The burden of womanhood in Nepal

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

The burden of womanhood in Nepal

From making household chores women’s sole preserve to buying and selling women into prostitution, there are covert and overt ways in which women are being exploited and treated as inferior to men

Last year, Nepal’s Immigration Department proposed a rule that women under 40 needed written consent from a guardian or local government to travel abroad. Behind this absolutely brilliant idea was a board composed entirely of men. The proposal was shelved after a public outcry. This week, another such proposal emerged, with the same requirements. Additionally, traveling women now need to have a relative residing at the destination country. These regressive moves to restrict women’s rights are reminiscent of a culture that’s always been misogynist, where men have taken it upon themselves to make decisions for women.

Dr Aruna Uprety, public health specialist and women rights activist, says Nepali women are always under men. As a child, your father dictates your life. As an adult, your husband calls the shots. And when you are older, your son becomes the head of the family. A man can do as he pleases but a woman will need permission or ‘to consult’ the elders in her family. For women, free will is an alien concept.

“The worst thing is this sort of mental abuse comes in the guise of care and protection,” says Dr Uprety. You are always made to feel that you aren’t enough—not smart enough to make the right decisions for yourself, not strong enough to face life’s challenges, and definitely not capable enough to live on your own terms. An unmarried woman over the age of 30 or a divorced woman is considered a cultural deviation.

In his book ‘Sati’, historian Sujit Mainali shows how women have been oppressed through the ages and how the impact is still being felt. Apparently, we were only told half the story when they said there was a time women used to get on the funeral pyre when their husbands died. It was made to sound like a love story, a tale of devotion. But many women who were burnt alive with their husbands were beaten or sedated beforehand. Those who ‘willingly’ embraced Sati knew, without their husbands, the society would torment them, and chose the ‘easier way out’. 

“Women have faced centuries of cultural abuse for religious reasons. Women have always been devout and have given much importance to religion but religion is perhaps their biggest enemy,” says Mainali. There are no mentions of menstruation being impure in the Vedas (the only reference to it is related to the cursing of Lord Indra when he killed Vritrasur and part of the curse flowing as menstrual blood). But oppression continues to be justified in the name of religion. Chhaupadi, a tradition that confines young girls to mud huts or cow-sheds for the duration of their periods, routinely takes lives in western Nepal. Our society is still obsessed with having a male child. Dr Uprety brings up a recent case of a pregnant woman whose baby was breech, meaning the baby was lying bottom- or feet-first in the womb instead of the usual head-first position. In this case, she says, a cesarean is recommended to avoid complications. But, unknown to the woman, her family insisted on a normal delivery. They said they knew the child in the womb was a girl and were blinded by the myth that if the mother had a surgery the next child would also be a girl.

“The family didn’t want to ‘jeopardize’ their chances of having a son. They didn’t even care if the baby or the mother died during childbirth,” says Dr Uprety, adding that female feticide is still rampant in rural areas. Anuradha Koirala, CNN Hero and recipient of the Padma Shree, the fourth highest civilian award in India, says Nepali society largely favors men over women. Its consequences, she says, can be seen and felt in everyday life but they are often ignored as small things. Women let things slide to maintain peace but over time it has a cumulative effect on their mental health, she says.

From making household chores women’s sole preserve to buying and selling women into prostitution, there are covert and overt ways in which women are being exploited and treated as inferior to men, for men’s benefit, says Koirala, the founder of Maiti Nepal, an organization that rescues trafficked women. According to her, our upbringing is at fault. Parents don’t raise their sons and daughters in the same way. As much as many would like to pretend otherwise, there is a hidden bias.

Why else would there be thousands of supporters of Paul Shah, the actor accused of raping a 17-year-old girl? Many have raised questions about the girl’s character and even pointed fingers at her parents. The argument is that they should have been more protective. “When a woman is raped, we question her character. It’s not the rapist who faces societal scorn and stigma. It’s the victim. This goes to show our society’s predatory mindset towards women,” says Dr Uprety. 

Lily Thapa, social worker and founder of Women for Human Rights, which brings Nepalis widows together, says there have been a lot of policy-level changes, with women being granted fundamental rights and such. But the implementation of those laws is a different matter altogether. The fact is that those with decision-making authority are still beholden to patriarchal values. That’s the reason discriminatory policies aimed at limiting women’s agency are proposed now and then.

In her book, ‘The Second Sex’, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir argues that man is considered the default while the woman is the ‘other’. She writes: “Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. She is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential.” While one might argue that women have come a long way since the book was first published in 1949, the ‘progress’ is shameful if statistics on women employment, equal pay, and political representation are any indications. Women are still relegated to, at best, a sub-type of men, says Carolina Criado Perez, author of ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’.

“In Nepal, there’s still a culture of kanyadaan. The Hindu ritual of the bride’s father giving her away during marriage signifies her place in society. She is always someone’s [almost always a man’s] ‘property’,” says Dr Uprety.