By Yangkey Sherpa
Family occupies a pivotal space in an individual’s life. It is a central point of social and individual identity – of status, culture, religion, and moral values. For most, family and the family home is a firm ground of safety, comfort, and familiarity. But this ground is not as firm for women in Nepal as it is for men.
In Nepali families, daughters are raised as belonging to another, an unseen family; the family of their to-be husband. (As the expression goes, “chhori maanchhe arkaako ghar jaane jaat.”) While sons are raised with the certainty of a home and a name, a daughter’s fate is uncertain. She does not belong to her parents, their home is only a temporary place of residence for her. Even her name is merely borrowed until the day of her wedding.
The Nepali constitution has also legitimized this uncertainty of name and home; section 81 from Chapter 1 of the Civil Code 2074 (2017) says that a woman may choose to keep either of her parents’ last name, or her husband’s last name, or both the last names; but her last name will be assumed to be the same as her husband’s unless otherwise proved. Section 87 from Chapter 2 of the same code says that the husband’s home shall be considered the wife’s residence unless ‘a separate residence is fixed by mutual understanding.’ Nothing of this sort is mentioned about men.
The significance of this uncertainty of home and of name is profound. Even when she marries within her caste, the woman will remain an outsider in her own family. Her children automatically belong to her husband’s family. She is left at the mercy of her in-laws’ temperament. She has so little power that she needs to seek permission to decide what she will do with her own time and faculties. If she is ‘permitted’ to work or drink alcohol by her in-laws, she says she is grateful their parents-in-law are ‘understanding’ and/or ‘modern’. If her husband and in-laws are emotionally and physically abusive, she simply blames it on her fate.
Being rendered so powerless leaves women vulnerable to violence and abuse. A Gurung woman was married off by her family when still a teenager to a man over a decade her senior; she was raped several times by her husband and when she tried to leave him, he said to her that he can easily remarry, but her life would essentially be over. A Chhetri woman in Butwal was the leader of the local women’s rights group, but would often attend meetings with a black eye and bruises from her husband’s wrath.
A young woman’s marriage was arranged by her family while she was a medical student; after her marriage, her husband became violent and sexually abusive towards her. When she returned to her parents’ home pleading for help, her mother wept with her and told her that this was just what her fate had in store for her and she must learn to appease her husband.
If a woman marries outside her caste, her identity and sense of belonging can be far more perplexed; this perplexity can follow her past her death. Three years ago, my father was woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from one of his friends, a man he had been friends with for decades. This man, who carried the last name ‘Lama’, the highest clan among Sherpas, said that his mother had passed away that night and so he had taken her to the Sherpa Gumba for her last rites, but the lamas were refusing to tend to her body. We learned later that it was because her nose was pierced, something Sherpa women don’t do. We learned that she was a Tamang woman who had married a Sherpa man. My father’s friend was forced to take her body from the Sherpa Gumba in the middle of the night and instead take her to a Tamang Gumba.
An inter-caste marriage challenges deeply entrenched caste values and hierarchies, which is why it is protested so strongly in society. Depending on the couple’s existing social standing – individually and together – they may be met with anything between begrudging tolerance to outright violence. (I write this paragraph in the wake of six Dalit men being killed in Rukum when one of them attempted to elope with an upper-caste girl while the others were trying to help him.) The more powerful their social positions – whether through wealth, education, influence in society – the weaker the backlash they face.
Even when both partners face societal backlash, women in inter-caste marriages face a disproportionately greater loss of respect and power. This comes from their already uncertain sense of belonging and rootedness. A man’s name, his home and community are not necessarily changed by who he marries. A woman on the other hand has to adopt her husband’s name, his home, and his community. If she marries someone outside her caste, she may be denounced by her own community. The new community may not be willing to accept her as their own. She could be left untethered and without support of family or community. She may not even have the authority to name her own children, or to pass her culture down to them.
The reason why women are stripped of the right to pass their name or culture to their children is because it ‘rectifies’ the wrong of their ‘mixed’-marriages. Their marriage may have been ‘mixed’, but their children’s identity and culture cannot be ‘mixed’. If enough people crossed caste boundaries and inter-married, the caste system would lose meaning. But this threat can be mitigated by erasing the mother’s identity in her children, made easy by our society’s patriarchal make-up. In this way patriarchy and caste hierarchy strengthen one another’s hold in society.
WHAT IF A WOMAN CHOOSES NOT TO GET MARRIED AT ALL?
The stigma of being unmarried is perhaps not as bad as it could be if they marry outside their caste, and definitely not as bad as if they buckle heteronormativity in any way. But an unmarried woman invites a lot of questioning and a lot of pity, an attention that increases the older they get. She gets called a ‘budhi kanya’; her social and romantic life becomes open to a certain degree of public scrutiny. Even if the unmarried daughter is economically independent, she may be considered a burden to their family. This notion is so deeply ingrained that many women internalize this idea.
My father used to be deeply troubled by my ‘rebellious’ ways when I was a child; ‘rebellious’ in that I refused to accept the limits imposed upon me simply because I am female. He told me that the freedom and equality I sought would not be possible for another 50 years in Nepal. I don’t know how he arrived upon that arbitrary number; but the idea that I would have to bow down and accept that I have to live a compromised life for at least another 50 years was not and is not acceptable to me.
To scare me, he told me the story of his aunt who had died when he was a young boy. This aunt, he said, refused to wear bakkhus, the Sherpa attire for women, because she found it uncomfortable and impractical when working in the fields. Instead she wore trousers like men. She refused to get married. After a hard day’s work in the farm, she visited local bhattis like other men. This irked the men who also frequented the bhattis, and one day they ridiculed and mocked her; she punched one of them on his face. On her way home, three or four of the men attacked her and killed her.
My father told me this story to scare me; but it made me proud and firmer in my resolve. If an illiterate village woman during the 1960s can have the strength to rebel and stand her ground, so can I. Often I have felt powerless and alone, and struggled to find my belonging in this world. Then I remind myself of the powerful women who lived before me, and I feel less alone.
Parijat battled against gender inequality and carved a space for herself as a writer and a literary icon in a male-dominated field while struggling with paralysis. Yogmaya led a movement against the sati system and the Rana regime, eventually giving up her life in protest. In a world where society is designed to take power away from them, women have shown immeasurable strength and fortitude to reclaim that power.
It is not fair that women must have to be strong and fight for what basic humanity says is their right; but even in an unfair world, women have and will continue to do so, and there is great solace in that.