In March 2018, the Nepal Picture Library—a digital photo-archive based out of Kathmandu that focusses on Nepali social and cultural history—put out a public call. They were looking for researchers to help build a visual archive examining women’s histories in the country. The research work first became open to the public at an exhibition titled “The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project,” which was part of a photography festival held in Kathmandu later that year. The archive, which continues to evolve, includes photographs, letters, diary entries, pamphlets and other formal and informal records documenting women and the role women have played in Nepal’s contemporary history, starting from the mid 1930s.
The intention of the research project, which officially began in April 2018, was to assemble a feminist history of Nepal. It attempted to redefine and reclaim mainstream narratives which have historically been dominated by men. Although the project’s focus was on gender inclusivity, there was also a recognition that the “past needed to be freed from the grips of economically and culturally dominant groups.” The archive, which now stands at close to eight thousand photographs, makes evident that despite women having played critical roles in political, social and cultural spheres of history, they have failed to be recognised or remembered for their contribution. While the narratives of women have often been cast, if at all, in light of their struggles in domestic spaces, their participation in public life has largely been ignored or considered anecdotal, at best. The archive, particularly being one that is visual, seeks to offset this notion, paving the way for a history of a country to be seen through an alternate lens.
With the archive, Diwas Raja Kc, the lead researcher and archivist of the Feminist Memory Project, and NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati, the founding director of the Nepal Picture Library, make the case for building a women’s history. Positioned as an “archival campaign,” this is an attempt to ensure that women’s “historical visibility will advance the case for liberation.” The exhibition was divided into six thematic sections: “Women of the People” focusses on women taking to political action; “Reading under the Candelight” deals with women who made headways in the field of education; “Women for Women” looks at women who were active in civil society; “Words of Women” documents women who penned feminist literature; “A Room of One’s Own,” which recreated the writing room of the acclaimed Nepali author Parijat; and “Out in the World” contains photographs of women who travelled the world “to express their freedom and their agency.