Dealing with Marginality: Gender and Caste in Western Nepal
This paper examines the transformation of marginality in the Badi community in Nepal after their association with prostitution became a matter of public policy and community controversies. The Badi, who are treated as Dalit, had served as entertainers for small rajas and landlords in the past, and became increasingly dependent on income from women’s sex work in the process of migration and urbanization in the 1960s. For many residents and activists, a series of events following the prostitution eradication campaign in 1996 marked a turning point for the community, with the emergence of new collective actions and self-representations that transformed their marginality. In the process of rebuilding the community, many men and women began to portray themselves as people who seek to establish respectable families, and politicized the problems of unstable marriage and unrecognized children as the result of historical discrimination by the state. How and why did the problem of “family” become a terrain in which different groups and individuals challenged the previously accepted marginal status of the Badi? This paper considers the question of marginality by reflecting on the consequences of the collective struggles to legitimate families in the simultaneous engagement of political and judicial institutions, as well as families and local communities.
This study is based on the anthropological fieldwork conducted from January 2004 to May 2006 in Nepalgunj, with follow-up visits in 2007, 2008, 2016, 2017, and 2018. I lived in a Badi household in Gagangunj neighborhood, and accompanied women and children when they visited their family members and relatives in Dang, Surkhet, Bardiya, and Kailali. I also accompanied Badi activists and delegations when they went to Kathmandu for national level public campaigns and negotiation with governmental officials. Following their networks and alliances, I worked with Dalit activists and law professionals in Kathmandu to understand the process of reforming discriminatory laws. This paper explores the manner in which Badi people have felt compelled to reconsider their reproductive strategies during the heightened public visibility in order to secure safe living environment and political inclusion as a minority community within the national society. Along with the efforts to change public discourses and representations, they have transformed their own practices of marriage, birth, child-raising, and school education of children. As the formation of respectable families has become the aspired goal, men, women, youth, and children have negotiated with new subject positions within the immediate social relations and material conditions. This paper deals with these juxtapositions among the individual experiences, the public debates, and the legislative interventions in the process of rebuilding the community.