Apekshya Prasai: Up in arms

Although women’s wartime roles and agency tend to be neglected in conventional discourses on conflict, there are times when women not only take up arms but also shape the practices and policies of insurgent groups they fight for. Apekshya Prasai, a PhD candidate in MIT’s Department of Political Science, studies how rebel groups subvert entrenched patriarchal structures, ideas, and norms, and the role women play in this process.    

“All insurgents operate in, recruit from, and depend on communities where half the population is female,” says Prasai, a member of the Security Studies Program and an International Security Program research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. “I find that when organizing rebellion, some insurgents strictly adhere to patriarchal gender norms while others challenge these norms in radical ways.”    

Prasai has conducted extensive interview-based and archival fieldwork on leftist insurgencies across South Asia, especially the People’s War that unfolded in her native country of Nepal. Her work to date has already won significant notice. Most recently, she earned a Harry Frank Guggenheim Emerging Scholars Award, which recognizes promising doctoral work investigating urgent, present-day problems of violence. She has also received a Peace Scholar Dissertation Fellowship from the United States Institute of Peace as well as a grant from the National Science Foundation/American Political Science Association.   

“Rebel groups often regard questions around gender roles and relations to be central to their daily operations and long-term survival,” she says. “And the different ‘gender strategies’ they adopt can have implications for various important outcomes like cohesion, post-conflict gender politics, and effectiveness of rehabilitation and peace-building programs.”    

Grounded in fieldwork   

Advised by MIT political science professors Roger Petersen, Fotini Christia, and Vipin Narang, as well as Dara Kay Cohen, a public policy professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Prasai is writing a dissertation titled “Gendered Processes of Rebellion: Understanding Strategies for Organizing Violence.” Central to this work are original interviews with men and women who participated in the People’s War in Nepal (1996-2006) led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), which transitioned to civilian politics after laying down arms in 2006.    

“I spent nearly 17 months doing fieldwork, and it was my favorite part of the dissertation,” says Prasai. “I think I am happiest in the field, talking to people and learning from those who have first-hand experiences.”   

Born and raised in the capital city of Kathmandu, Prasai was still a child during the decade-long conflict. Although sheltered from the conflict, which largely unfolded further away from the capital in rural heartlands of country, Prasai’s academic pursuits have been shaped in important ways by her experiences growing up in Nepal.    

“The movement had a very big gender component, with CPN-M defying long-entrenched gender norms to, among other things, mobilize women as fighters and leaders,” she says. “Nepal being a patriarchal society, this was a puzzling outcome.”   

The social and political upheaval Prasai witnessed sparked her interest in the gender dimensions of conflict, first at Bowdoin College, and then at MIT.   

As she began her studies Prasai was perplexed by a contradiction: Social science scholarship that generally portrayed women in conflict as victims of violence, activists of peace, or instrumentally used to serve male rebel leaders’ interests, and the reality of the women who not only participated in the Maoist movement in Nepal but through their engagement in conflict also emerged as key leaders shaping the post-conflict politics of Nepal.   

Conversations in Kathmandu   

Determined to gain a better understanding of these complexities and contradictions, Prasai headed to Nepal to gather data, after just one semester as a graduate student. 

Over the course of her fieldwork, she conducted 184 interviews with elite as well as rank-and-file men and women who participated in the movement in various roles, including combat. Her elite interviewees included the current Prime Minister of Nepal and leader of the armed movement, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), as well as almost all surviving members of the movement leadership and high-ranking female leaders.    

“The men and women I met were incredibly generous with their time and resources, several sharing wartime diaries, magazines, training manuals, songs, and pamphlets with me,” says Prasai. Some of the women she interviewed were post-conflict political leaders, others lived as civilians away from public scrutiny; many remained fierce advocates of gender equality, compelled by a vision of a more equitable world.   

“Female activists fighting for gender equality today were also theorizing about the relationship between gender equality and revolutionary politics and advocating for women during (and even before) the war,” says Prasai. “This internal advocacy work is a very important but overlooked mechanism that shapes the gender politics of  insurgent organizations,” she explains.    

The data Prasai has collected on armed movements in Nepal and across South Asia propels her dissertation’s novel theory — that “female activists’ internal, bottom-up resistance to and advocacy against patriarchal attitudes and practices gradually pushes rebel groups to subvert patriarchal norms in increasingly radical ways.”   

But the emergence and effectiveness of such internal activism varies across contexts. Combined with the Maoist movement in Nepal, Prasai’s analysis of other leftist movements in South and Southeast Asia, especially the ongoing Maoist conflict in India, sheds light on the conditions that facilitate or obstruct such activism. In ideologically similar settings, Prasai finds, interaction among such factors as the type of rebel women’s wing, the extent of rebel dependence on traditional leaders, and the nature of violence deployed during conflict determines whether rebels conform to or radically challenge patriarchal gender norms.   

Policy should account for rebel gender strategies   

Existing research suggests that the gender strategies rebels adopt can affect key conflict and post-conflict outcomes, says Prasai. She believes that the data and insights from her work can be relevant to policymakers seeking to devise more effective conflict management, peace-building, and gender policies and programs.    

She hopes her insights might provide scholars and practitioners with “a more nuanced understanding of how rebel groups operate and how women exercise their agency to shape rebel behavior,” she says.   

“I’d like to see political science scholarship on armed groups treat gender as central to the organization of violence rather than being a peripheral concern or an afterthought, and I’d like to see policymakers develop programs that are more congruent with realities on the ground as opposed to being rooted in whatever simplistic assumptions we may have about how violence operates and who fights and who cooks.”  

As she maps out the final leg of her doctoral journey, Prasai says she looks forward to a career devoted to uncovering the complex ways in which gender, violence, and politics shape the lives of people and trajectories of societies across South Asia. “My goal is to do rigorous research, grounded in fieldwork, reflective of peoples’ lived realities, and to translate what I find to academics and policymakers at a global level.”