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Swimming Upstream

I remember the drive vividly, we were on our way to the airport to drop off our late grandparents after their visit. They were talking about everyone they’d met and how hospitable everyone had been. One of them said, when referring to one family in particular, that they must be so dukhi  because they only have one daughter. To which I quickly responded, why would they be sad? The daughter brings them just as much joy, they give so much to her, and they probably don’t want a son. My grandfather quoted, “even all fingers on our hands aren’t the same size”. I couldn’t respond back, either by shock or because I have been told to “respect” elders, regardless of whether they are worthy of respect, I don’t know.

In my immediate family, I am seen as the strong, independent one. Someone who can handle any tough situation, not always gracefully. After all, I am a human person with flaws and emotions. (So was my grandfather, so don’t judge him based solely on this. He has taught me a lot of great things as he led by example). It is expected that my opinions may differ from the norm of our society, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not listened to. I have tried to educate myself as much as I can on gender norms in Nepal; from my experience there, books, and speaking to people. By no means,  am I an expert. I am still learning. This means, that occasionally in our household, I am sought for my views on things like ‘society’s expectation’ of my parents when it comes to weddings, and what I call ‘implicit dowries’ (dowries are illegal, but it’s somehow the bride’s parents responsibility to decorate/refurbish the groom and bride’s room, etc).

There are many other families like ours, in Nepal and outside of Nepal.  Disgracefully, outside of urban areas, it is fairly obvious that boys are more valued than girls. Boys are sent to private schools in cities while girls attend local school to participate wholly in household chores. We are the lucky ones, the privileged ones. All thanks to some strong people in the generation before us, who despite social pressures, decided to raise daughters without trying for a son, whose dreams and aspirations for their daughters were just as high as their sons, and those who broke gender norms by participating to raise their children. Unfortunately, outside of immediate family, there are, in every step, reminders that we are very much part of a patriarchal society. These reminders start very early in our lives, like during annual festivities. We notice that the male members of the family eat before our mothers and aunts, well-to-do aunts mention that we should learn to help out because when we are older, we need to look after our husbands. As an adolescent, you are given so much advice from relatives about what you should and shouldn’t do. Running around becomes less of a thing you are supposed to do even though your male cousins continue to do so. Out of nowhere you start being branded as lazy even though you do everything for yourself, but you fail to make tea for others. Not to mention period restrictions! It is a little irritating, a little frustrating, but girls aren’t allowed show their anger, because it’s makes us unappealing (see link).

So by the time we grow up, we have learnt to suppress this anger and frustration. We have accepted that our society is extremely unfair towards us.  We live our lives with our guard up. We make friends with people whose views are similar to us. We make jokes when people come to us at parties and tell us that if women study too much, then it gets harder for them to bow (jhukna garho huncha) to their husbands. To their in-laws. We are told we should try to understand that. We don’t get angry at them, we are not supposed to get angry at them. We smile and politely leave to go and talk to someone else. When it’s too much and we have a heavy debate with our relatives, we are soon seen as the black sheep, the weird one, the angry one, the different one (if only I could have a penny for every time someone called me “different”).

Still I am one of the lucky ones.

If we look at the Duluth Model, a program developed to reduce violence against women, and specifically their Power and Control wheel (above), I would be extremely happy if one reader could tell me that they don’t know a single relationship or family like that. Fortunately, it may not be our own family, but we have all witnessed relationships where wives or daughters have been in one or few of those categories. Heck, unknowingly, we may have treated our own up to-SLC-educated mothers like that sometimes. Some would argue and use our ‘culture’ as an excuse, but we all know excuse is all it is.

When it came to internet and the web space, we got there at the same time as men. Unlike our streets, our homes (but not our kitchens), our temples, our dhabas, our work-space, it wasn’t already a man’s space. We could all speak freely, without being put in the corner, or been told to listen when ‘more important people’ are talking. It is giving everyone the same access to speak, express our opinions. Our opinions are getting heard and our stories are getting shared, or so we thought. The misogynists also occupy the same space. Being in a virtual world full of strangers, we are also exposed to comments that our friends would never say to us. Some people hide behind the anonymity to spurt out cruel things people and women are the easy target. The dark side of Internet is just as much crueler to women. I’ve seen some venomous people being vile to men too, but it is unbalanced towards women. When The Guardian did some research on its comments, it found that articles written by women are more prone to abuse and dismissive.  Often women are picked on their appearance, their frustrations are linked to their periods, their body parts are discussed in great details, and words like whores thrown around as if they had personally solicited from them. In the past, we have written blog on the amount of online harassment targeted at women celebrities. Recently, I came across apodcast which in a fun, and animated way tries to bring up the discussion to the public.So on one hand, we are able to share our experiences others, on the other we are more vulnerable to receiving derogatory remarks because of what we have said and who we are. For every injustice we speak out to, someone tells us we are being ‘badi janney’ and tries to puts us in “our place”. Yes we see people remarking on our body parts as a joke, and we are allowed to say something, at the same time, we cringe when we notice that the same people uphold prestigious position in our society. Tasteless jokes are defended by their friends who tell us that we haven’t met them in person confirming even in a virtual world, there is still a patriarchal society.

It’s a constant battle for us. Unlike public transports of Kathmandu, our seats in life aren’t marked, and we have to always provide our case to why we deserve that seat, why we deserve to be heard, we also have just as much and powerful things to say as you. Imagine swimming against the current, going upstream, that is what it feels to be a female in Nepali society. Yes we are the lucky ones, we are loved by our parents, we were sent to good schools just like our brothers, we can stay out late, we can live by ourselves and look after ourselves, we can hold meeting/discussions and lead a team at a workplace, yet we are constantly judged on our ability to make roti (dal bhaat), our purity (what we choose to do with our vaginas) and our ability to accept all traditions (based on marriage proposals that comes to our house for my brother).

Patriarchy isn’t kind to men either. Keta manche bhayera runay haina (boys/men don’t cry) is instilled in little boys’ heads even before they understand what it means. Men aren’t meant to cry. Being sensitive doesn’t fit into the society’s definition of masculinity. Tragically, with bottled emotions, it leads to one of the leading cause of death among young adults, suicide. So before we hit ‘tweet’ or  the ‘send’ button, let’s think one more time about what we are doing. Do we really need to say something negative about a person today? Can we be a bit kinder? Can we listen to them instead of cutting them off mid sentence to tell your story? Can we listen to her? Maybe we’ll learn something new!

As for my story, on the way back, seeing me upset, my father told me that old thinking will die out after his generation as he was a man of his time. Since that incident, I retaliated the only way I can, by withholding any serious discussions other than pleasantries. Something I adopted for others in my life later is if a person doesn’t see me worthy of my views and opinions, I am not going to give them an opportunity to open their minds either.


Image Credit : The Duluth Model

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