Women’s Rights in a Former Hindu Kingdom(Satis Shroff)
The work draws on my own experience and observations during my visits to Kathmandu. Since Nepal is one of those rare places which Nature and culture-enthusiasts would like to visit, I thought the plight of the Nepalese women ought to be told in your website, because till now Nepal is only known for its tough male Gurkha soldiers who fought on the side of the British in the First and Second World Wars, in the Falklands and in Kosovo and Croatia, the sturdy male Sherpas who have worked for the glory of all climbing nations in the Khumbu area, and is also known as the Land of the Yaks and the abominal Yeti.
What about the fate of the Nepalese women in the Shangri-la? In James Hilton’s book ‘The Lost Horizon’ the local women never get old (unless they leave the enchanting Shangri-la environment), but the average Nepalese women have a lifespan of 50 years in one of the least developed countries in the world, and they never live to be 60.
Women who have spontaneous or natural abortions, or give birth to still born babies are charged with infanticide and sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment because Nepal’s abortion law is based on an ancient, draconian Hindu law. Imagine: 20 years of imprisonment when the average lifespan is 50 years ! Abortion is prohibited in Nepal under any circumstances (rape, incest, or when a pregnant woman’s life is threatened). There are no fair trials for the needy and poor women of Nepal and the justice caters only to the rich and influential people.
‘Due to the lack in clarity in Nepal’s Law, many Nepalese women have been victimised on the ground of spontaneous abortion, whether it was a simple miscarriage or abortion caused by the heavy manual labour on the part of the woman. The women of Nepal cannot defend themselves because of the lack of definition of abortion’, says Singh B. Moktan, the director of PAM Nestling Home (PAM= Prisoners Assistance Mission) in Kathmandu.
What is needed is a mobilisation of women in Nepal, the USA, Europe and the world over in fighting this ancient, archaic practice of the Rule of Garbhabat. Despite the fact that democracy has dawned in Nepal and different political parties are allowed, the male population still dominates Nepalese politics and the plight of women hasn’t changed much, even though there are tourists in Kathmandu and along the trekking-trails, flocking to Nepal to see the Himalayas and take pictures of its rural women and children for mellow home slide-shows, amid relatives and neighbours. The benefits of democracy and westernisation haven’t caught up with the majority of the Nepalese women as yet.
The entire world knows how hard the average Nepalese woman works in the fields and in urban areas, and the price she has to pay is immense. Ethnic Nepalese women sell their own products in the local markets and provide for the family. In other cases, the men give their earnings to their wives and the latter have a feeling of sharing the income, but when it comes to deciding what to buy, it’s always the men who take over. The desires and plans of the women are just ignored. Nepal’s males control property and decide all financial transactions in the family, and the women are left with peanuts. The women cannot take credits from the banks because they never possess anything, and hence have no security. The women tend to be traditionally docile and dependent upon their husbands due to the fact that they’re cut-off from financial sources.
The Nepalese men spend the family-savings as they please, for drinks and eating out with their friends, and for their own chauvinistic needs. The women and children, on the other hand, have to do without basic items like clothes and school-fees. The majority of the illiterate and thus socially handicapped women think in the traditional hinduistic way and leave the men to make decisions. Many women also fear that they might lose their positions as family-treasurers.
There are a lot of doctors for the rich people in Kathmandu but none for those in the rural, isolated and God-forsaken hamlets of Nepal, and those deprived, hungry souls eking out a miserable existence in the hovels and slums under the Bagmati and Vishnumati bridges. A land where children are jailed if a mother is sentenced for aborting a dead child. The women in Nepal are handicapped from birth till death in their Himalayan environment–in their families, education, farms, offices and in every sphere of life. It’s a long and thorny path till the Nepalese women are accepted as persons, and not as properties that are malleable, and without wills of their own. The Nepalese women have to develop an awareness and self-esteem of their own worth, women’s rights, potential and the important roles they play in the economy of their families and the country in general.
According to a Unicef report, the children of Nepal have to start doing important work at an early age. They have to do baby-sitting, gather fire-wood, forage for feed for the domestic animals or drive them to the meadows. These chores take such a lot of time that the children don’t have time for school, especially daughters who have to help in the households at an early age. They have to work eight hours a day and the sons work just half of the time. Most Nepalese children work barefoot and wear inadequate clothing because they cannot afford it. Nevertheless, Nepalese children attract your attention with their attentive looks, open and curious faces and their spontaneous and cheerful laughter. 46 per cent of Nepal’s population are younger than 15 years. And although 45 per cent of the six to eight year olds go to school, only half of them do their primary school exams. Nepal has millions of children without school-education and without carefree childhoods. Education can improve the survival chances of the children because there is a direct relationship between the literacy of women (4 per cent in Nepal) and infant mortality (child-death). In Nepal 134 out of 1000 children die in the first year of their birth.
It was only in 1950 that Nepal’s doors were opened to the outside world. Till then we lived in an age of political darkness. To the average Nepalese, going to Kathmandu was traveling to Nepal, because Kathmandu was Nepal. Later, the Panchayat government talked about a decentralised form of government but it was just a hoax. It was very much centralised, and still is, even after the democratic movement in 1990.
A lot of men and women lost their lives in their attempt to free themselves from the shackles of the Panchayat government and monarchy, and the result is that there’s no stability in Nepalese politics. There’s a change of government after short terms, with an alarming corruption and nepotism, and the NGOs in the aid-giving countries only shake their heads in disbelief, because their counterparts are shuffled and posted to remote places, depending on their political color.
The fact that the Nepalese woman suffers in society is deeply rooted in the social system and the anachronistic and discriminatory, patriarchal, hinduistic Civil Code (Muluki Ain) which was formulated under the reign of a king named Surendra Bikram in 1853. It was modified by King Mahendra (the father of the present King Birendra) in 1963. If a Nepalese woman gives birth to a still-born child she is charged with infanticide on the evidence of a denunciation, without so much as a gynacological examination, and sentenced by the rule of Garbhabat, which is the Nepalese word for: destruction of life. The Nepalese Civil Code was made in a dark age of Nepalese history during which another form of social and cultural values were prevalent. Though the winds of change have swept in the Nepalese kingdom, the Code still remains unchallenged as far as the poorer section of the Nepalese population is concerned.
Many women who miscarry hide the evidence by not going for medical tratment and this can lead to infertility or even death. The Nepalese Code assumes that every pregnancy that fails due to natural causes is the fault of the mother –in effect, a deliberate attempt to abort the pregnancy, and it’s horrible to see a woman hauled off to jail as a criminal on top of the personal tragedy of the loss of a child that may have been longed for. It is possible for influential Nepalese women to get away with abortion without much fuss in the male-dominated Nepalese society.
Hindu marriage ceremony:
If a Nepalese couple wants to elope and marry fast and cheap, all they do is perform a minimum of ‘tika-talo’ ritual ceremony, and they don’t even have to be registered. The normal hinduistic marriage is elaborate and arranged by the parents and is a family matter in which the caste plays a big role even today. The well-educated bridegrooms of Kathmandu Valley prefer to see a video of the bride-to-be in the case of arranged marriages to avoid the ‘cat-in-the-sack’ phenomenon. For the family of the bride it is a matter of prestige and the marriage is celebrated with much ado, and hundreds of guests are invited. This may have ruinous consequences for the family of the bride, because it means blowing up a lot of borrowed money in case the family isn’t wealthy. The dowry comprises both gifts and money and this is also an incentive for the bridegroom. The tradition is stronger than the legislation .
During the marriage ceremony the couple sit down cross-legged in front of the altar where scores of sacrificial objects are spread out on small cups made of banana leaves held together with tooth-pick sticks. The offerings consist of flowers, incense, water, oil-lamps, cinnober-powder, rice, sweets, fruit (depending on the season), coins, and even cloth.
Not all the stainless-steel thalis and Meissner porcelain are ritually pure in comparison to the hand-made natural taparas from banana and other smooth leaves for the Gods and Godesses of the hinduistic pantheon. The priest who performs the marriage-ceremony is a Benaras-educated Sanskrit-reciting Brahmin. In civil-life he works for the Nepalese government, but since he is a Brahmin by birth, he is often invited to carry out all forms of pujas by the Hindu population of Kathmandu. The house-bahun is consulted, who calculates the time for the rituals to be performed by consulting his astrological calendar. An auspicious day for the wedding has to be found, for the human being is a microcosm of the rhythm of the universe.
A young daughter is treated as a holy person, even holier as the cows that you see in the streets of Nepal, Sikkim and India and a young daughter brings a lot of positive aspects or punya to her parents. Normally the parents of the bride wash the feet of both bride and groom. The foot-washing is accompanied by the recitations of vedic lore by the Bahun priest beckoned by the parents of the bride. After that follows the gift-of-the-virgin (kanyadan) ceremony.
The bride wears a scarlet seven meter long sari, an embroidered silk blouse, traditional jewelry and her hair is parted in the middle. She wears pearls on her ears decorated with gold. A number of sacrifices are made to the Gods and Goddesses by sprinkling their symbolic effigies with jamara and holy water. This is followed by the entire family chanting “Om jaya jagadisha hare” to the accompaniment of a small ritual drum (damaru), the chiming of a bell and the blowing of a conch.
And then comes the actual swayamvara-ceremony with the sacrificial fire, which is made in the form of a quadrangle that encloses the ritual article: the sacred altar, with the fire in the centre.
Various offerings are made to the dieties: Ganesh, Agni the God of Fire, the sky, wind, earth, water, and the hinduistic trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Sacrificial rituals have been an essential part of the vedic way of life. The sacrifice is simple but its meaning can be complex. This is followed by the sindur-potay ceremony. The bridegroom has to place vermillion (sindur) as a sign of marriage on the parting of the bride’s hair. A Hindu bride is expected to apply the sindur as long as her husband lives. After that the couple are obliged to walk around the sacrificial fire three times. In Hinduism, Agni (latin: ignis) is not only the God of Fire and ritual but also the fire itself and summons the power of the Sun God Surya to the sacrificial altar.
Divorce among Hindus:
Even though Hindu marriages are elaborate, they can be annulled quicker than the marriages that end on the rocks of Reno. The divorce rate among the Nepalese is rising even though most marriages are arranged by the parents. It’s the male who files the divorce because he might have been forced to marry by his parents, and later when he has financial resources and is independent from his father, decides that his spouse is an unsuitable match. A couple is divorced when the man denies the relationship. And if the woman has the misfortune to be pregnant or has children, then she’s stigmatised and branded as immoral.
Article 11 of the Nepalese Constitution states that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of sex, but in Article 9 it states that the children of Nepalese male citizens are deemed to be citizens of Nepal by descent. The children of Nepalese female citizens with foreign fathers are considered foreigners, and have to reside in Nepal for fifteen years before they can be granted Nepalese citizenships.
Nepalese males should examine their own attitudes towards girls and women in their immediate surroundings. Do our daughters and sons get the same attention, affection and the same status?
Motherhood and Child-rearing:
Marriage and rearing children shouldn’t be the sole aim of a woman’s life. In Germany, for instance, there’s an alarming high number of mothers-with-kids (alleinstehende Mütter). Living with a partner seems to have gone haywire and they prefer to live alone, cashing alimony cheques from the fathers of their children or living on hand-outs of the Social Department throughout Germany. The German law makes it possible. The Nepalese women have a tough time in their hinduistic, patriarchal milieus, which hardly give them a chance to get up once they have fallen in the eyes of the pollution-purity professing Hindu society.
Despite the sweeping changes that have been introduced in Nepal’s Civil Code since 1975, most women are ignorant of their rights because of the high illiteracy, low self-esteem and lack of self-consciousness. The Nepalese society plays a pivotal role in victimising women who have divorced or have separated from their partners. Widows are not allowed to wear scarlet saris, no wedding necklaces and the vermillion powder called tika. They have to wear white as a sign of mourning . The social stigma attached to these unfortunate women reduces their chances in the marriage-market. Nepalese males prefer chaste, untouched females, almost girl-children, as their brides.
After the success of the people’s movement, the new constitution of Nepal was promulgated in November 1990 and broke new ground as far as women’s rights to equality and fair-play are concerned. The State has been given the authority to legislate specific laws for the protection of the special rights of women.
Nothing has changed since then in practice. Although provisions have been made in the New Nepalese Constitution (1990) in favour of women, the elections showed that the major parties are not prepared to improve the status of women in Nepal. Women are treated as second-grade citizens and even like servants, as can be seen in the laws relating to property rights, family rights and sexual rights. My question is: Quo vadis Nepal? Will the new government formed by the Maoists, Congress and other parties also take the role of the women in Nepal’s development?
What others have said about the author:
„Die Schilderungen von Satis Shroff in ‘Through Nepalese Eyes’ (www.Lulu.com) sind faszinierend und geben uns die Möglichkeit, unsere Welt mit neuen Augen zu sehen..“ (Alice Grünfelder von Unionsverlag / Limmat Verlag, Zürich).
“ Since 1974 I have been living on and off in Nepal, writing articles and publishing books about Nepal– this beautiful Himalayan country. Even before I knew Satis Shroff personally (later) I was deeply impressed by his articles, which helped me very much to deepen my knowledge about Nepal. Satis Shroff is one of the very few Nepalese writers being able to compare ecology, development and modernisation in the ‘Third’ and ‘First’ World. He is doing this with great enthusiasm, competence and intelligence, showing his great concern for the development of his own country”. (Ludmilla Tüting, journalist and publisher, Berlin).
“Due to his very pleasant personality and in-depth experience in both South Asian, as well as Western workstyles and living, Satis Shroff brings with him a cultural sensitivity that is refined. His writings have always reflected the positive attributes of optimism, tolerance, and a need to explain and to describe without looking down on either his subject or his reader”. (Kanak Mani Dixit, Himal Southasia, Kathmandu)
“Satis Shroff writes with intelligence, wit and grace”. (Bruce Dobler, Professor in Creative Writing MFA, University of Iowa).