The Female Experience in Nepal

Dear Reader Friends,

These past couple of weeks have been the deepest I have found myself within Nepal’s complex culture thus far—living in a traditional village of the Terai region, with limited wifi availability, alone in my culture surrounded by difference. I have been learning so much every day; I have been learning about cross cultural communication, about ethnic relations within the country, regional and geographical relations. However, there has been one theme that has continually emerged during these last couple of weeks—the theme of Nepal’s women.

While discussing American culture with a class of ninth graders here, the teacher made the following remark to me: “You are very far from your home and you came here alone. Even Nepal’s women are afraid to travel the country alone. Where does your courage come from?” It was a question that caused me to reflect. Reflect on my perspective, where I come from, the place from which I approach life.  Upon being asked the question, I wondered what it was about Nepal—the place that has welcomed me so heartily—that instills this fear into the women, the context that provoked the questioning of my ability to be alone as a female in this world.  It was a question that unexpectedly framed the weeks that followed.  Weeks that I have been learning from Nepal’s women about their position in this society that has been described to me so many times as “male dominated”.

These last couple of weeks I have spent with the family of my Nepalese friend, Pramila, who has lived in my hometown in the U.S. for the last four years.  My presence in her hometown of Bagmati gives her friends and family a piece of Pramila through me.  At first glance my appearance is foreign, my accent is foreign, but once my story is revealed–my connection with Pramila–her friends and relatives embrace me as one of their own.  I have spent these weeks being led by Pramila’s mother, who I call Ama.

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Ama has taught me many things about life in a traditional village of Nepal–how to wash my clothes without a washing machine, how to cook inside over firewood when gas is in shortage, how to make sel roti, a traditional food pictured above.

I have followed her through beautiful places to beautiful people.

The above pictures are from one of my first adventures with Ama–a Kirtan.  A kirtan is a Hindu ceremony in which dancing, worship, singing, and praying take place.  This was not my first Kirtan as I had attended these ceremonies in America as well, but it was my first Kirtan in Nepal.

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In the above picture, this woman’s all white clothing is indicative of the Hindu ritual that follows the death of a husband or father.  In this ritual, the woman of the deceased man as well as his surviving sons must wear only white clothing for the duration of an entire year as a means of remembering and respecting his life.  However, when I inquired about the death of a woman–wives and mothers–I was told that there are no such similar practices set in place.  The husband and sons are not required to dress in white; there is no formal requirements to honor the woman in such a way that men are honored.  Women are, as many Nepalese individuals have explained to me, of lower status than men here in Nepal.

At the Kirtan, I met one very special woman–a woman that welcomed me with her smile and laughter, a woman who became my friend and allowed me into her world, a world that shed light on the plight of women inside this country.

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I followed my new friend, Manju, as she led me on new adventures.  On each new adventure, I listened to her stories that were tucked away deep behind her smile.

There is a beautiful river that runs through Nepal called the Bagmati river; one day Manju and her son took me on a walk alongside the river–a day that is burned into my memory juxtaposing the natural beauty of Bagmati, the beauty of my new friendship, and the ugliness of Manju’s past.  Manju’s story allowed me to understand the paralysis of self autonomy that characterizes the female experience in many parts of Nepal.

I had learned earlier that Manju’s husband was working outside of Nepal; this is an arrangement that occurs often as the economy here is poor and job opportunities are often scarce.  However, Manju did not seem to be upset about this long distance arrangement.  Marriage in Nepal is conceptualized quite differently from the Western perspective, the perspective from which my own perspective has emerged.  Although Nepal is geographically a small country, it is rich in ethnic diversity among its people.  The following summation of marriage practices are relevant to the Hindu majority found in Nepal.

“Men are the priority in Nepal”–a quote that has been attached to explanations of so many traditions, practices, and laws in this country; it especially applies to the marriage practices. Traditionally, Nepalese marriages are arranged marriages, stemming from the collective nature of this society.  This collective nature can also be seen in the joint living style of the culture.  A single household is often comprised of grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and grandchildren–a set up that enforces group thinking and gender roles.  When a woman and man are joined in marriage, the woman is expected to leave her family and move in with the family of her new husband.  This practice leaves the woman vulnerable in many aspects.  For example, the vast majority of a family’s property will be distributed among the sons rather than the daughters because the sons will remain with the parents and the daughters are expected to leave at the time of marriage due to to cultural expectation, leaving women economically dependent on men.  In addition to this, men are granted the privilege of remaining with their family–the central unit within this collective society–while the women must be uprooted and planted into a new family.  Women are often left with no choice but to submit to the will and decisions of her husband and his family due to this living arrangement.

Manju’s story highlighted this vulnerability that characterizes the larger situation of women here in Nepal.  Although her husband is living and working abroad currently, Manju is still expected to live with his family–an arrangement that she follows due to custom, due to societal pressure; an arrangement that has led her to make the statement that “the life of women here is not a happy life.”  Her story quickly unfolded and as I listened I could feel my heart begin to pound, my arms developing goosebumps, accompanied by a mixture of feelings comprised of anger, sadness, and empathy.  I was listening to my new sweet friend recite her own horror story.  Manju explained to me that her marriage was a marriage by force.  When I told her I didn’t understand that term, she explained that it meant that before marriage her husband expressed feelings for her and she had expressed that she did not have feelings for him.  However, in her situation, this did not matter.  She told me that one day the man that is now her husband entered her room without permission and forced her to have sex with him.  The result of this situation was the marriage that followed and the toddler she held in her arm as we walked along the river.

Manju continued to reveal more of her story.  Some time after marriage, her husband disappeared from her life.  When he came back into her life, she later came to know that he had left in order to acquire a second wife in a separate town.  Upon hearing this, Manju expressed her desire for a divorce; however, as she described to me, since her husband denied her request, a divorce was impossible for her.  As for now, she must remain with her husband’s family, playing the role that is expected of so many women here in Nepal.

Her story is heartbreaking; her strength is inspiring. I am humbled by the time that I spent with her and grateful for this friendship that I stumbled upon in my adventures in Bagmati.  Manju’s story is heavy, but her spirit is light, welcoming, and beautiful.

The day that she revealed her story to me, she gave me a ring that she was wearing and I gave her the ring that I was wearing.  Manju’s life comprises many spots of sadness; so much has been taken from her, yet she continues to give love to those around her. I wear her ring every day and each time my eyes settle on it, I am reminded of my new friend, of her situation, and the situation that so many of Nepal’s women find themselves in.  My experience with Manju comprises so many emotions; it is an experience that inspires me to continue my journey, to carry the spirit of Manju wth me, and to use the privilege that my place in this world has granted me.

My days in Bagmati continued to reveal the plight of Nepal’s women to me.  It’s funny how life unfolds in such a way sometimes; each day I have spent here I have been learning more and more about women’s place in this society.  Ama is part of an NGO here in Nepal called Harihar Chhetra Women Development Institution, a small organization of individuals working toward enhancing the rights of women inside of Nepal.  One day Ama and I traveled to the nearby town of Haryon where she and the other members of Harihar Chhetra had organizd a protest for women’s rights in response to some internal political issues concerning the female president of Nepal.

The newly elected female president, Bidhya Devi Bhandar, is the widow of a very famous politician here in Nepal.  Recently she traveled to the city of Janakpur located in the district that I am currently residing in.  Due to the current crisis caused by the closing of the Indian border into Nepal, I have been told many times by locals that now is not a safe time to travel to Janakpur.  It is a center for many violent protests at the moment in which people have been injured and killed.

However, the president was able to travel to Janakpur, located in the Terai region near India, with the purpose of conducting a pooja inside of the large temple that is located within the city.  Conducting a pooja is a cleansing ritual within the Hindu religion.  A ritual that is conducted every day in most Hindu households that I have visited in Nepal; a sacred ritual within this culture.  Directly following the pooja conducted by President Bandhari, a few Nepalese individuals entered the temple and immediately began to wash the walls due to the president’s status as a widow.  This is custom that was followed many many years ago, but is no longer observed in the culture here.  It was a political statement by the individuals involved; a statement that motivated the rally by Ama’s NGO.

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The rally was complete with signs and a megaphone; a collective spirit filled the air as I walked alongside the Nepalese women fighting for their rights.  The woman on the far left’s sign is translated to “Punish the criminal.”  The sign held by the woman in the middle reads “End all discrimination against women.” Ama’s sign, on the far right, is translated to “Punish the culprits of the Janakpur incident.”

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In the above photos, the woman in the background is holding a sign with the message, “Make sure women’s participation is in all formats.”  The woman in the middle is holding a sign that reads, “Women’s honor, nation’s honor.”  I am inspired by these women; women who recognize the situation that their society has handed them; women who are working together to change this situation.

For the New Year celebration, I traveled to Souraha with Ama’s youngest son, where we stayed at a friend of the family’s house.  Again, I was met with the topic of women’s rights in Nepal–this time from the historical perspective of tradition.  The woman we stayed with, Reema, asked me to watch a movie with her called Jhola, a film that explains the tradition of Sati in Hindu culture.  Sati is a term that refers to “the ancient practice of burning a widow on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre or burying her alive in his grave,” according to the film which can be viewed by clicking here.

Watching this movie gave me more insight into the collective nature of this society.  During the time that the film was set, the decision to not commit suicide in this way was not an option for the widows.  It was compulsory and if it was not done by will, it would be done by force through the community. One quote from a female character in the film is particularly indicative of the tradition of female inferiority within this society.  She says to the young son of the widow who must burn herself alive,

Life of a woman is full of sacrifice and misery.  Our value is less than that of cows and sheep . . . Is this world only for men and their pleasure?

It is a chilling quote; a quote that unfortunately still holds relevancy.  Relevancy that was presented to me when I met my friend Bandana Jha, a member of the highest caste of the Madhesi community here in the Terai.  Bandana is a 20-year-old teacher at the boarding school that I spent some of my time at.  We quickly connected through her bubbly personality and eagerness to welcome me into her life.  However, just as I learned from my friend Manju, Bandana’s smile hid the pain that boiled inside of her.

The dowry system is still in effect in certain communities of Nepal, particularly the Madhesi community that Bandana was born into.  My friend explained to me that in the dowry system, a girl’s family must give payment in the form of money and property to the family of the boy.  In the case of Bandana, her dowry is even more expensive due to her decision to further her studies as she is a student working toward her Bachelor’s Degree.  She informed me that most families do not even allow their female children to study at all due to the increase in payment that accompanies the education of a female.

Bandana explained these customs in her culture with fear in her eyes as she knows that her time for marriage is nearing.  Her parents are currently searching for a suitable boy for her to marry and she knows that after marriage, her life will be under the control of her new husband.  Even her ability to continue her education will be decided by her husband.  She told me that a girl’s life is full of punishment.  She said, “Marriage is a woman’s punishment.  I never want to get married.  Boys never understand girls.  They only love our bodies; they don’t love us.”  However, Bandana knows that within her community, marriage is compulsory.  It is not an option to refuse marriage in her situation; it is an impending fate that has instilled fear within my new friend.  She said to me one day,

I hate myself.  I ask why am I a girl.  If I were a boy I could do anything I want, but I am girl.

She explained that her community marks women as physically and mentally weaker than men, a condition that is enforced through practices like the dowry system, practices that rob women of any leverage to change the situation that they find themselves in.  Bandana and so many other women know that they must accept their fate; a fate that again allows me to understand my privilege that is granted to me from my place in this world, a fate that allows me to understand why I was asked where my courage comes from to travel alone in this country.

The women I have met along this journey are incredible humans.  They have allowed me to enter their lives, to understand their situations, and to understand the situation of Nepal’s women from a more nuanced perspective.  The collection of stories I am left with are heartbreaking; however, the connections I am left with are inspiring.  Upon confiding in me her story, Bandana remarked that I am like a mirror.  She explained that she can never talk about such things with her family or friends because they will just make jokes or tell her to stay quiet; however, I allowed her to present her true feelings, to see who she was through the eyes of another person, to look at herself from the outside by allowing what was on the inside to finally come out.  She told me that her body can heal from the pain on the outside, but her heart never will.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be her mirror; I am grateful to have met these women; and I am grateful for my place in this world which allows me to have the courage to embark on this journey.

Thank you for reading.

Until next time,

Jennifer