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Growing up, our sense of the world – all that is right in it and all that is wrong – is shaped by family. The ways in which we view the world are often handed down to us by our parents and how effectively we maneuver in it is determined, to a great extent, by the direction presented to us by family and society. As we dwell on balancing for better this Women’s Day, I am reminded of the lives my parents lived in order to give me and my siblings a more equal chance at ours. This is their story.
My father tells me he always believed that women and men should have an equal footing in society and that mutual understanding and respect between the sexes is essential to a progressive and prosperous society. This seemingly anodyne ideal, however, was quite a contrarian stance for someone from a small, remote village nestled in the Himalaya of western Nepal, where patriarchy is still pervasive in everyday life.
My mother is no longer with us and my father is now 62 years old. The two were married as young children and grew up in the economically, socially, and geographically marginalized mountain community of Chaina village, Mugu, Karnali.
Even when I was growing up, most girls in our village were married off before they finished high school and it was unheard of for a female pupil to leave the village to pursue an education. Women spent up to a week a month in goths, shelters built some distance from the main house in which they were – and in many cases still are – expected to wait their periods out, wait for the secretions deemed “impure” by religion to stop flowing so that they might return to their lives.
Chhaupadi, as the custom is referred to, continues to be practiced in my district although the Government of Nepal outlawed it in 2005. A religious and cultural stranglehold continues to oppress women and permits regressive customs to persist. I still remember the stir my mother and father caused in the village 30 years ago when my mother, with my father’s support, stopped practicing chhaupadi. The village chided and ostracized my parents for this.
My father has since told me that it took a long time for him to muster the courage to do this. As head of the family he took some time to stand up and fight, although he had long believed that chhaupadi and the social mores that justify it are wrong – such is the shackling nature and internalization of discrimination.
He is also quick to point out that he was merely using the authority afforded to him by the same patriarchal system that stripped me, my mother, and my sisters of ours to help break barriers. His reasoning on the matter of chhaupadi was simple: it is unacceptable and inhumane that women have to spend roughly two to three months a year isolated in unhygienic conditions, made to feel impure, and in fear of socially constructed norms. Fighting against it was a way for him to fight against the ceaseless marginalization and suppression of women and be a good husband to his wife.
I remember that my mother, whom I admire and draw inspiration from as one of the strongest people I have ever known, was sickly, even as a young woman. The labourious traditional roles imposed on women were a heavy cross for her to bear. I also remember how women in our community were expected to singlehandedly shoulder all household responsibilities, working up to 12 hours a day, with men as breadwinners considered to be above menial tasks. My father, who grew up watching such a culture dictate the lives of his family and community, saw no reason in it. I admire him for questioning and fighting what so few fought at the time.
When he tells me that he was appalled at how men treated women as their servants, I remember how he always helped my mother in the kitchen and the fields, washed and cleaned, and looked after us children. He supported my mother as she engaged in activism and social work. She participated in pro-democracy demonstrations at the Mugu district headquarters and was the only female member of the district’s Nepali Congress party. She was outspoken on gender equality in her village: she delivered speeches on equality at village functions, and voiced her views on women’s rights. She also passionately advocated against gender-based violence and campaigned to ban alcohol, which usually causes such violence in the community. As a community health volunteer, she also helped ensure children in the village were vaccinated and received vitamins. My father’s encouragement enabled my mother to push boundaries. Even today, such support is integral to ensuring that women’s voices are heard; men continue to matter much more than women do.
My father braved ridicule in the community for supporting his wife. He risked his standing as a respected civil servant not because he believed he was doing something heroic; he just knew he was doing what was right. However, the reality, even today, is that patriarchal interpretations of Hindu culture continue to objectify women and treat them as possessions.
Daughters are trained in housekeeping, taught to protect their honour, and are meant to be married off. My mother and father defiantly sent me and my sisters to universities as they did my brother, and for that I am ever grateful to them. Their values and their belief in gender equality continue in our families now, where women have agency and value. And although my mother is no longer with us, she is a strong role model for her granddaughters and my father is a supportive presence in their lives.
Even as we led by example, my family has perhaps not brought about sweeping changes in our village’s treatment of women, but my father says that he is happy if he has influenced people – particularly men – to introspect regarding their actions and perspectives on women’s rights and liberation. Here’s hoping more men stand for women as my father tried to; they have taken the easy path for too long.
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