Code of conduct: Only for women?It is important for the state to realise that restrictive borders and policing the so-called ‘dignity of Nepali women’ is not the solution to existing problems.
Crossing Nepal’s border alone, either by road or air, as a Nepali woman is often, if not always, an unpleasant experience. Questions asked by border security or immigration officers are downright derogatory, reflecting the patriarchal mindset of the state vested with the power to decide a woman’s mobility. In the name of protecting Nepali women and their ‘bodies’, we often get harassed by the same forces that are meant to safeguard us.
To give you a recent example, I was coming back from India by road after attending a friend’s wedding. I had mehendi on one hand, a box full of sweets on the other and my luggage was full of clothes that I took for the wedding. In short, it was pretty evident that I was back after attending a wedding. The Indian security lady simply looked at my luggage, smiled and said in Hindi, “Oh are you back from a wedding? Hope you had a great time.”
As I crossed the border and entered my own country, I geared up to answer some inappropriate questions. My past experience has taught me that crossing the border as a single Nepali woman was always discomfiting, to say the least.
The border police looked at me and said, “Why did you go to India, alone?”
“I went for a friend’s wedding,” I replied.
“Why would a girl from Nepal have friends in India? Why don’t you make friends in Nepal?” he asked.
“Because I studied in India,” I emphasised.
“You must have many friends and boyfriends there. That’s the reason girls like you go to India alone,” he said mockingly.
This is just one of the many examples of harassment Nepali women face at their own borders. While one cannot deny that Nepal is a source country for many trafficked women in India, the Middle East and now across the globe, this cannot justify the improper policing of women at our political borders. Border surveillance does remind us of the policies in place to protect the most vulnerable groups, however, most often, the border officials are often ill-equipped to both identify and assist the victims. The questions asked to women simply feel intimate, targeted and sexist, they are neither legitimate nor advance border security.
In another incident, a friend, who was going to visit her boyfriend in another country was ridiculed at the airport by immigration officers. She was made to stand at the airport for hours, was forced to call her parents and ultimately missed her flight.
These incidents reflect how the state creates boundaries in the most intimate parts of a woman’s life. These boundaries reemphasise the patriarchal mindset of our society that expects its women to be only in the domestic sphere. These political boundaries of our nation-states become a direct reflection of the patriarchal boundaries imposed on women by society. They deny women the autonomy to make their own life choices and their basic human right to freely move from one place to another.
To make matters worse, Nepal’s Immigration Department comes up with new and progressively ridiculous rules for women travelling abroad every year. Be it women under 40 requiring written consent from their guardian or the requirement of a relative residing abroad, our state has failed to treat its women as equal citizens, going against the very spirit of our constitution. These nationalist narratives built around ‘protecting the honour of nation’s women’ at borders reinforce a system dominated by male machoism denying women of their rights as equal citizens.
It is important for the state to realise that restrictive borders and policing the so-called ‘dignity of Nepali women’ is not the solution to existing problems. Denying women’s autonomy and choice and relegating them to the domestic sphere will not protect the most vulnerable groups. Rather, solutions should come from the grassroots, it is important to listen to women’s voices and not mute them. It is important to encourage women to become leaders and decision-makers and not deny them their basic rights.
We have seen that border controls, as they currently stand, have neither been able to prevent trafficking nor uphold Nepali women’s basic human rights. In fact, it is important to rethink the very premises on which these security systems are based.