Pushpa Basnet’s Putali ko Ghar, Sushila Karki’s Nyaya, Parijat’s Adhyayan Ra Sangharsha, and Jhamak Kumari Ghimire’s Jiwan Kaanda Ki Phool–they all talk about women and their struggles in life, roads to success, morality for women, and their way of living from their own perspectives. However, such works of art have somehow been restricted to the ‘Feminism’ section in a library in general.
Now, in Kathmandu, you have one such library that is entirely dedicated to the ‘feminism’ section.
Marking the World Book Day, ‘Junkiri: the feminist library’ was inaugurated in Makkhan on Kathmandu on March 5. The concept of a library is obviously not new, but the concept of a feminist library is, and the newly found organisation claims this is the first feminist library for Nepal. It is a library that includes books keeping women in the centre as writers or characters, or by incorporating women-centric issues and plots.
The vow of empowerment
The library is an initiative of Voice of Women (VOW) Media, an organisation registered in December 2015. It works for and with women with an objective of empowering and uplifting them and their voices through the means of art, media and education.
In one of the weekly meetings of the organisation a few months ago, when the team was brainstorming for ideas, it came up with the plan to open a feminist library. After assessing the need, it prepared a wishlist of over 200 must-read books on feminism so as to feature them in the library.
The initiative is named ‘Junkiri’ [firefly] because it stands as a symbol of empowerment, according to the organisation. “A firefly is self-sufficient; it illuminates and the light works as a guide for others. If nothing else, the light is sufficient for its survival and identity,” the organisation’s office manager Anita Karmacharya explains, “This insect fitted well with our vision for the library and for women we work with. Also, the number of libraries and fireflies are decreasing, so we introduced this so that neither of them goes extinct.”
“During our book collection phase, we saw lack of readiness in people to donate books on feminism, maybe because they were not familiar with the concept of book donation, maybe because they owned a rare copy of the books. However, they had a longing for a public space to sit and read,” adds Bikkil Sthapit, the library’s coordinator.
“Our working experiences have suggested that women especially homemakers do not visit the libraries. They do not have that space. Women struggle to have a balance between being a homemaker and making a career; or choosing one over another. It is hard for them to get time to sit and read,” says Manju GC Bhandari, the librarian.
However, with access to the internet today, young women are not reading physical books anymore. Bhandari thinks it is because they do not find interesting books about their life, adding the new library addresses their concerns while empowering them.
The hope for change
With Junkiri, they intend to ‘enlighten’ and ‘enrich’ the knowledge of the young generation. For that, the team has plans to take the library to schools, in forms of book clubs and movie screenings to start a dialogue on feminist issues among the students. With that, they also hope that the number of books, on feminism or otherwise, written by Nepali writers will increase.
“Some of the books here contain serious and controversial topics. Whereas adults can interpret and criticise such issues, children need guidance to explore, understand and learn from such topics. So more discussion is needed, and we plan to do so through book clubs, discussions, and movie screenings,” adds Karmacharya.
Likewise, the team also wants to change the portrayal of women in the books. “Some books have stereotypical perspectives on women, especially portraying them as victims. In both books and society, women have more substitute roles due to the patriarchal mindset we have. And hopefully, they can be changed,” adds Sthapit.
The change they hope can be achieved by influencing and empowering the young generation. “In Kathmandu, we have started and witnessed so many revolutions for women. But we still have a reactionary approach to everything, because of which, the revolutions stop midway and end with no results, no matter how much hope and crowd they had stirred. What we do today, as feminist leaders and activists, will have an impact on the new generation. So it is important to teach them and make them active today, from small,” he explains.
Many in the Nepali society believe that only women can be feminists. Identifying himself as a feminist, Sthapit states feminism is not gender-specific. “It is not new for people to not understand the concept and cringe at working on feminist issues. We hope to educate and make young students aware of this as well.”
To promote reading culture, the library also wants to launch a campaign to gift books on birthdays and other occasions.
Giving shape to the library
Word-of-mouth was the organisation’s first approach to start collecting the books. From within the team and its close networks, the team members started collecting books. People donated books they had already read and owned. Some even purchased the books they liked and donated to the library. They also collaborated with several publication houses to collect the books.
So far, the library has collected over books from donations and economic support from 300 plus people. Out of them, it has selected and coded about 440 books and other reading materials that either have women writers or focus on women characters and women issues. The organising of the books is still underway.
In the library, the books have been categorised based on the language it is written in, under different sections including fiction, nonfiction, biography, sociology, etc. In the near future, it has a plan to open sections for children and queers.
Among the many contributors, Deuralee Chamling, a freelance journalist, collaborated with her network and took initiative to collect as many books as possible for the cause. “Books enlighten us; they are the medium to learn and convey people’s life experiences. Feminism has different perspectives, but we joined and contributed to the cause for it talked about knowledge, empowerment, and upliftment,” she says.
However, the library founders say that the books they have collected so far only cover about 10 to 15 per cent of books from their wishlist. They have also collected some books that are not available in Nepal.
“We have collected almost every book we can find in Nepal and from outside, but they are very hard to find. We will continue to collect [or buy] even more books, from all over the world. One bulk is being transported from India within a week,” informs Sthapit. Meanwhile, the books that the library will not use will be returned to the donors.
The library opens from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday. The founders say it will open on weekends too, very soon. The library has a cosy room with an extended rooftop space for the readers willing to sit and read. It has a provision for membership for Rs 100 per year. The membership is free for the students upon a recommendation of their school. One can borrow a book for 15 days, after which they can return or renew the borrowing. After 15 days, the library charges Rs 5 per day for delay. In case the book is lost, one will have to replace it with a new copy.
Meanwhile, the organisation has been crowdfunding to set up an offline server with e-versions of all the books, reports, (academic) papers for users to access. In the long run, it has a plan to expand the space within and outside Kathmandu.