts, her family and entire society actually monitors her sexual life.      

We have not made critiques on such practices through historical and social perspectives. I think we need to abhor practices like Chhaupadi, acid attack and dowry system as much as we abhor Sati system today. Violence on women in the names of harmful traditional practices such as Chhaupadi is a blot on Nepali culture and civilization. We all need to write about it, and against it to spread the message that such ill practices have to be uprooted immediately.

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