Every day around 1500 people leave Nepal to work abroad in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. For most migrant workers, the goal is simple – to have an attractive job and money enough to get married and raise a family. While the economic benefits of having a job abroad are well documented (remittances contribute to almost 29 percent of the country’s GDP in 2013), its impact on migrant workers, their families and social life is only now beginning to be realised. For instance, a job abroad might make a migrant worker highly marriageable, but what of the stress on marriage once they leave and are separated from their family for years. Analysts have already linked the falling agricultural productivity in rural Nepal to the dearth of young males. Now they are concerned that the process of reconstruction in Nepal following the April-May 2015 earthquake will be affected adversely as well. A less documented aspect is how migration changes the social landscape, in particular, gender dynamics. International migration of men, for example, has already contributed to the internal migration of women – from private domains to public spheres. But will this lead to the sexual liberation of women in Nepal? Will migration level the playing field for men and women? These questions are being asked only now.
To most people in Nepal, the word lahure – a term initially used for Nepali soldiers who enlisted in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army in Lahore in the 19th century, and later in the British East India company – does not just mean army man, or combatant, nor does it simply connote the rich or spoiled. It also evokes the idea of a ‘lahure’s wife’ who is more than just a woman married to a soldier who is never around. The term is suggestive of a sexually frustrated, ‘loose’ woman, a stereotype imposed for centuries.
Before 1997, a British Gurkha could not be with his wife until he had first served for six years. After this, he could take his wife and children to where he was stationed for around three years. This meant a British Gurkha’s wife was away from her husband for at least 12 of the minimum of 15 years he had to serve in the army to receive a pension. Sexual desire and the need for physical intimacy in soldier’s wives was sometimes fulfilled by other men, whose need for sex was never questioned. So, while the men walked away unscathed, the reputation of a lahure’s wife suffered. Today, as migrant labourers are forced to be away from their wives for years at a time, this image of sexual depravity is associated with the wives as well.
Despite the long tradition of migration, the stigma associated with being the wife of a lahure or migrant remains indelible. One fallout of this association is that women, rather than fighting against gender-unequal conceptions of sexuality and sexual infidelity, have had to fend off allegations of sexual affairs even while they remain ‘true’ to their husbands.
Buffaloes and rivers
Moha Khadka (name changed) of Saule in Sindhupalchowk experienced the debilitating impacts of such allegations when her husband left for Saudi Arabia in 2012. In her village of 17-18 households, everyone was always curious about who entered her house, who helped her in the fields and who talked to her with a smile. She could not take a leisurely walk by herself; people would presume there was a man waiting for her at the end of the road. If she complained, they would laugh it off, as if it were a joke she should have been able to take in her stride. If she cried, they would say that she was creating a scene.
Fortunately for her, Khadka’s husband did not take the allegations seriously but as jealous chatter meant to besmirch their new-found happiness (he is the only one in that village who has gone abroad and is sending remittances home). For now, Khadka has left the haranguing villagers behind and has come down to the Kathmandu valley to educate her two sons in a private school – an emerging trend among the families of labour migrants. But as Khadka will soon find out, or probably already has, city folks can be just as gossipy. They hide behind concrete facades, parroting the old saying: Bhaisilai jungle nadekhaun; aimailai shahar nadekhaunu. Don’t show a jungle to buffaloes; don’t show a city to women.
People in cities are equally frightened of female sexuality. With the influx of women like Khadka, many have begun complaining that such women have tainted the reputation of local bazaars. As Mahesh Raj Maharjan, a research supervisor at NEPA School of Social Sciences, found out, in Baglung Bazaar, many feel the wives of migrant labourers are down in the city looking for an ‘easy’ life. All that these women do, they believe, is send their kids to schools and spend the rest of the day ‘wandering’ around the city. By wandering, they mean looking for men and cosying up to them for sex, just as the wives of lahure were thought to do until about a decade ago.
Whether the gossip is successful in reining in women’s sexuality is debatable, but for some women it has had consequences. The constant vigilance and accusations of extramarital affairs, whether true or not, has driven some women to kill themselves. For instance, Lokmani Rijal who worked as a psychosocial counsellor with Safer Migration Information project in Khotang from 2013 until mid-2015, told me of three women who killed themselves and how he counselled three others who tried to do the same by ingesting pesticide. The number of women who contemplated leaving the villages to escape this psychological harassment was much higher. During his first year in Khotang, more than half of the 115 cases Rijal saw were women who wanted an end to talks surrounding their sex lives.
Amina Maharjan, a Livelihood Specialist (migration) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, believes that the image of turpitude associated with the wives of migrant labourers is the first reaction to a social change that is taking place in Nepal. She argues that gossip about a woman’s sex life is more pronounced when only a few households in a village have their men abroad. In villages where a majority of the men are working abroad, the allegations are fewer in number. However, it is not clear whether the absence of men also means that people have woken up to biases against women regarding their sexuality, or that the women ‘left-behind’, when in the majority, can retaliate better. As Khadka said, she could not fight back since she perceived the battle as one of her against society. “Ek thuki po suki, saya thuki ta nadi. If one person spits, it soon dries up. But if a hundred people spit at once, it becomes a river.”
State and society
Sexual infidelity has never been treated as a private matter of the people involved. Regardless of which partner commits it, Nepali society does not allow those involved to sort it out themselves. The consequences of sexual transgressions, however, have always been harsher on women. Our legal history proves it very well.
The Muluki Ain, or the General Code, currently in force in Nepal, treats adultery as a crime against husbands, punishable by a jail sentence and a fine for the cheating wives and their lovers. Nothing happens if the husband is the adulterer. More often than not, his wife will end up seeing her husband marry the second time, despite laws against polygamy. But while the existing Code – after more than 160 years – is on the verge of being replaced by a new Civil Code and a Criminal Code, Nepal’s laws continue to define motherhood and what constitutes marriage in hackneyed patriarchal ways.
The new Civil Code, currently in Parliament, considers a man and a woman married if they have a child together, regardless of whether the man or the woman is previously married or if they even want to get married. It cannot even concieve of women as single mothers. This provision goes is in stark contrast to the Supreme Court’s verdict issued in 1998, which defined marriage as separate from live-in relationships. The drafters’ justification: They have to ‘protect’ (rural) women from being taken advantage of by rogue men. An unmarried woman with a child will never get married again nor will her child be able to obtain citizenship, given that only fathers are allowed to pass citizenship rights to their children. In other words, reproduction means marriage.
The man, on the other hand, has free rein. Just as the men who had sex with lahures’ wives were never questioned, lahures and migrant workers themselves are never required to remain loyal to their wives back home. And there are men who do not return, who simply start a new family abroad and never inform their wives and families. Barbara Weyermann, of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, knows of many such men who leave their wives in limbo. The women would like to move on too, but remarrying for a woman is not as simple. While male migrant workers can talk freely about the Malaysian hawapani (air and water, but also ‘women’) suiting their needs, their wives have to wait, pinching their children to sob while talking on the phone so that their husbands know that they are dutiful wives at home minding their children.
Even if it’s the woman who is the migrant worker, it’s her reputation and not that of her husband’s that is on the line. Stories of female migrant workers getting raped by their employers has instilled such fear that many now assume every woman who has gone abroad has either been raped or sexually involved with her employer. An unmarried woman finds it hard to get married when she returns. Nepal’s society understands men’s desire for sex and has a forgiving attitude towards their infidelity. For women, it’s a different ballgame.
To point to the discriminatory approach is to emphasise that it is time both state and society give up their obsession with infidelity. Any decision that a person makes – whether to remain faithful or cheat on their partner – is their own. This process of hounding women and gossiping about their sex lives only seeks to entrench patriarchal norms.
Some believe that the wives of migrant workers are harassed with allegations of sexual affairs for economic reasons. Like other victims of witch hunts, such as widows driven out of their villages so that they cannot fight for their share of husbands’ property, people often start talking about a migrant’s wife as a loose woman once she becomes the primary recipient of remittances. “The father of the migrant worker is usually the primary recipient of remittances. It’s when the son starts sending money to his wife that envy sets in and the allegations start,” says Maharjan.
And on the face of it, Maharjan seems right. But times are changing. With over a thousand men leaving for work abroad every day, women have to, and are, moving out of kitchens and fields to work in sectors that they were previously barred from. They are travelling to banks and money transfer institutions to receive remittance money. They are running small businesses. They are in charge of children’s education. They are doing the ‘hard’ labour that was previously assigned to men, such as ploughing and hoeing the fields and roofing a house. (When I met Khadka in Chautara in Sindhupalchok, she was taking lessons in plumbing.) In essence, women are becoming more visible in the public sphere, handling money and making decisions. What the bastions of patriarchy do then to curtail women’s new found sense of freedom and power is to reinvoke the bogey of ‘dangerous’ female sexuality.
However, if the allegations against woman were made only to reap economic benefits, it scarcely explains why people in cities criticise the wives of migrant labourers for renting rooms – cities and its inhabitants actually economically benefit from the immigration of such women. Envy and jealousy might perhaps explain why people disliked it when Khadka would make the two-hour-long journey to the bazaar to collect the remittance her husband sent. It does not however explain the concern about her being wayward.
Society’s ‘concern’ about the sexuality of wives of migrant labourers or female migrant workers is a way for patriarchy to reassert itself. What a person does with their body is that person’s concern: this has been always true for men; to restrict women’s freedom to do so is discrimination. A person’s sex life, regardless of their gender should remain their own concern. Neither society nor the state should have a role regulating in public that which is an intensely private matter.
~ This article was first published in December 2015.
Weena Pun is a writer and journalist based in Ithaca.