Two days ago I read an article in the Annapurna Post about how in a village in the Terai where a public college had opened up, the daughters-in-law were finally given permission to study even though they were married (!).
I really hate the situation women are still in nowadays in Nepal. But before damning the situation, let us look at the particulars first. You might know already that despite my strong opinions on certain subjects, I hate generalizations and oversimplifications. Let us only damn something after we have at least a vague idea of the many shades of that subject!
So what is it like to be a woman in Nepal? You ask. And I tell you: Well it depends.
First of all it depends on your personal individual situation – just because society has certain ideas about women it does not necessarily mean, that you yourself are in exactly the situation society expects you to be in, because maybe your parents do not share those ideas (which I admit is rare – but there are always exceptions).
One huge factor is, from what kind of family background you stem? I have certainly observed (a not very surprising) correlation between level of education/economic status and the respect for women. That is not to say that Nepal’s urban middle and upper class is all about gender equality, but the difference to the situation of women in the large rural population is obvious.
Becoming a daughter-in-law – why women cry on their wedding day
Well who are the women who have it the hardest then? I would say: The daughter-in-law of a farmer’s family. Why? Well basically marrying your sons is seen as almost a charity that you bestow upon the family of the new daughter-in-law which you only take in begrudgingly if they pay you for it (the dowry). Once you have taken her in the last thing you would do is respect her – her rank is below that even of your own daughters. She is only there due to your own kindness and it is her duty to not only serve her husband but also her new parents-in-law with absolute loyalty and submission. She will from now on carry most of the workload. The concept ot the Tyranny of the mother-in-law is well and alive in Nepal. The situation of a daughter-in-law is specifically harsh because they are supposed to have severed the ties with their own parents. If everything goes right they will be only visiting them for Tihaar once a year.
There is a saying: Don’t let your son take a bride from the same community/village, you will only have troubles with your daughter-in-law. Because if her own parent’s house is this close by, it will be hard to achieve her emotional seperation from them and it will be difficult to force her into a submissive integration into your own household. She might chose to find emotional comfort when you scold her with her old family and friends, and therefore might refuse to give in to your demands.
Having lost your husband – how to survive?
But it is not only the daughters-in-law who have it particularly tough. There comes to mind another group of women: The women who have lost their husbands – the widows, scorned women and divorcees.
As a widow or a woman who has been left by her husband your situation is very hard. This is because women do depend on men for their livelihood. Female employment is very rare and I can imagine that inheritance-wise wives are also greatly disadvantaged over other male relatives. What I know though that it is very difficult for a woman to gain child custody over her own children after a divorce. Being a scorned or divorced woman carries a huge stigma, and the chances of re-marriage or low. Often these women move back in with their parents and will usually have a very difficult life there, because of their stigma. If you are a widow without sons to support you and your own parents are not willing to take you back in, you will have to fight hard to survive on your.
Besides these harsh conditions, I have actually met a few women who have managed to create income for themselves even in the rural countryside. One woman was a widow, the other woman had been living separated from her husband for many years, since he had fled from the Maoists who had threatened to kill him. The widow grew vegetables on her own land and sold them at the local market. And the seperated Lady was even running a Dal Bhaat Hotel.
So as always: Nothing is completely black and white. Still: The Nepalese society from my point of view is extremely backwards when it comes to equality of gender. The idea that a wife is the servant of her husband is particularly loathsome in my eyes. To raise a person in the belief that they are of less value than another person is truly despicable if you ask me. The casualness of gender discrimination is what is so irritating here. Of course there is still sexism and discrimination in the western societies, but at least you can less easily get away with it. It is much more openly contested. It is very rarely that you meet a Western woman, who says: “Yes, I am of less value than a man.” While in (especially rural) Nepal meeting a woman who claims the opposite is the rarity.