Nepali women turn their backs on misogyny

A video posted on social media depicting the backless top worn by a pillion rider on a government-plated motor cycle on the highway from Dhading to Kathmandu recently went viral.

This tweet was later taken down, but not before it unleashed a social media firestorm by women and some men outraged by how the men dared to criticise women for what they wore.

Many Nepali women then took to social media themselves and started posting photos of their own bare backs to expose the normalisation of  slut-shaming in Nepali society. 

Writer Sabitri Gautam posted a picture of her back with the caption: ‘My back does not have the responsibility to shoulder your dignity.’

Sapana Sanjivani made a painting in Mithila style, which shows a woman’s bare back, with ‘Aamrdiya Dhaad,’ (undignified back) written in bold with a hand gesturing a middle finger, underneath it. ‘This is my undignified back, I have complete right over it,” she wrote.

There were many journalists, writers, social activists, poets who also shared their backs, and many others who sounded their approval in the comments section. However, there were also many comments from conservative men critical of what they called ‘exaggerated political correctness’ and why women should respect what was acceptable in society.

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The debate raged even as it was revealed that the two on the motorcycle were actually government employees travelling to Kathmandu on official business.   

Many of the comments highlighted the burden of a family’s honour in Nepal being placed on women. In this patriarchal and judgmental world, they said a woman’s ‘character’, clothing, movement, occupation, relationships, and day-to-day activities are scrutinised closely -- leading to moral policing and criticism of women’s choices. While a ‘mistake’ can ruin a woman’s honour and bring shame to the family, men usually get away because boys will be boys’.

Self-described feminist Babita Rai replied to the comments in a long thread on Twitter. ‘The societal interest of women and the type of clothing they wear has often made us feel uncomfortable, belittling our self-confidence. I am outraged remembering all those instances. It makes me want to march naked to protest against all your rules and regulations.’

She added: ‘Sexualizing every part of a woman’s body, and making us feel scared and uncomfortable with your stares, and always being on-edge, is this your culture? Your Eastern civilization? A woman's body is not a public place or subject of a man's political debate.’

Journalist Babita Basnet had a different take: ‘When women cover themselves, they get scolded,  when they do not, they also get scolded. We are in a confusing ‘transition’. You should wear clothes that you are comfortable in. But, where are you going dressed like that? It matters what you wear to both formal and informal places.’ Basnet did get some criticism for that post.

Rita, who has a protest Twitter handle describing herself as a ‘second-class citizen’, also put a picture of her back with the words: ‘A woman’s body is always supposed to represent societal dignity. Well, take this.’ In another tweet, she addressed the woman in the original video and wrote: ‘You did nothing wrong wearing the outfit in a motorcycle, lady! You are not alone.’

On Twitter, Hemlata Rai wrote, ‘A woman wearing a dress that showed her back is considered disgraceful and ugly, another person who sang a Tij song covering herself with clothes. She is also considered disrespectful and ugly.’ She also points out that no one is responsible for maintaining social dignity. 

Journalist Sewa Bhattarai, devoted an entire Tweet thread to ‘dignified dressing’. She said: ‘A generation before, Bhramin women had to cook without wearing a blouse. Some of us have met these grandmothers, and probably, some people might still follow this custom … Wearing a cholo was considered immoral in those days, the daughter-in-law could be beaten. Times have changed. We are immersed in the blouse culture introduced by the British, and we can no longer see the back.” 

Many posts exposed societal hypocrisy and double standards. A woman can be hounded for wearing a crop top, but wearing a sari-blouse showing the same midriff and back is perfectly ok. Furthermore, sculptures, wood carvings, and paintings from many of our temples show bare-chested deities and females, so how would a woman wearing a revealing back take away her dignity? 

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Recently a Nepali Reddit subgroup posted photos of women taken from private and public accounts and making comments on their bodies. Character assassination, slut-shaming, cat-calling, and sexual assault are deeply rooted, and today it seems to have gone online. A feminist-toned Tij song by Sophia Thapa was trolled heavily this week by radical Hindu groups, for daring to defy the patriarchal aspects of the festival that this year falls on 21 August.  

Sewa Bhattarai writes that the definition of 'dignified dress' can change with time, but the patriarchal urge to control a woman's body endures. 

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