Coping with patriarchy

Circa 1941. Standing from left: Yagyamuni Sharma, Tara Devi Sharma, Kusum Kumari Sharma, Hem Kumari ‘Gyanu’ Sharma. Sitting on chair: Basundhara Neupane Sharma, on stool: Vijaya Sharma. Photo courtesy: VIJAYA RAJ SHARMA/NEPAL PICTURE LIBRARY (With input from Vijaya Raj Sharma and Kalpana Ghimire)

Using old family photographs, I have been able to trace the history of patriarchy over four generations in my clan, right down to the present socio-political milieu in Nepal.

Perhaps it is the intimacy with which I know my family as well as my country--as a child, as I grew into an adult, a daughter, and now a mother--that makes me want to do this. I have dilly-dallied in writing about these things, and indeed questioned my very right to even publish it. After all, I was born and raised in Kathmandu, and come from a privileged Brahmin background. Such a pedigree makes me an advantaged Nepali.

However, as I once was told, “It is as much of a crime to commit injustice as it is not to oppose it.” The state of most Nepali women in their social, cultural, official, and legal capacities is so appalling and alarming that would be a crime not to speak up.

In 2013, motivated by the pristine image of Nepal abroad, my French husband proposed that we go live in Nepal. By that point, I had lived for over a decade in various cities in Europe. I missed being in the Nepali cultural sphere, speaking Nepali, eating Nepali food, so I readily agreed.

Most of my immediate family were living abroad at the time, and little did I know that without their network and support, living in Nepal would prove to be quite an ordeal -- especially when legal and official work needed to be done.

I was aware that I would face some adverse cultural shock, but nothing could have prepared me for the degree of state-imposed patriarchy that we were about to experience. Little did I know that a daughter who is ‘given away’ (especially to a foreigner) would be viewed at par with an asylum-seeker by the state and the bureaucracy if she wanted to return.

On the maternal side of my family in my मामाघर, we are now the fourth generation of women who have had to survive and deal with adversities in a patriarchal society with very little support from male members.

Historically, the father figures in the clan have passed away very tragically and prematurely, have been absent or severely disabled, leaving the women to survive and carry on, earn a living, and raise children after a certain point or for long periods of time.

Growing up with my mother’s side of the family in a household full of women, I was shown that women could be strong, career-oriented, free and become anyone they wished.

Because of her upbringing in Kathmandu, Moscow, and Paris, my mother made sure that I was open to the world but raised in Nepal with Nepali values. Consequently, it made me confident enough to feel that I could fly anywhere.

Like every child, I too felt that these unconventional, strong-willed, colourful and opinionated members of my predominantly female family were the norm, and as much as I am grateful for that, it did not prepare me for my return from Europe as an adult, and in November 2013 as a woman married to a foreigner.

The Neupanes

This photograph of the Neupane family (see above) is of my maternal grandmother’s side, who lived in Kalaiya in the western Tarai. Standing third from the left is my mother’s mother Kusum Kumari Sharma, with her four sisters surrounding their widowed mother Bashundhara Neupane in a very Jane Austen-esque setting.

Her fifth and youngest daughter is yet to be married off, the crescent moon hairpin being the traditional Hindu adornment of married women in Nepal in the community at the time. The Neupanes were a hill-based family who had migrated to the Tarai in the 1930s for better living opportunities, like many others.

Basundhara’s spouse held the position of डिठ्ठा administrator in Parsauni, one of the most fertile areas of Nepal. This prestigious status gave the family financial ease, and an overall comfortable life. In 1937, tragedy struck -- literally, in the form of a lightning bolt. Basundhara’s husband Chudamani Upadhya Neupane along with his 13-member team were taking shelter under a tree during a rainstorm.

The tree caught fire, everyone was knocked unconscious, and only Chudamani did not wake up. Basundhara, along with their 14-year-old son, rushed to the spot. After the last rites, Chudamani’s nephew took advantage of the situation and pocketed all valuables and ownership documents left behind in the house.

Customary to Nepali culture, the superstitious finger-pointing of family misfortunes is automatically attributed as the moral or karmic culpability of a third person--mostly a woman.

My great-grandmother was accused as being a लोग्ने टोक्ने. The fact that she later lost her son, the only remaining male member of the family, made the situation even worse. We should be grateful for her eldest son-in-law Dhundi Raj Sharma, then a young lawyer, who came to the rescue from Ilam to save the family from further harm, and settled them down in Kalaiya.

Without this help, she would have lost property, all prestige and indeed all standing (प्रतिष्ठा, इज्ज़त) in society. Despite this ordeal, the widowed Basundhara was a strong-willed and determined enough woman to go to her husband’s family and obtain her share of the family inheritance -- something that many women in Nepal do not dare to claim even today.

A couple of years later, Basundhara’s daughter, my then 16-year-old grandmother Kusum Kumari Sharma, got married. The fact that she had received an informal education was a problem for the members of her husband’s family, and she was packed off to her maternal home for seven years.

Such a situation even today would be considered a shame in many Nepali families. Inspired by her eldest sister and activist Tara Devi Sharma, and her lawyer husband, she got involved in the first wave of Nepal’s feminist movement.

Tara Devi Sharma went on to become a member of the सल्लाहाकार सभा (Advisory Council) in democratic Nepal. In 1954, she and fellow activists submitted a bill on the ‘Marriage system and provisions for a woman's right regarding marriage’.

As for my grandmother, she was later united with her husband Bal Chandra Sharma, a founding member of the Nepali Congress movement. She even joined the party in 1947.

Her education foundation, coupled with her social awareness, prompted her to write many articles in significant magazines like युगबाणी (Yugbani). Despite her involvement in Nepal’s growing feminist movement,  she had to face major discriminatory injustice much later in life based on the legal provision on nationality registration. The spouse of a public figure, albeit widowed, and fatherless, she could not obtain Nepali citizenship.

As for my grandmother, only when her son obtained his citizenship was she able to get a citizonship certificate through him. Had she had only daughters, she would have been stateless.

My mother Kalpana Ghimire, earning a living and raising a child on her own, also found herself facing similar challenges much later in life. After her broken marriage in 1982, fatherless and husbandless, she found herself debarred from any property rights.

At that time, with her child being female, she would be only entitled to Rs30,000 as marriage expenses from her husband’s property--and being once married, she had no claim to her parental property.

Thanks to her education, determination, and her mother’s support, she worked, raised me and earned respect in society. Another major worry and predicament for her was trying to get my own citizenship in 1998.

She approached Usha Nepal, the powerful and assertive Kathmandu CDO, whose personal intervention unblocked the process. Thus, like her maternal ancestors, my mother also faced both social and institutional patriarchy, and overcame it.

I often get asked why I feel so personally about Nepalis who are undocumented. Here is why: because I was so close to becoming stateless myself. My mother would have shaken mountains to find a solution for my citizenship documents, but the feeling of humiliation and rejection by the state is something one cannot forget.

To this day, I find it daunting to enter the Babar Mahal CDO office, and by extension any government office, to get any sort of official paperwork done.

Born without a visa

My first shocking encounter with a Nepali bureaucrat was upon my return in 2013, when I had to go to the Immigration office in Dilli Bazar to get my husband’s family visa. I was admonished with a Nepali sermon that returning to Nepal to live in my mother’s माइती home was unjust to my husband’s घर and that I should be taking care them as I now ‘belonged’ to them.

I realised that the Hindu marriage कन्या दान ceremony is still taken officially and very seriously in this 21st century globalised world. It seems that the mindset of the maledom has not changed since Nepal got unified in the 18th century.

Worse was to follow. In April 2017, we had the great joy of welcoming our little baby boy. I wanted my half-French child to be born in Nepal so that it would be his जन्म भूमि (birthplace) even though he would not be eligible to Nepali nationality as per Nepal’s Constitution that that does not allow Nepali women to pass their nationality onto their children.

When my child was two months old, I contacted the Immigration Office concerning formalities to be carried out for a half-Nepali, half-French infant child. To my great surprise and shock, I was asked to pay approximately Rs10,000 fine as according to rules, as the infant French citizen had stayed in Nepal without a visa.

Here was a baby, born to a Nepali mother in Nepal, being charged a hefty fine because he was born without a visa. Under normal circumstances, I would probably have taken a strong stand, argued, negotiated and attempted to get this fine annulled, but after an IVF pregnancy, a baby born out of Caesarean section, I was exhausted.

Given what my female ancestors, all belonging to a privileged ‘upper’ caste hill family and myself had to go through, I dare not imagine what Dalit, Tarai and hill ethnic women, especially single women, have to struggle with.

The state pays tokenism to women by placing them in positions of power, but as Pakistani writer and activist Fatima Bhutto says, the position of women in a country or society should be judged by the state of women outside of power.

Somewhere between 4-8.4 million people in Nepal are stateless, mostly because of gender inequality. A dear friend Deidre Breannan, who is doing a PhD on Nepal’s situation with statelessness and patriarchy, says Nepal is one of the few countries besides Malaysia with such a large number of people who are stateless because of gender inequality.

Indeed, besides Malaysia, Nepal is on an embarrassing list of 26 other countries that do not allow mothers to pass their nationality onto their children: Bahrain, Barbados, Libya, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Suriname, Syria, Togo, the United Arab Emirates and others.

As researcher Abha Lal argues, Nepal’s location as a ‘yam between two stones’ means that we define ourselves by what we are not: not Indian, and not Tibetan. This remains in the DNA of all those governing the political rhetoric, and reveals a dire problem in the Nepali identity to this day.

Travel bans or restrictions are placed on women wanting to go abroad for work or leisure out of fear of human trafficking, as opposed to creating employment for these women back home. A village in Chitwan is imposing a ban on women migrant workers who have babies aged less than two years at home.

Women have to be victims because of the government’s own acts of omission. Earlier this year, Prime Minister K P Oli, in a desperate move to stay in power, created an ordinance in May allowing children of citizens by birth and children of Nepali mothers to obtain Nepali Citizenship.

There are 45,000 such cases pending, and instead of debating the issue in Parliament, it was rushed through to appease a faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party that supported Oli in a floor test in the House.

Day by day, Nepali women are gaining in their fight against social and culturally-rooted patriarchy. We do not face the same discrimination that our mothers did, but it is a source of great shame that the Nepali state has institutionalised gender discrimination.

Is our Constitution, our democratic pretensions just window dressing? How, with such a retrograde mentality, are we going to catch up with the rest of the world?


  • Most read