The first time I had to explain my nationality to a stranger was back in 1996. I was a 15 year old high school student then, hundreds of miles away from home. My Keralite school mate had never heard of a country by the name of “Nepal”, she thought I was Turkish. I was taken aback that an Indian didn’t know anything about Nepal. After all we do share a common border, large aspects of our culture are similar and there is also the common thread of Hinduism that binds together millions of Indians and Nepalis.
By the time I graduated from high school, I had to explain about Nepal so many times I lost count. After a while, it became so normal for me to be the mouthpiece and defender-in-chief of my country at our school, that I took the position as a patriotic duty.
My gender, however, was an entirely different story. Growing up in a male owned (not just male dominated) culture, I saw how gender dictates – in subtle and not so subtle ways – how society and your family will treat you. When I am a victim of harassment on the streets, it is my fault and not the fault of the man who harassed me. My clothes, my body, my very being invites harassment, so the male aggressor can never be at fault.
At home, my parents made no difference between me and my brother, but I couldn’t take this equality of treatment outside the house. My society saw me as an inferior being. During certain religious observations, unmarried girls are worshipped as the Virgin Goddess, but the same girls are treated as second class citizens compared to their brothers or male relatives. Such blatant cultural schizophrenia is a constant reminder to me that as a Nepali woman I live in two distinct worlds – one where I am a goddess and the other where I simply don’t matter.
This video mix, Nepal Women: In Two Worlds, illustrates those two worlds. In some regions women die in childbirth due to the lack of proper care and access to modern medicine, while in big cities some women have the opportunity to live very modern and privileged lives.
Unfortunately, the gender barrier is also a common cord uniting India and Nepal. Our high school in South India was run by a local church and its rules were strict: no befriending boys, no indecent clothes, no bad behaviour; just eat, study, sleep and learn by rote. Gender roles were something our minders took very seriously. Boys should behave in a certain way and girls should not try to imitate them. Even when we girls were being ourselves, certain character traits were automatically branded as “boy stuff” and banned. For instance, speaking our mind and having an opinion on our religious role was forbidden. My Christian friends had to go to church on Sunday, no questions. I had to go to the temple, no excuses. The boys on the other hand were allowed to be casual about their religous duties.
I still feel the sting of injustice when I look back on those years. We were gullible teenagers in a controlled environment. Instead of encouragement and counselling, we were force fed rigid gender doctrine that left no room for exploration or challenge.
My yearning for freedom from gender and cultural boundaries finally took a turn for the better when I went to America as a graduate student. I was able to define myself, explore , and finally be comfortable with regard to my cultural limits (limits that I had the freedom to set). But reclaiming oneself from lifelong experience of pre-defined roles and expectations is like stretching a rubber band -you can only go so far.
Nepali society has changed a lot in the last 17 years. The change and growth has translated into more freedom for some, while for others everything remains the same. 75 years have gone by since my grandmother was married at the age of 6, but even today we still have Nepali girls married off before they reach puberty. When discussing rights and progress, time is just a way of measuring that doesn’t really mean that we have in fact come forward. The gains have to trickle down to every sector of society to make a real difference.
As Plato said in The Republic, “If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.” So, let’s stop teaching women to apologize for themselves and accept the barriers.
Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
(Sam Cooke, 1964)