If you walk down the streets of Kathmandu, you can’t fail to notice its vibrant street art scene. When I first visited the city in 2018, I was taken aback by the juxtaposition of heritage buildings and slick urban iconography that defined the capital and its environs. Outside the Zoo in Patan, for example, a long grey wall is adorned with girls’ hand-prints. The prints flow from the pen of a schoolgirl, painted in her uniform, drawing on the wall with her back to the viewer. Above her, the English words ‘Wall of Hope’ float in a deliberate scrawl. In the corner of the work just visible is the signature ‘Pink Riches’—a Minneapolis-based street artist.
Unlike the street art I’ve seen in East London, where I live, or Berlin and New York, the art forms in Nepal appeared at once more surprising and less counter cultural. I’ve since learned that street art in Nepal has become a tool for advocacy and messaging, especially in feminist campaigning and women’s rights work. Many walls are signed by foreign artists and art works are funded by international NGOs or governments. To the foreign eye, their style and visual and verbal rhetoric (the text is often in English) are undoubtedly familiar, but it is less clear how they translate to the Nepali communities who pass them every day. How, if at all, do they speak to the different women and girls who are, supposedly, interpellated by these paintings to condemn violence and recognize their rights?
Together with Barbara Grossman-Thompson, who introduced me to Nepal via her work on gender, we designed a project to examine not so much the efficacy of these art works as their process, and the possibilities of producing more culturally sensitive and inclusive practices.1 We spoke to different stakeholders—donors, artists, activists—and ran workshops with girls in government schools in Pokhara. In the workshops, among other exercises, we asked students (aged 12–17) to look at images of street art on women’s rights and narrate their interpretations.
The stories produced by the girls in the summer of 2019, reflecting on gender and structural violence, raise problems for me as a literary critic, working on an interdisciplinary project. Put simply: I don’t know how to read them.
Some of the stories are hopeful, others tragic lessons in women’s lack of access to adequate resources, main characters rise and fall, take on symbolic meanings or even mythical status. A triptych of street art stencils on abortion clinics and women’s rights to reproductive health inspire a combination of stories about girls from ‘a village’ who, either fall in love or are misled by boys into sexual intercourse, dying or thriving according to their relative access to safe abortions. Early marriage, ‘superstitions’ and unsympathetic in-laws all play a part in these narratives. Another ‘Wall of Hope’ mural, depicting a woman looking determined in front of a range of mountains, inspired stories that pitch women as heroes of ‘development’, helping others; they do not ‘bow down to anyone’ and, when called upon, can ‘sacrifice [their] own life for the country’.
I work on visual storytelling—exploring in part how visual reading works. In this case, how that visual reading is reconstituted into its own verbal storytelling raises interesting questions.
There are common themes in these stories: on the one hand they depict girls’ vulnerability in ‘the village’—a site where girls navigate sexual partners, family structures and health care services with uneven success; on the other, they frame women as central agents of national change. They borrow from local myths: retelling the epic tale of Sita and Ram, for example, to incorporate a message around sexual health and freedom or referring to the goddess Maya Devi, mother of Buddha.
In that sense, the girls we worked with are no different to any of us – we have only so many story tropes to turn to. Early theories around narrative, such as Vladimir Propp’s work on Morphology of the Folktale (1928) argued that stories can be broken down to 31 different structural elements (e.g. the hero departs, or the hero violates a rule). These ingredients result in infinite variables. Such stories tell us a great deal about the world around us—as literary scholars argue—and about our relationship to the past. Indeed, as Hayden White noted, via the Italian philosopher Croce, ‘Where there is no narrative […] there is no history.’2
Social scientists, psychologists and medical practitioners have turned to storytelling as a valuable tool for, among other things, measuring “public knowledge, attitudes and behaviours”.3 A recent article in The Atlantic, discussed the different storytelling forms that psychologists are associating with greater or lesser resilience (the rise and fall narrative, or fall and rise, or the more complex double turns of rise -fall-rise or fall-rise-fall).4 It comes as no surprise to say that not just the stories we tell about ourselves, but how we narrate our lives says something about our cultural values, attitudes and inherent perspective on events. But that also holds true for how we narrate in general, regardless of whether we are talking about ourselves.
Narrative is a powerful act of ordering the world and deciphering—by explaining— events. It is not inherently positive or empathetic (narratives after all are also crucial to control and subjugate), but it is, as Ato Quayson has argued, inherently social. The social is not the same as society, it is how we construe context and history rather than specific instantiations thereof—it ‘has to be read for’.5 That is to say: stories are more than embedded in the histories of their contexts, they create those contexts in complex ways.
Their complexity lies, as narratologists like Mieke Bal, Tzvetan Todorov, and Gerard Genette would argue, in how they order different levels of the narrative—the tension between what is told and how it is told, in whose voice, using which temporal and spatial markers.
Knowing this, I am intrigued by the narratives we gathered. What drives these stories—the context of their telling (as part of a workshop programme, led by a delegation of researchers and artists from Kathmandu) or the girls’ individual, idiosyncratic interpretations? What if they are not just looking at the image but in fact reading its paratexts—seeing at once echoes of other stories, and the invisible, institutional frames that guide them to specific readings?
While I started out believing the exercise might tell us something about how girls are interpreting art, and what storytelling tropes they choose to make sense of the visual cues around them, perhaps what their narratives tell us is rather how storytelling works in an educational and international development context that my co-investigator Barbara Grossman-Thompson has pointed out to me.
Government schools in Nepal follow educational curricula where rote learning, repetition and copying play a large role.6 Schools have also been the historical site of much of the foreign aid programmes that have targeted Nepal, and women and girls specifically, over the last few decades. During the Panchayat rule in Nepal (1961–1990), international development programmes dovetailed with the state’s own ideology of bikas—a local theory of development that intersects ideas of modernization or progress with specific caste, ethnic and urban/rural identities and which has been widely incorporated into curricula and textbooks.7
Studies have shown how Bikas and development rhetoric has created a mythic image of ‘the village’ to distinguish between relative forms of progress and reduced complex heterogenous identities into what Tamang calls ‘the Nepali Woman’.8 This simplified category, which figures Nepali women as largely Hindu, ‘uniformly disadvantaged’, and oppressed, ‘was as much the work of development agencies in search of “the Nepali woman” to develop’ as of state ideology, Tamang quips.9
There is clearly repetition of such tropes in the girls’ stories, but there may also be slippage: repetition with a difference—as postcolonial critic Homi K. Bhabha writes of colonial resistance. And in that slippage we can glimpse a re-reading of development discourse. The rise/fall narratives and the appropriation of local myths and deities reveal tensions in how these stories around women’s roles are imagined or framed to an intended outside audience.
The woman who is spearheading development in their stories also speaks to the environment around her—she is assisted by a bird she befriends and looks after. The bird’s symbolism (for peace) is recognized, but in passing, as it takes on a more central role as companion. This brief glimpse into a different social or ecological conscience diverges from the narratives associated with ‘the Nepali woman’ and her liberation. Instead of framing liberation via access to ‘modernity’, it hints at alternative, regional ideas of emancipation.
What then do these stories record—subjugated knowledge? Knowledge that Foucault argued is local, popular and often disqualified by dominant measures of scientificity.10 I am struck by their situatededness, to use Donna Haraway’s related term to Foucault’s. Haraway thinks, via the metaphor of sight, about the embodied, subjective experience of knowledge. All vision is located: ‘only partial perspective promises objective vision.’11
Between me and the girls is a difference in age, authority, language and culture. I am reading, therefore, through many prisms or lenses. The stories have not only been framed by us, a research team from Nepal’s capital, led by two foreigners, but they come to me in translation. I am aware not only of silences, but of that other reader, the Other reader, that postcolonial theory presents as the cultural insider, to whom these girls’ stories speak more clearly.
The girls’ stories are situated, like my own perspective, but they are also polyvalent— speaking from their location and to cultures of domination—they exist in the margin that bell hooks called a space of struggle.12 They may in fact be demonstrating what Haraway identified as a knowledge of those systems of knowledge that claim to not be located and therefore as seeing objectively, that is, in this case, theories of development.
Presented with their stories, I am looking at the ‘profound edge’ that determines the margin. Shuttling back and forth between sight and an attempt at insight.13 I catch myself suspecting that maybe I am the intended reader—outsider, academic, representative of development—but not yet able to perform the reading that the work demands. Research on feminist activism or women’s rights campaigns also demands feminist work—that is, a mindful attention to not just gender, race, ethnic, and class-based assumptions, but the very methodologies we deploy to construct and examine others’ lives and narratives. As Ann Hartman, DSW, writes, ‘the one to be understood […] is, after all, the expert’—from whom we, the academic readers, can only hope to learn.14
The copyright of the images used in this post lies with the author and her collaborator Barbara Grossman-Thompson. The featured image shows Pink Riches “Wall of Hope” mural outside Patan Zoo, 2018.
- The project is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund, as part of the British Academy’s Sustainable Development Programme.
- Hayden White, ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’, Critical Inquiry, 9:1 (1980), 5–27, at 10.
- Becky McCall et al., ‘Storytelling as a Research Tool and Intervention Around Public Health Perceptions and Behaviour: A Protocol for a Systematic Narrative Review‘, BMJ Open (2019), 1–12, at 2.
- Melissa Gay Greene, ‘You Won’t Remember the Pandemic the Way You Think You Will‘, The Atlantic, 6 April 2021.
- Ato Quayson, Calibrations: Reading for the Social (Minneapolis, 2003), xxxi.
- Alba Castellsagué and Silvia Carrasco ‘Development, Education and Gender: Challenging the Empowerment Rhetoric from an Ethnographic Study in Rural Nepal’, Ethnography and Education, 16:1 (2021), 92–108, at 100.
- Seira Tamang, ‘The Politics of “Developing Nepali Women”‘, in Kamala Wisweswaran (ed.), Perspectives on Modern South Asia: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation (Oxford, 2011), 280–288, at 281; Stacy Leigh Pigg, ‘Inventing Social Categories through Place: Social Representations and Development in Nepal’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 34:3 (1992), 491–513, at 495–8.
- Pigg, ‘Inventing Social Categories’, 504.
- Tamang, “Politics of ‘Developing Nepali Women’”, 281.
- Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures”, in Colin Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, transl. by Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham and Kate Soper (New York, 1980), 78–108, at 82.
- Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14:3 (1988), 575–599, at 583.
- Bell Hooks, ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 36 (1989), 15–23, at 16.
- Hooks, ‘Choosing the Margin’, 19.
- Ann Hartman, ‘In Search of Subjugated Knowledge’, Journal of Family Therapy, 11:4 (2000), 9–23, at 22.