Mothers and Martyrs: Apekshya Prasai ’16 on Women’s Role in Militant Insurgencies

This year, three students — Apekshya Prasai ’16, Marcus Christiansen ’17, and Martin Bernard ’17 — received Breckinridge Fellowships to complete independent research. This summer, Christiansen modeled micro-finance networks and Bernard used computational analysis to study influence in congress. Reporter Talia Cowen ’16 caught up with Prasai to discuss her research.

Apekshya Prasai '16 is studying women's role in militant insurgencies

Apekshya Prasai ’16 is studying women’s role in militant insurgencies

Apekshya Prasai ‘16, like most seniors who will graduate Bowdoin this year, was two years old when the Maoist insurgency in Nepal broke out. However, unlike the rest of her Bowdoin class, Prasai, a native of Kathmandu, was living in the country at the time.

The insurgency lasted until Prasai turned 13. “School was very irregular because they would just call off schools,” she remembered. “The country would just close down for a few days and there would be rallies and protests and a lot of kidnappings and ransoms.” She continued, “Sending kids to school could be dangerous because they might get kidnapped. We never went to movie theaters or public gatherings because of the fear of bomb blasts.”

Understandably, Prasai grew up hating and fearing the Maoists, who terrorized her country and her community. However, now that she is using their insurgency as a case study for her honors project, her perspective of the movement has been challenged. “The Maoists started off with a very legitimate cause — that we need to end this feudal structure and minorities need to be represented in the government and Brahmins [the dominant caste] can’t be dominating everyone,” Prasai said, adding that the Maoists believed “economic benefits need to be more widely distributed.”

What particularly interests Prasai about the Maoist insurgents is their use of women, who made up 30 percent or more of their fighters. “Nepal is just generally a patriarchal society, so it was very conflicting to grow up seeing women as militants in uniforms and armed, whereas women you knew were still kind of stuck in a patriarchal structure in society,” she said.

The Maoist insurgency is just one of three case studies Prasai is studying for her project. She is looking at the use of women in militant insurgencies, or, in her words, “why [militants] employ gender-related rhetoric, why they’re recruiting women — or why they’re not.” The other two cases she is researching are the Tamal Tigers in Sri Lanka and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So far, what she has found is that the militant’s “policies towards women serve as markers of rejection of the social order they aim to change, and are symbolic of the social order they aim to attain.” For example, Prasai argues that the Maoists’ use of women was a symbolic rejection of the old feudal structure; the presence of women in the movement was a very visible rejection of an older social system that perpetuated caste, class and gender based oppression. At the same time, the Maoists’ recruitment of women in military and non-military roles reinforced their commitment to egalitarian values like gender equality.

For Prasai, this research is “a mixture of everything I’m interested in; it’s politics, it’s militancy, its women’s issues, and it’s also a focus on my home region.” But she said her research is relevant to the outside world because it exists at the intersection of two under-researched areas in academia: South Asia and women in military contexts.

Prasai hopes to continue studying topics similar to this after graduation, and amplify the discourse surrounding these under-researched areas. “I want to work in a career that revolves around security issues in South Asia or security issues related to South Asia, and obviously because women’s issues are such a vital part of everything I do in life, it will by default become a part of it,” she said.