The secret burdens of Nepali women
Legal and social activism in Nepal has pushed the idea of a more inclusive society, one where there is respect for all minorities, including the largest minority – women. What is at stake is best expressed in the words of Jyotsna Maskay, chairperson of Loom Nepal – an organisation that works to strengthen feminist youth activism in Nepal – who says, “Our freedom cannot be compromised based on assumptions, and expectations. We want freedom to contribute to a just nation; we want freedom from stereotypes, and forced choices. My bodily autonomy is a way to reclaim my space.” Unfortunately, when it comes to gender equality in the country, deeply entrenched patriarchal values have proved to be a major stumbling block. If a society is judged by the way it treats its women, especially through the institution of marriage and its associated cultural norms, Nepal still cuts a sorry figure. A snapshot of this inequality is provided by the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Gender Gap report, where Nepal ranked 110th among 145 countries, behind Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India.
Nepal’s society has seen an unprecedented churn with respect to gender roles, relationships and lifestyles in the past decade, mostly in response to the migration of people and the rise of a modern, consumerist society, fuelled in part by the remittance economy. Economically empowered women, who have also been exposed to newer, more egalitarian social values through increased media consumption, now have desires that challenge the status quo of regressive cultural norms. This is especially so for urban, upper and middle-class women. While stereotypes about ‘good’ traditional women and ‘bad’ modern women are still stymieing the process of real change, the upshot is the many small battles fought on a daily basis by Nepali women, usually within homes. These everyday crusaders, many from privileged backgrounds, have met varying degrees of success in obtaining more autonomy with regards to their own person.
While stereotypes about ‘good’ traditional women and ‘bad’ modern women are still stymieing the process of real change, the upshot is the many small battles fought on a daily basis by Nepali women, usually within homes
“My dad said I could not go on a vacation till I was married. Before that he said I could not go on a vacation by myself till I graduated,” says 29-year-old Sita, a medical professional. Her father disapproved because, according to him, ‘good women’ did not travel alone, especially if they were unmarried. “I want to be able to go on a holiday, irrespective of my marital status. He finally gave in, but I had to argue with him for months.” Sita also says her erstwhile fiance had told her that she would not be ‘allowed’ to travel to a different country without him, after marriage. Sita decided to end the engagement soon after, and is now going to Australia in three months by herself.
Fatal beauty ideals
Constant surveillance and the restriction of movement, by both the immediate family and gossipy neighbours, often disguised as ‘protection’, is one of the many forms of control that Nepali women face. Controlling women’s bodies has also meant creating rigid definitions of beauty. This is one area where ‘traditional’ modes of thought that value women only for their reproductive ability and sexual allure in the marriage ‘market’ has coalesced with the ‘modern’ global imagery around sexualised women’s bodies in mass media to create conceptions around what is desirable in a ‘suitable girl’. Women are considered too thin or too fat, and never quite right. Deep-seated body image issues among young women who struggle to attain unrealistic ideals of feminine beauty are, therefore, fairly common. Sima, 24, said she went from being 45 kg to 56 kg in the last few years. When she was 45 kg, she was told she was too thin and asked whether or not her parents fed her. Now at 56 kg, Sima is constantly asked why her parents allow her to eat so much. She is on the receiving end of unsolicited advice, even from strangers, on what to eat and exhortations to join the gym. “My uncles say that if I do not lose weight, I will not find a good husband,” she says. “Everyone teases me about my weight. I have nicknames like ‘haathi’ and ‘football’, and I try to laugh it off. But, honestly, it bothers me when people judge me based on my weight. But I don’t think I look bad – I am healthy now. In my older pictures, I looked like I was wasting away from some disease,” says Sima, who tries to accept herself as she is, despite the body-shaming. Unlike Sima, there are many, especially young adolescent girls, who turn to food or away from food to deal with their feelings of inadequacy, making them vulnerable to eating disorders.
A recent study, published in the Clinical Psychiatry journal in December 2015, showed how adolescent school-going girls in Kathmandu were more vulnerable to body image dissatisfaction (BID) compared to boys their age. Examining “the gender difference in prevalence and determinants of eating disorder among adolescents in Kathmandu”, the study found that in a sample population of 239 school-going adolescents between the age of 15 and 19, approximately 71 percent of females perceived themselves as overweight and desired thinner bodies, while 14 percent of females wanted to gain weight because they felt they were too thin. In comparison, 12 percent of males saw themselves as being overweight and 60 percent of males felt they were too thin. However, the prevalence of eating disorders among the girls (at 29 percent) was nearly double the rate among boys (at 16 percent). The study also stated that “exposure to media determined BID and as such increased risk of eating disorder in both females and males”.
Regressive family norms
Besides the pressure to look beautiful in order to ‘get married’, familial expectations that demand that “good daughters” (and good sons) marry within their own caste or ethnic group, has become another site of conflict because of inter-caste marriages. While such unions have become more common in Kathmandu, it is still frowned upon, especially in conservative families. Richa, 25, born to an affluent Chhetri family had to end her relationship with a Newar because of the difference in caste and the potential ‘shame’ she could bring upon her family. “We loved each other but we love our families more, and ending our relationship was the right thing to do,” says Richa. “My family is happy that I married someone from the same caste, but there isn’t a single day that I do not think of how my life would have been with him. The thought makes me unhappy, but I have made my choice,” she says.
Not all women are as amenable to family pressure. Increasingly, young Nepalis are dating and marrying outside their caste groupings, ethnicities and nationalities. But they are then ostracised by the people closest to them. “It took two years for my Newar parents to accept my partner who was half-Newar,” says Asha, 31, who celebrated her one year wedding anniversary in 2015. “There was so much drama in my house, like an Indian soap opera. I faced constant shaming with accusatory ‘how could you?’ lectures from my family. It was ridiculous. I said, ‘let me marry him or I will run away’.” However, her story of ultimately reconciling with her family shows that though regressive notions about ideal marriage partners still hold sway, dialogue and negotiations can induce positive change, even in conservative families.
While there is growing flexibility about marriage partners and even about marrying at a later age, the ‘Great Nepali Joint Family’, as a social construct and all its associated ideals about the subservient daughter-in-law persist. Living in joint families in Nepal is a tradition that has been practiced for centuries and such living arrangements usually continue replicating age-old gender roles where women take care of household chores, while the men ‘provide’ for them and unilaterally make key decisions that affect the whole family.
The 2006 Nepal Demographic and Health survey found that 22 percent of men, and worse still, 23 percent of women, agreed that there were at least some situations in which a husband was justified in beating his wife
“There is an unspoken assumption that I will cook and serve all the meals. Why don’t Newar sons ever help their wives?” asks Shruti, a working mom with a newborn child, who has been married for four years. “I feel like I am working 24X7. Why is life like this? I feel like no one cares for me. No one volunteers to make me a cup of hot tea when I come back from work. No one cares that I am cooking dinner on an empty stomach. No one cares if I had a bad day at work. I wish we could live on our own and have our own lives… I am miserable,” she says. Shruti is also discontented about the relationship she shares with her mother-in-law. The patriarchal manifestation of control is often through the archetypical, wilful mother-in-law. For it is the mother of the man (who is the ‘head’ of the household), who wields power over the ‘outsider’ wife. The daughter-in-law only becomes an ‘insider’ once she has mothered children – preferably sons. The earlier generation of daughter-in-laws, who have become mother-in-laws and who in the past were expected to serve their own in-laws, now want their daughter-in-laws to reproduce the cycle of wifely subservience. Shruti questions this logic of having to “cook and clean for my mother-in-law, just because she served her own mother-in-law like that”.
Shruti is not alone in thinking this. Preeti, has been married for two years now and says that she can finally understand why it is so difficult for women in Nepal to focus on their career. “Behind every unsuccessful woman is their controlling mother-in-law. She has to know what I am doing and where I am every minute of the day,” she says. Traditional taboos about ‘unclean’ menstruating women are also enforced by her mother-in-law. “She has given me list of what I can and cannot do on the days of my period,” says Preeti, who finds this behaviour intrusive and unacceptable. Living with in-laws is a challenge for most women, especially if they have travelled or lived abroad or have been exposed to liberal social values while growing up before marrying into a family with conservative mores. For such women, marriage registers as a ‘reverse’ culture shock.
In families where social values have not caught up with the times, domestic violence is seldom criticised and often treated as ‘normal’. An indication of this is the 2006 Nepal Demographic and Health survey, which found that 22 percent of men, and worse still, 23 percent of women, agreed that there were at least some situations in which a husband was justified in beating his wife. A step in the right direction was taken when domestic violence was finally recognised as a crime punishable by law in 2009, with enactment of the Domestic Violence Act. However, the act has loopholes because it contains provisions for “negotiations” through police offices to resolve cases, which leaves victims of domestic abuse vulnerable to threats and coercion to ‘take back’ a police case filed against perpetrators.
Not surprisingly, Nepal is not an exception to double standards that apply when it comes to sexual behaviour after marriage for men and women. While women are expected to be “good wives” and their behaviour, movements and interactions with men other than their husband and close male relatives are strongly policed, it is socially acceptable for men to ‘play the field’. In my capacity as a mental health professional, I have seen an increasing number of men in Kathmandu pursuing extramarital relationships after agreeing to socially-sanctioned, family-dictated arranged marriages. But these men are rarely criticised or subject to public shaming. “My husband is having an affair with his ex-girlfriend,” says Puja. “He ruined my life by marrying me. He should have stood up for himself and married her. But now he has proved that he has no respect for this marriage, or his supposed ‘love’.” Puja says that she thinks of leaving him but her family does not support her decision, and instead blames her for ‘allowing’ the affair get out of hand and not being able to ‘rein in’ her husband.
Among the elite in Kathmandu are women who have responded to their husbands having extramarital affairs by indulging in clandestine affairs themselves. Prachi, 43, whose husband has had a series of extramarital relationships since the time they were married 20 years ago, decided to search for companionship outside marriage after years of neglect. “My boyfriend is 29 years old and my husband is aware but does not care. It was strange when someone suggested my 19-year-old daughter marry my boyfriend. Of course, the person did not know about my relationship with him,” says Prachi, who has kept her affair a secret, unlike her husband. Another 43-year-old divorced woman, Gita, says that while Nepali men and their families say they want a modern, independent woman as a wife and daughter-in-law, they are incapable of understanding the modern Nepali woman. Her distrust is so great that she says she would rather die alone than marry a Nepali man again.
Inadequate legal protection
Even Nepal’s legal system fails to adequately protect women’s rights after marriage. Though Nepal’s constitution guarantees that no one will be discriminated on the basis of their gender and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was approved in 1991, the bias against women continues. This is largely because of patriarchal social customs, which also results in poor implementation of laws, largely by men who are in charge of upholding the law like government officials or the police. A glaring instance of how Nepali society still looks at women as second-class citizens is the way a woman is pressurised to seek permission from her father or husband before selling her pewa, the property given to daughters, even though the country’s civil code provisions state that pewa is under the complete control of the woman receiving it.
Even when legal reform is enacted, there is a lag in the implementation. A classic example is the law that deals with children with mixed parentage who want to become Nepali citizens. Before 2006, these children could claim citizenship if their father was Nepali, but not the other way round. The 2006 Citizenship Act overturned this regressive law and allowed children to claim citizenship in their mother’s name as well. Despite the change in legislation, only a few persons have been able to receive a citizenship certificate in the name of the mother in the past few years. Sara, 30, for example, struggled to get her Nepali citizenship. Born to a Dutch father and a Nepali mother in Nepal, she applied for a passport in 2015. “The office told me to pick a Nepali name for my father and asked me to pay them NPR 40,000 (USD 400) so I could get my passport,” says Sara. “I had to pay for my identity.” Without citizenship, children like Sara with Nepali mothers and non-Nepali fathers are not allowed to get a job, travel abroad or open bank accounts in Nepal. In some cases, such ‘stateless’ people are also unable to secure their birth certificates because they do not have Nepali citizenship. Human rights lawyers point out that an abandoned child on the streets will be given citizenship by the state in most countries, but children in Nepal with a Nepali mother end up being stateless.
In addition, the state demands that a single mother who is Nepali has to declare the name of the father on her child’s citizenship papers or state that she does not know who the father is, rather than allowing her to pass on citizenship to her child based solely on her name. A single Nepali mother also has to give birth in Nepal for her child to be considered a citizen ‘by descent’ rather than a ‘naturalised’ citizen. Further, children of mixed parentage who can prove they had Nepali fathers are granted the status of citizens ‘by descent’, whereas those with Nepali mothers are only allowed to be ‘naturalised’ citizens, with no right to hold the top political offices.
Too many Nepali women among Kathmandu’s upper class would give up anything for the sake of their families and for societal approval. It is time for privileged women, who are significantly better positioned to demand their rights than rural women in Nepal, to fight for their choices. “The fact that we, as women, are debating marriage; the fact that we have had an education, travelled, worked – all of this indicates that we are part of a privileged minority in Nepal,” says Kathmandu-based psychologist Lisa A Gautschi. She adds that, “Privilege comes with responsibility. The responsibility to not only choose better for ourselves but, in doing so, to pave the way for our sisters who don’t have that choice.”
~ With inputs from Himal
~ Anjana Rajbhandary is a certified mental health professional and a columnist with Nepali Times.