“Where do I start?” asks Bhumika Thapa [name changed] as she reminisces about her pre-marriage days when she got to work, travel abroad and enjoyed considerable financial independence.
Thapa came to Kathmandu after completing her secondary education, started working when she was 19, and got married at 25.
Thapa, now 47, says she was worn down by the marriage. “It was one-sided love from my husband’s side. I was compelled to marry him after he threatened to take his own life,” she adds.
The society didn’t help her at the time either. Thapa was emotionally coerced by the people around her into marrying the man she had no feelings for whatsoever. She was told that she would soon be past her marriage age, and she relented under duress.
“It was the worst decision of my life, which I realized the day before my marriage,” Thapa says. But she could not walk away from her marriage. “That would put my family’s reputation on the line.”
And so Thapa chose to submit to patriarchy, to silently suffer.
What’s worse, her professional success in the development sector became her worst enemy. “I earned more than my husband and that hurt his ego,” she says.
She had her daughter at 27 and a son at 35. Thapa says she had to give up her career because of the pressures she faced in her personal life. “I alone had to look after the household and the needs of my in-laws,” she says.
This gave her little time to focus on her career and spend time with her children. Her health also deteriorated because of the stress and workload. Giving up on her career was the only way she could look after her children.
Thapa feels trapped. But she still hasn’t lost hope. “I will soon be working remotely for a company to make some money for myself,” she says. She also talks of her plans to live separately once her children grow up.
But not every woman is as headstrong as Thapa. Kalpana Prasai [name changed] is a 55-years-old homemaker who has spent most of her post-marriage days cooped up in the kitchen.
“With the amount of time I have spent in the kitchen, I should have probably opened a restaurant. At least, I would then be financially independent,” she says with a wry smile.
She wakes up at five every morning so she can have at least a couple of hours a day to herself. At seven o’ clock, she enters the kitchen and after that she has no idea when the work will end.
Prasai has to cook at least five meals a day to satisfy her exacting husband and then separate dishes for her two sons.
I spent a considerable amount of time with Prasai, interviewing her while she worked in the kitchen. She only got to sit down to have lunch at around 1 pm, after preparing meals and feeding the entire family. Every now and again, her husband would show up in the kitchen to either complain that the food was not to his liking or to get an update on his meal.
“In 30 years of our marriage, not once has he cooked a meal for himself,” she says of her husband.
Even when they are invited to their relatives’, Prasai says, she needs to cook at least one food item for her husband. “Otherwise, there would be a scene,” she adds.
Prasai’s sister-in-law, who was present at one point in this interview, confirms the food habits of her brother. “The whole family has gotten used to his behavior, even though it can sometimes be disrespectful,” she tells me. “But there is lots of love between the two,” she quickly adds.
Prasai regrets not having a proper career and choosing to become a stay-at-home wife and mother.
“I had the qualities of a leader, but it’s too late now,” she says in a diffident tone.
The experiences of Prasai and Thapa illustrate how our societal structures deprive women of a say, be it in their work, household, or way of life.
“A woman is rarely given a position of authority and even if she is, her role is seldom acknowledged,” says Shraddha Verma, a 26-year-old who also works in the development sector.
Her work requires her to make several field visits outside Kathmandu, and she tells me she has to work twice as hard just to get the same respect people give to her male colleagues.
“Even when I am supervising a certain project, people are reluctant to come to me with their concerns. They want a male officer,” she says. “Our society is yet to come to terms with the fact that women can lead, become figures of authority.”
Verma says she too has internalized some patriarchal beliefs. “Sometimes I put a certain restriction on myself, just because of my gender,” she says.
Sewa Bhattarai, a freelance writer and a new mother, also admits to having moments of realization of her patriarchy-influenced actions and decisions.
“I am well-educated and come from an understanding household. So people assume I haven’t been influenced by patriarchal beliefs. But nothing could be further from the truth,” she says.
The 37-year-old has faced her own share of struggles living in a society where men set the norms.
A woman —educated or illiterate, rich or poor, modern or traditional—is constantly judged and questioned by our society. Again, Bhattarai’s current lifestyle can be an emblematic case here. She and her husband decided to stay with each other’s parents a month at a time. And there were people who had problems with this arrangement.
Bhattarai would hear comments like: “This is not your home anymore,” “You should not be living with your parents after marriage”.
“If it is normal for me to live with my husband’s family, why is it so hard for this society to accept that the husband may also choose to live with his in-laws?” Bhattarai asks.
She shares a recent incident at the local ward office where she had gone to make the birth certificate of her daughter. Bhattarai wants her daughter to have both her and her husband’s surnames, but her request was refused outright.
“They told me only the father’s surname can be used,” she says. “It is infuriating that I live in a society that doesn’t allow a woman to pass on her name to her child.”
Prasai faces a similar predicament. Her husband is an Indian citizen, but her sons identify as Nepali citizens.
“I have a Nepali citizenship, so I tried to refer my sons for Nepali citizenship from my side. But I was told that that would work only if the father of my sons is unknown or has passed away,” she says.
From homes to neighborhoods to government offices, Nepali women are treated as second- class citizens. Women are still seen as subservient figures everywhere they go, and this has become normal for many of us.
“What’s scarier is that our society has failed to hold people accountable when a woman is wronged,” says Meena Uprety, a sociologist. “If a woman gathers the courage to speak up against her abuser, more often than not it is the woman who is questioned by the society.”
Even in cases of rape and sexual harassment, the survivors are the ones who get dragged through the mud for daring to share their story and demanding justice. Actor Paul Shah was accused of raping a minor girl and still rallies were held in his support.
“When people rally on behalf of a rape-accused, it says a lot about our society,” Uprety says.