Nepali women say they are not just ‘cheli’ but individuals in their own rightMany have protested the media’s use of the word ‘cheli’ to refer to women athletes, arguing that it is patronising and demeaning.
While Nepali women were winning medals and breaking records at the South Asian Games, a conflict of a different kind was taking place on social media. Last week, many women and some men took umbrage at the Nepali media’s use of the term ‘cheli’ to refer to women athletes, arguing that the word was patronising and demeaning. Others, mostly men, defended the use of the word on the grounds that it was a harmless, even endearing, way to refer to women.
In common parlance, ‘cheli’ means daughter, sister or woman, which is not offensive by itself; the issue is rather the context in which the word is used, said the women the Post spoke to.
“The word ‘cheli’ may not always be condescending but when you use this word to address a woman, you are not respecting her and are not ascribing to her an individual identity, which is discriminatory,” said Sabitri Gautam, a writer who was one of the women who spoke out on Twitter.
According to Gautam, ‘cheli’ is generally used by the Khas-Arya community to refer to family members. By ascribing the word to women athletes, the Nepali media is adopting a paternalistic attitude, where the women are ‘daughters’. The male athletes are rarely, if ever, referred to as ‘chela’ or ‘sons’.
“If Nepali media can credit the individual identities of men, why can’t it do the same for women?,” said Gautam.
This is not the first time that women have objected to the ways in which the Nepali media continues to portray them. A year ago, the Boju Bajai podcast had discussed the same issue, specifically in reference to how then minister Sher Bahadur Tamang had referred to Nepali students in Bangladesh as ‘cheli beti’. Many women had similarly protested the use of the word ‘aaimai’, arguing that it demeaned them.
Madhav Pokharel, a retired linguistics professor, said that words like ‘aaimai’ and ‘cheli’ have no intrinsically negative connotations, but it is their usage that ascribes meaning to them.
“‘Aaimai’ means mother and ‘cheli’ means daughter. They don’t have any demeaning meanings,” said Pokharel. “But because of how these words have been used to demean women and show that they are vulnerable, many people find them inappropriate.”
However, Bindu Sharma, assistant professor of Nepali at Ratna Rajya Campus, disagrees with Pokharel.
“If we dig into the meanings behind the word ‘cheli’, it can also mean a woman who agrees to everything,” said Sharma.
For Sharma, it is not only the Nepali media but the entire Nepali language that has been shaped by patriarchal values. But instead of listening to women who have problems with how they are being addressed, many men have instead gone on the offensive, arguing that there is no reason for women to be so sensitive.
“Words like ‘cheli’ shouldn’t be used in formal settings, as it gives the message that a woman has to always be associated with her family and society,” said Babita Rai, who also tweeted about the issue. “It takes away the individuality of the woman and if women don’t like being addressed by this term, society needs to understand their perspective.”
The athletes who were being referred to as Nepali ‘chelis’ had similar feelings to recount. According to Santoshi Shrestha, the first woman to win gold in athletics from Nepal, she understands that the media uses these words because they are unfamiliar with referring to women who have won accolades.
“Previously, there were few females in sports. That’s why they addressed female sportspersons as ‘cheli’,” said Shrestha. “But times have changed and we females are contesting in competitions and bringing glory to our nation. We should be known by our names because we deserve it.”
According to women, it is important to critique the usage of certain words in the media because the media plays a major role in influencing people’s thought processes. The regular and prominent use of words like ‘cheli-beti’ leads to the internalisation of a ‘women-as-kin’ attitude, rather than as equal, independent citizens whose achievements can be celebrated on their own grounds, regardless of their affiliation to anyone else.
“These words rob Nepali women of their status as free-thinking, independent adults,” said Jesselina Rana, who runs the social media page nepalifeminist. “They reduce women to a sphere where they need constant protection and guidance from the paternalistic institution of the state.”