Nepali women at a global conference organised by the Abu Dhabi-based World Muslim Communities Council in Kathmandu. Image Credit: Supplied

Kathmandu: Aliah Ahmad is a final year public health student in Kathmandu. She claims she is the only girl in traditional Muslim attire in her class. “I am proud of it. My parents inspire me to study, but not everyone is as lucky as I am.”

As one of the volunteers with the Nepal Muslim Women Welfare Society (NMWWS) attending a global conference organised by the Abu Dhabi-based World Muslim Communities Council in the Nepali capital earlier this week, Ahmad said, “Illiteracy of parents is the biggest challenge for Muslim girls in Nepal. Not only are they denied a chance to receive education, they also lack opportunities to pursue their dreams.”

Her words are echoed by many others. Nazbul Khan, a Muslim women’s activist from Udaipur, adds to the list of woes. “Muslim women here not only lack education but also freedom. They are victims of child marriage, dowry, different forms of violence and Talaq.”

NMWWS chairperson Seema Khan said despite efforts to promote religious pluralism, Muslims, who make up for less than five per cent of Nepal’s population, remain marginalised, with the scourge of gender inequality making matters worse for them.

In 2008, the over 200-year-old monarchy in the Hindu kingdom was abolished, paving the way for a secular republic, a decision that was reinforced in the new Constitution promulgated in 2015.

But grass roots leaders claim change on the ground is yet a reality. It is in this context that the WMCC conference’s takeaways gained significance, as the UAE showcased the key role played by its women in all walks of life.

Shama Al Daheri, director of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, said thanks to the vision of the UAE’s Rulers, women today are encouraged to take up the most prominent positions in the government, with the result that two-thirds of not just university graduates but also government employees and council of ministers comprise women. “In the early days, a woman bore great responsibility at home. In her capacity as wife, she was also a homemaker and a teacher to her sons and daughters. After the establishment of the UAE in 1971, her position was further enhanced. The paradigm shift has made the UAE woman a cornerstone in the country’s development. She is now a role model to be followed, not just in the region but also in other parts of the world,” noted Shama.

WMCC’s top representatives Dr Muhammad Bechari and Dr Ali Al Nuaimi, who have been working closely with NMWWS, also outlined the UAE’s experience in empowering women, a feat that was acknowledged by Nepal Vice-President Nanda Bahadur Pun who inaugurated the forum.

Dr Al Nuaimi said, “No nation can achieve its real objective of development unless it empowers its women. We in the UAE want to show the world the achievements we have realised by engaging women from all over the world.”

Local Nepali leaders hope to learn from the example. Bina Kumari Shrestha, deputy mayor of the Gorkha Municipality, said, “We will take the inputs we have gathered here to raise awareness in our villages.”

Fellow deputy mayor Naseema Banu of Dhanpal, said, “More programmes such as these must be held, but at the grass roots level.”

Helen B. Sherpa of World Education, which works with the Nepal Government for the education of the masses, said, “This meet will hopefully help build capacities among women. Inclusive development is a must to achieve national goals.”