Keshav Sthapit, a two-time mayor of Kathmandu, recently told a woman that ‘she had a nice face but her mouth wasn’t proper’ when she questioned him about the #MeToo allegations against him. His audacity to do so and still maintain that he hadn’t crossed a line spoke volumes of our society’s attitude towards women—that there are special rules they need to follow and ways they have to act. Despite protests to revoke his mayoral candidacy, Sthapit went on to contest the local elections for the third time. This is just one of the many instances Nepali men have gotten away with grossly inappropriate behavior due to the special status they enjoy.
“Gender discrimination is still rampant around the world. Deep-rooted patriarchal values allow men to be disrespectful towards women and to think nothing of it,” says Lily Thapa, women’s rights activist and member of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This week, in the United States, the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe vs Wade ruling, taking away women’s constitutional right to abortion. American women, it seems, no longer have the right to reproduce or to enjoy their bodily autonomy. This setback came at a time the global feminist movement had only just been gaining traction.
Our society has always wanted to control its women, says Sujit Mainali, historian and author of ‘Sati: Itihas ra Mimamsa’ that details how the Hindu religion and culture as we have practiced them have largely determined women’s fate. The practice of Sati (the wife burning herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre) was a form of extreme violence inflicted on women. It was a way to ensure a woman couldn’t be unfaithful to her husband even after his death. The man’s extended family could then lay claim to his property. Also, since a woman’s identity was wholly dependent on her husband’s, her life wasn’t considered worth living without him around. Unlike the stories we were told—of devoted wives flinging themselves in the fire—those women, Mainali argues, didn’t die willingly. They were often brainwashed, probed with sticks, and even drugged. A few of those who went of their own volition did so because they knew, without their husbands, the society would forever taunt and torture them.
Even though Nepal abolished Sati in July 1920, its trickle-down effect can be felt over a century later. Our culture is still used as an excuse to justify gender inequality, or women’s oppression more specifically. The ‘male privilege’ that we see today, Mainali says, stems from men wanting total control over women’s sexual life. Women being confined to homes and household activities is an extension of that sexual containment.
“There is a continuation of the same kind of rules that enforced the Sati system. Women aren’t burnt alive now but they continue to face discriminations and all kinds of abuses,” says Mainali. The biggest indicator of gender disparity is violence against women. In 2020-21, there were 1,393 reported cases of rape in Nepal. A UN Women study found that in combat zones it’s more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier.
Anjali Subedi, freelance journalist, says the problem lies in the way society looks at women—completely different to the way it views men. The society has a more liberal attitude towards men and their faults and infractions are often ignored or defended. Whereas women are expected to have all the ‘noble’ qualities like being silent, tolerant, patient and forgiving. Our definition of masculinity encompasses everything considered unbecoming of a woman—being loud, opinionated, strong, stubborn, et. al. “Women have to adhere to discriminatory societal rules. She is judged, shamed, and ostracized if she doesn’t,” says Subedi.
Santosh Pariyar, writer and social activist, says patriarchy dictates our political ideology and thus its impact is pervasive. Women aren’t included in decision- and policy-making, which is often a male-dominated space. That’s why feminist movements don’t have the desired results or bring sustainable changes. “Any change it does manage to bring soon fizzles out as our polity’s watchdogs aren’t interested in securing that change,” he says. A rigid dichotomy of gender roles is entrenched in our system. That makes it hard for both men and women to be something other than what they are traditionally supposed to be. Add to that a hegemonic system of power and women are overwhelmingly oppressed and exploited. “Right-wing politics is gaining ground everywhere in the world, painting a bleak picture of our collective future,” says Pariyar.
Historically, women’s domination and abuse that stems from it have been all about men’s need for control. Studies suggest that in most cases men’s use of violence is a tactic to control women and emphasize their power over them. Thapa of NHRC says women often have nowhere to go for immediate help when they are abused or raped because all our institutions are biased towards men. From families telling women to ‘let things go to maintain peace or marital relations’ to our authorities’ insensitivity, there’s a lot working against women. “This perpetuates a culture of silence and forces women to put up with abuse,” she says. “That is the most horrifying effect of patriarchy.” Patriarchy also limits women’s access to resources that can ensure their rights or help them fulfill their potential.
Violence is the ultimate manifestation of gender discrimination. But it rears its ugly head in many forms. Avasna Pandey, lecturer, Department of International Relations and Diplomacy, Tribhuvan University, says gender inequality is all too evident in everyday situations. At home, the woman is the primary caretaker. She has roles she needs to fit into. Any deviation and she becomes ‘loose and immoral’. In the workspace, women are often paid less than men for the same job or are given lower positions, if she is hired at all. A pregnant friend told me she didn’t tell her prospective employers that she was expecting. She feared she wouldn’t be hired as taking care of the baby would soon be her ‘primary’ responsibility.
“Take something as simple as being referred to as ‘sir’ in work emails. Our society expects only men to be in positions of power,” says Pandey, adding that gender disparity plays out in many small covert and overt ways. At the root of this inequality lies the acceptance of the supposed superiority of one gender and thus its power over the other. However, Thapa says despite all the regressive moves and daily struggle she is proud that women are continuing to come out with their stories and break the culture of silence. “That’s the only way forward if we hope to create an equal society. The unfolding global scenario can be disheartening but we can’t let anything deter us. We have to be stronger than ever,” she says.