Empowered Nepali womenThings will change when men who do not do dishes at home stop lecturing on women’s empowerment.
As the Holi festival approached, my wife and female cousins started chatting about how difficult it used to be for girls to go to school. Schools would generally close for a week or two as boys and men threw water-filled balloons at girls, and this was mostly accepted. When the story of the gory Holi is narrated to younger folks, they can’t believe that such was a state of our society. We have come a long way, and as the world focuses on women (again, mostly ritualistic) on International Women’s Day, it is a suitable time to look at the transformations happening in our society.
I continue to write about how Nepali women can push themselves hard, and society adjusts over time. The best example is how traffic police women check on potential drunk drivers and take action. My friends from Delhi say they cannot imagine an all-women team conducting checks late at night in their city. Social media platforms have influenced women to express themselves. Daughters-in-law, who are supposed to cover their heads and wear specific traditional dresses in conservative families, now flaunt their dance moves in TikTok videos that their in-laws have no other option but to watch and let go. From being homebound, women today are in large numbers driving two- and four-wheelers, which was perhaps unimaginable three decades ago.
We have seen such transformations happen across society, where many traditional ways of thinking and behaving have changed. In music concerts, we see an equal number of women in the audience without fear of being harassed. We see women alone or with friends in restaurants enjoying a drink or having a good time without worrying about what relatives will say. We are seeing this change not only in Kathmandu but across the country. I still remember eyeballs rolling when two female friends entered a restaurant in Thamel two and a half decades ago. The role of women at home is becoming an acceptable way of contributing to the family as they take breaks to look after children, their ageing parents or other family members. Their economic contribution is being discussed rather than looked down upon and labelled a “housewife”. We are finding women taking leadership positions, and more women are speaking in seminars, providing interviews and sharing stories. Platforms like Boju Bajai are ensuring women connect and are also mainstream in discourses.
We see women in workplaces like never before. Eighty-eight percent of the people who passed the Bar exam two years ago were women, which means we will see women-led law firms across Nepal in a decade. Similarly, women are joining the civil services like never before. Sans nepotism and unequal treatment in bureaucracy, half of our ambassadors in fifteen years will be women. Women in Nepal have also benefited from the fact that we see many women diplomats in Nepal and women in key positions in international programmes. Women Ambassadors are engaging in mentorship programs which will also push others to follow suit.
Women have long faced hurdles due to the patriarchal supremacy imposed by religion and culture. Religious leaders across religions are generally male, and the role of women is secondary. But practices such as Vipassana meditation and other religious groups can have women as leaders. Thirty years ago, it would have been impossible to think of getting to a yoga class led by a female teacher, but it is changing globally nowadays.
Small, unplanned steps can also trigger transformation. I have written about how women in Bangladesh are being allowed to ride pillion on motorbikes driven by unknown men, bringing about massive empowerment in a Muslim country with many dos and don’ts.
Change through awareness
Nepal has been one of the few countries to take women’s reservations in Parliament seriously, but such legislative changes will work only when we internalise the change through awareness of personal conduct. Political reservation has just ensured family members get engaged. We also need to understand that wives and daughters of politicians in a patriarchal structure can be as corrupt as the brothers, sons and sons-in-law of male politicians. A woman leader who derives power through a patriarchal system will never drive change. As the current tenure of Nepal’s first woman President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, is coming to an end, we will remember her term for working against the interests of women. She stopped the citizenship bill by stepping beyond her role, taking her privilege to an entirely different level by elaborately travelling in motorcades and wanting to stand at functions in the exact spots where the former Kings stood. She had an opportunity to build an excellent team of women advisors and mentees but allegedly preferred to be advised by men of particular ethnic groups.
The change that we desire will accelerate only when it begins from within. It will happen when men are comfortable listening to a woman make a presentation or share her views. It will happen when men who do not do dishes at home stop lecturing on women’s empowerment. It will happen when women are no longer assigned to carry the tray with badges, and men are not the only ones wearing them (which is an outdated ritual). It will happen when men are unbothered by women deciding the food to order at a restaurant. It will happen when parents stop having different rules for sons and daughters and stop engaging in rituals for a son to be born in the house.
I keep learning and trying to change as the two pillars of my life—my wife and my daughter—often make me aware of their points of view.