Space of absenceWomen and other marginalised gender groups cannot afford to ignore inaccessibility to fundamental rights
A literary forum based in Pokhara, Naulo Bahas, organised a book discussion that eight people from Kathmandu, including myself, attended. We were looking forward to engaging in stimulating conversation with the local literary enthusiasts. During the interaction session, somehow, the discussion strayed towards women’s rights issues. One of the speakers made scornful remarks concerning the proponents of women’s rights. His point of argument was that, since the concept of women having equal rights is imported from the West, these foreign notions are delusional concepts that invite social discord and decadence. He contended further that women are already well respected in Nepal as is reflected by the fact that he touches his mother’s feet to show respect. Two men in the hall clapped to support him, while a few others held their breath—some in shock and some in disapproval. Whispers started rising in the hall and a young poet left the hall to show his dissent. Undeterred, however, the speaker continued with a weatherworn proverb to legitimise his knowledge regarding women’s rights. According to him, If a woman demands equal treatment, she deliberately endangers her love and her relationships, and disrespects her family values. As the audience buzzed further with disagreement, one member (a woman) lost her patience and objected to his stereotyping. In brief, the event ended with heated discussions.
Why and how the book discussion shifted towards women’s issues is less important; what is important is the speaker’s internalisation of essential gender roles as well as the dissent of women in the audience. It was difficult for me to listen to the speaker—a teacher, a government official, as well as an active member of the local intellectual community—because he had totally accepted the prevailing gender norms without an iota of self-reflection or critical thought. However, it was gratifying to see women in the audience resisting his sexist speech. It brought to my mind Kathmandu’s “manel panels” (panel discussions having only male participants) which have become popular practice these days, despite many denouncing such one-sided discussions which do not allow alternative views. To me, the women’s booing on that day was symptomatic of genuine resistance to the general assumption underlying manel panels—that women simply do not exist. And on that day, not only women in the audience found such assumptions objectionable; some men were equally peeved.
Gender is obviously not an eternal construct as the speaker in the discussion was implying. The meaning of the term can vary during different historical times just as its form too can vary from society to society. Since gender equality is a contested notion—entangled in a variety of notions such as equality, diversity, difference, inclusion and much more—it can inspire as many explanations as any healthy debate can allow. Even though it can invite a cluster of varying views, it can never be the cause of social decadence as implied by the speaker. Also, by implying that a woman endangers her familial relationships by demanding equal treatment, the speaker was implicitly accepting that hierarchical binaries in Nepali society are legitimate and gender roles are eternal. To put it in brief, his implication was that a woman’s place is at home, while a man has the freedom to go into the public sphere. While it is obvious to most people today that conceptualisation of public (masculine) and private (feminine) spaces contributes to social hierarchy and inequality, he was convinced that such division of spaces strengthens love between partners in a relation.
In his simplistic analysis, oblivious to the issue of unpaid labour done by women in private, he did not take into account the double burden of paid and unpaid labour that modern Nepali women undertake as they seek to balance their work in the public space with the unpaid work they do in private ones. It was obvious that the speaker had internalised the prevailing notions so thoroughly that he was unable to think beyond his personal experience. He was just one of many people who are mesmerised by fantasies of masculinity, or should I say hyper masculinity, which is an emerging force in local and global trends, contributing to violence that not only victimises women but also men who do not fit into this narrow category. The position taken by the speaker during the book discussion was not an isolated event. It was merely symptomatic of the general view held by many, both men and women, today. For this reason, the book discussion presented a live example of how stereotypes and their internalisations manipulate our views and make us prisoners of our own thinking.
In most cultures, men in power are subjects who occupy empowered positions—they are ‘knowers’, who determine as well as define knowledge and truth of everything under the sun. Women, on the other hand, are assumed mostly as objects, whereas the sexually marginal are assumed invisible. Often in public debates, women either remain silent or are overwhelmingly absent. Practices like these reconfirm rigid stereotypes and naturalise the spaces of absence to which women are pushed into by everyday decisions and practices that seem natural to most people. From such a perspective, it was “natural” for the speaker at the Pokhara discussion to take the role of the empowered subject.
At a personal level, it was gratifying to witness dissent coming from the space of absence, and especially from the peoples who are often looked down as ‘those who simply are not.’ What was heartening, however, was the fact that it took only a few women from the audience to disrupt the binary framework and resist the stereotypes, and I was ecstatic to witness alternative voices articulating in the particularity of the moment. Such moments, even if brief and transient are important, especially as they wage momentary wars against the underlying norms and received ideas concerning masculinities and femininities.
Power dynamics and power relations are complex issues for they work at multiple levels. The existing hierarchical relations not only affect women and sexually marginal communities, but also men who do not fit into traditionally defined masculine roles. To go into the details of gender oppression, privileges and equalities, a varying configuration of intersectional approach is essential. The particular example given by the speaker at the discussion concerning men’s honour was problematic, but also illuminating in a sense that it showed clearly how some people in power positions define themselves in opposition to those who are in minority— such as caste minorities, sexual minorities and, above all, women.
Confronting sexist discourses, especially resisting from the space of absence, is not easy, but walking out of the situation is not an option either. I must say that I had expected a more responsible response from the men in the audience, especially those men who are not only aware of the masculine privileges that they enjoy, but are committed to creating a gender-equal society that is free from all forms of marginalisation. In situations like this, walking out—the option chosen by the young poet referred to earlier—does not help, neither to the person who has internalised norms, nor to the people who remain marginalised, invisible or absent. Demanding equal treatment does not mean endangering love and destroying family relationships. On the contrary, it means raising one’s voice with the aim of having equal access to fundamental rights, and equal access to opportunities enjoyed by privileged members of society, as well as the right to be treated according to the same principles, rules and standards as enjoyed by others without any discrimination of gender, caste, class, sexuality and so on.
Thapa is the Founder of Akshar Creations Nepal, an organisation that publishes books in a variety of literary and non-literary genres