The Peng Liyuan Example

Photo from Kathmandu Post
When Peng Liyuan stepped off a plane in Moscow last month with her husband, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the world gazed in admiration. From the New York Times’ breaking news to liberal commentary in the Huffington Post, the glamorous first lady was described as a diplomatic star charming audiences with a fashion style that was different from her predecessors. The Guardian reported that after bloggers identified Peng’s bag, coat and scarf as products from the Guangzhou-based outlet Exception, the company’s website crashed from an overload of traffic. What can one say? Some first ladies weigh heavily on news limelight, and Peng Liyuan did.

Peng Liyuan reminded me of Pushpa Basnet, the 2012 CNN Hero. Like her, Pushpa Basnet also hogged the news after she was honoured for championing children’s rights. Paradoxically, the former gained the limelight because she is a celebrated singer in her country while the latter was fairly unknown, even in Nepal (till she won the award last year). However, both of their stories, thrust into international prominence, have crossroads of resemblance.

How do you illustrate the parallelism? In China’s political structure, women in general wield relatively little power. According to feminists, China is among the few countries where women are experiencing rights rollback and traditional attitudes are relegating women to the home. But Peng has broken this wall. As a long-term advocate for poverty relief and other causes, Peng gained an excellent public image. She made headlines last year when she appeared alongside Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as part of a campaign to discourage smoking in China where about two-thirds of men smoke. Among the issues she has worked on are tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS—diseases that are still considered social stigma in China.

Peng Liyuan’s news appearance marks a symbol of public diplomacy, a far cry from the traditionally almost-unseen wives of China’s top officials. Her emerging high profile boosts China’s more assertive role in global affairs and a lift to Chinese citizens who are fed up with the ruling class’s corruption.

On the other side of the world, in a country bordering China to the south, Pushpa Basnet did the same. But she did her work quietly, without fanfare, and without calling attention to herself. At the age of 20, Pushpa started rescuing children of Nepali inmates to help them reintegrate and rehabilitate with their parents after release from prison. Soon after, she established the Early Childhood Development Center and the Butterfly Home to strengthen the rights of children living behind bars with their incarcerated parents.

As Peng Liyuan rose above traditional Chinese culture to dispel views that women are less capable than men, Pushpa Basnet reinforced women’s strength by becoming a living example that citizens could perfectly liberate themselves given the chance and the power.

What Peng and Pushpa did was remarkably inspiring and they proved that this was not only possible, it was also feasible. In fact, you just need to stray a few metres from your neighbourhood and you can witness living examples of encouraging women who work and earn as full and equal partners in the society.

There is Beni, who despite being sexually abused at a young age, has survived trauma and is now successfully managing a fair trade business in a nook of Thamel. Her shop trains and educates women in Lapa, Jarlang, Tipling abd Shertung villages of Nepal to learn skills and earn an income. Her products are all made from recycled materials—plastic packaging, jute, rubber tires, rice sacks—and these are crafted into jewellery, bags, homeware and decorations.

Beni speaks of women’s struggle such as forced marriages, lack of education and their lack of control over money simply because she experienced it firsthand. She has worked with Nepali women who were badly beaten or traumatised by family members, women who travelled abroad to find work only to return few years later with psychological problems, and women who are living in the shadow and control of their husband or parents. But for Beni, there is no obstacle that seems insurmountable. Her compassion inspires others and her life is inspiring.

We keep hearing the phrase, “empowered women” and we scan the papers to search for their names and faces. Lest we forget, the people around us are actually living examples. It is your sister, who studied abroad because her Dalit name was parodied—she did not join the math programmes in school but later came back with an engineering degree. It is your neighbour who rescued a woman with a second degree burn because she was not expecting a baby boy soon. It is your mother, who at a mature age of 40 attends a public primary school, so she can read and write Nepali and teach your daughter to scribble Devanagari alphabet.

It is your wife, who is taking odd jobs so that she could find enough money to keep your family afloat. It is in a small villager’s committee comprising of women, who constructed an eight km road in Kapilvastu to connect the villages of Kopawa and Niglihawa. The sympathy and humanity and deep desire to be a person for others isn’t just “out there”. They are “in here,” right where we stand. You don’t have to look far and you don’t have to look deep. These are women’s strength, in ways that redefine heroes and heroism.

Peng Liyuan, Pushpa Basnet, Beni, your sister, mother and daughter—their lives stand as admirable examples and the world draws inspirations from them. In the end, it was not the couture dresses and classy shoes that brought Peng Liyuan into limelight. It was not the US dollar prize or the media that drove Pushpa Basnet to save the children. It was the innate strength of a woman who is telling her story in her own small way. A story that has pricked the hearts of the world and has stroked the conscience of the nation.

Two worlds apart yet a woman’s strength unites them.

This story was printed in The Kathmandu Post, OPED section, on April 6, 2013


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