On becoming a woman: Shakti, storytelling, and women’s roles and rights in Nepal

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"This is a women’s tradition"? is how Nepalis characterize the Svasthanivratakatha, a sixteenth-century Hindu devotional narrative tradition. Nepali Hindus today still recite the Svasthanivratakatha’s thirty-one chapters each winter. Women are the primary focus and main actors of the narratives, but does this make it a women’s tradition? The narratives are infused with orthodox Hindu ideology that promulgates patriarchal practices, privileges men, and valorizes gender discrimination. Women in the Svasthanivratakatha are devout but subordinated wives whose singular purpose is to worship their gods, goddesses, and husbands, and who face grave consequences for failing to do so. Many aspects of the tradition are therefore arguably not about, by, or in the best interest of women. This article examines two central questions: First, to what degree does the Svasthanivratakatha provide a framework for women to challenge the hegemonic discourses and asymmetric patriarchal social relations of Nepali Hindu society and the ancient Sanskrit texts upon which it was built? Second, does the Svasthanivratakatha give voice to women, who are both subject and object of the narrative tradition? If it does neither, can the Svasthanivratakatha be a women’s tradition? In other words, how do Hindu women in Nepal define and experience shakti (power) and empowerment? An examination of Svasthanivratakatha narratives, newspaper editorials responding to them, and informant interviews reveals deeply divided opinions among Nepalis about whether the Svasthanivratakatha is a source of empowerment or indoctrination for Nepali women. This raises salient questions about the legacy of historically, religiously, and culturally embedded traditions in the lives of twenty-first-century Nepali women.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)434-464
Number of pages31
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Gender Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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