Ruby Khan is a 34-year-old activist from Nepalgunj, Banke, Lumbini Province, who has remained consistent with her fight for human rights since she was 19. She came into the limelight after leading a demonstration in Sep 2020, where she along with 16 others walked for 20 days from Nepalgunj to Kathmandu, demanding justice for Nirmala Kurmi and Nankunni Dhobi. Kurmi has been missing since 2012 while Dhobi was found dead under mysterious circumstances in 2021.
Khan grew up in a patriarchal society where women were often oppressed and deprived from exercising their rights. They weren’t allowed to work, educating girls wasn’t a priority, and the ones who did go to school were considered a ‘bad influence’, as people in the community believed that would motivate their daughters to study too.
Worse, domestic violence was a daily occurance. “I couldn’t just stand by and let that happen. I knew I had to be their voice,” she says. But it was one particular incident that drove her to do that: In 2007, a woman from Nepalgunj was burnt alive by her husband.
“The incident was brutal, but sadly, nothing new in my community,” she says. With the support of Nepal Muslim Samaj Bikas Chetna Kendra, a non-governmental organization in Nepalgunj, Khan became a part of the protest, demanding justice for the victim. “We took to the street, with help from other organizations and even from the government during our fight,” she adds, “And thankfully, we succeeded.” Khan then joined the organization and that, she says, was when she officially took up activism.
In all these years of activism, Khan has advocated for many women in her village. From speaking up against domestic violence to convincing people to send their daughters to school, she has remained consistent with her work.
Her job wasn’t easy, but society made it even worse. Khan’s neighborhood despised her for being a working woman. Although her mother was supportive, the rest of the family weren’t happy with the decision. “People questioned my character when I returned late from work. They would pass nasty comments whenever I walked past them,” she says.
15 years later, she is now a name all too familiar for most Nepalis, mainly because of her undying efforts to fight for the rights of women in Nepalgunj. But her work has come at a cost.
Khan mentions that she has nearly been murdered twice, and still receives death threats on a fairly regular basis. But it doesn’t scare her, she says, because she has seen things that are much worse.. Khan remembers the time she first encountered Nirmala Kurmi in 2009. “She was shivering and scared. She was there to file a complaint against her abuser,” says Khan.
Moments later, when Kurmi was returning home, Khan received a call saying she was being taken hostage, and might even lose her life if no one intervened. “When I reached there, I could see a man holding her by the neck and dragging her through the street full of people with no fear whatsoever,” says Khan.
It took her and the team five hours to rescue Kurmi. “The authorities were not supportive as the accused was someone in power,” she adds. Kurmi eventually disappeared and was later declared dead, although the dead body that was identified wasn’t hers, claims Khan.
Since then, she has gone on several hunger strikes, led a sit-in demonstration for 19 days in front of the District Administration Office in Nepalgunj, and walked for more than 500 km from Nepalgunj to Kathmandu demanding a proper investigation.
But the only thing she has gotten in return from the authorities is disappointment, which has strengthened its hold as the years have gone by. “Documents were being forged, evidence was being destroyed, the accused was and still is roaming around freely, and no one was listening to what the protestors had to say,” she adds.
Remembering this incident and what came after is something that encourages her to remain consistent with activism, which is evident since she has been leading the protest ever since Kurmi’s disappearance 11 years ago. She has also handled many other cases.
However, Khan says there have been some positive changes that motivate her.“We started with no support, but now we have so many people advocating along with us,” she says. The media too has been a great ally, she adds. That makes her hopeful of a better future for women in Nepal.
Khan is pursuing a Bachelor’s in Law from a university in India. She hopes this will help her take her work further and be in a better position to help those in need. Threats and challenges aren’t going to stop this activist who is determined to do whatever it takes to ensure women’s safety, at home and beyond.