Gender equality : Miles to go

Pooja Pokhrel

Issues of gender inequality in Nepal concentrate mainly on poor rural women who have neither the liberty nor the resources to form their own individual, social, economic or political identities. Urban women, particularly in Kathmandu, exemplify educated, liberated, independent women — the ultimate objective of women empowerment. A closer look, however, shows that they are far from it. It is true that most middle and upper class women are not denied access to basic education and primary health care. Many are even free to work outside their homes, if they so choose. But these alone do not constitute gender equality.

The dilemma that most city women face has to do with the patriarchal attitudes deep-seated in Nepali culture and society. A typical urban woman finds herself torn between her ideological aspirations that encourage her to create her own identity in society and the traditional dogma that binds her primarily to her household in the roles of a daughter, a mother, a wife, a daughter-in-law, a sister, and so on. Many educated and capable women are unable to work outside just because they do not have the permission from their fathers or husbands.

As soon as a woman steps outside, she faces various impediments. To start with, on buses she is often subjected to some form of pinching, pushing, nudging, groping, staring, or obscene comments. Even in the workplace, many women admit to being sexually harassed.

Women that try to balance their home and their jobs may be under tremendous mental and physical pressure. There are very few working women in the Kathmandu Valley that come home and enjoy the same comfort of a cooked meal, the household taken care of, and perhaps even a massage, as do most men. Instead, many face verbal or even physical abuse, often from their husbands who do not feel at home with the thought of a woman assuming their responsibility of the breadwinner.

Despite their increasing literacy rate, women account for only twenty per cent of the government jobs in Nepal. Their representation in the political system is negligible. This reality adds to their social oppression. Often, young girls are not allowed to go abroad for education or employment, while boys are free to do so. Girls are made to realise that the ‘family name’ they carry is too important to risk being sullied before they are married off.

When such issues of middle- and upper-class gender inconsistencies are raised, they are often dismissed as being overly “western” or “too feminist”. Most people,particularly men, fail to understand that such gender issues are not simply an exaggerated western concept that a few elite women complain about over luxury lunches at their get-togethers. Almost all women in the cities face all or some of these problems.

Not all women want to take to the streets and burn bras or wear mini-skirts. Often, progressive Nepali women are sensitive about their cultures. They do not gauge blindly women’s liberation against Western standards. Indeed, non-western perspectives of progress for women may, at least in some instances, provide more respect, dignity, and power to women. If educated city women truly stand for empowering poor rural women, such subtle gender disparties as prevail in various normalised forms in our society need to be addressed. Their empowerment is only possible when they cease to be oppressed by camouflaged social, religious, legal, economic and political elements that primarily treat a woman as a secondary citizen.