Using old family photographs, I have been able to trace the history of patriarchy over four generations in my clan, right down to the present socio-political milieu in Nepal.
Perhaps it is the intimacy with which I know my family as well as my country–as a child, as I grew into an adult, a daughter, and now a mother–that makes me want to do this. I have dilly-dallied in writing about these things, and indeed questioned my very right to even publish it. After all, I was born and raised in Kathmandu, and come from a privileged Brahmin background. Such a pedigree makes me an advantaged Nepali.
However, as I once was told, “It is as much of a crime to commit injustice as it is not to oppose it.” The state of most Nepali women in their social, cultural, official, and legal capacities is so appalling and alarming that would be a crime not to speak up.
In 2013, motivated by the pristine image of Nepal abroad, my French husband proposed that we go live in Nepal. By that point, I had lived for over a decade in various cities in Europe. I missed being in the Nepali cultural sphere, speaking Nepali, eating Nepali food, so I readily agreed.
Most of my immediate family were living abroad at the time, and little did I know that without their network and support, living in Nepal would prove to be quite an ordeal — especially when legal and official work needed to be done.
I was aware that I would face some adverse cultural shock, but nothing could have prepared me for the degree of state-imposed patriarchy that we were about to experience. Little did I know that a daughter who is ‘given away’ (especially to a foreigner) would be viewed at par with an asylum-seeker by the state and the bureaucracy if she wanted to return.
On the maternal side of my family in my मामाघर, we are now the fourth generation of women who have had to survive and deal with adversities in a patriarchal society with very little support from male members.
Historically, the father figures in the clan have passed away very tragically and prematurely, have been absent or severely disabled, leaving the women to survive and carry on, earn a living, and raise children after a certain point or for long periods of time.
Growing up with my mother’s side of the family in a household full of women, I was shown that women could be strong, career-oriented, free and become anyone they wished.
Because of her upbringing in Kathmandu, Moscow, and Paris, my mother made sure that I was open to the world but raised in Nepal with Nepali values. Consequently, it made me confident enough to feel that I could fly anywhere.
Like every child, I too felt that these unconventional, strong-willed, colourful and opinionated members of my predominantly female family were the norm, and as much as I am grateful for that, it did not prepare me for my return from Europe as an adult, and in November 2013 as a woman married to a foreigner.
This photograph of the Neupane family (see above) is of my maternal grandmother’s side, who lived in Kalaiya in the western Tarai. Standing third from the left is my mother’s mother Kusum Kumari Sharma, with her four sisters surrounding their widowed mother Bashundhara Neupane in a very Jane Austen-esque setting.
Her fifth and youngest daughter is yet to be married off, the crescent moon hairpin being the traditional Hindu adornment of married women in Nepal in the community at the time. The Neupanes were a hill-based family who had migrated to the Tarai in the 1930s for better living opportunities, like many others.
Basundhara’s spouse held the position of डिठ्ठा administrator in Parsauni, one of the most fertile areas of Nepal. This prestigious status gave the family financial ease, and an overall comfortable life. In 1937, tragedy struck — literally, in the form of a lightning bolt. Basundhara’s husband Chudamani Upadhya Neupane along with his 13-member team were taking shelter under a tree during a rainstorm.
The tree caught fire, everyone was knocked unconscious, and only Chudamani did not wake up. Basundhara, along with their 14-year-old son, rushed to the spot. After the last rites, Chudamani’s nephew took advantage of the situation and pocketed all valuables and ownership documents left behind in the house.
Customary to Nepali culture, the superstitious finger-pointing of family misfortunes is automatically attributed as the moral or karmic culpability of a third person–mostly a woman.
My great-grandmother was accused as being a लोग्ने टोक्ने. The fact that she later lost her son, the only remaining male member of the family, made the situation even worse. We should be grateful for her eldest son-in-law Dhundi Raj Sharma, then a young lawyer, who came to the rescue from Ilam to save the family from further harm, and settled them down in Kalaiya.
Without this help, she would have lost property, all prestige and indeed all standing (प्रतिष्ठा, इज्ज़त) in society. Despite this ordeal, the widowed Basundhara was a strong-willed and determined enough woman to go to her husband’s family and obtain her share of the family inheritance — something that many women in Nepal do not dare to claim even today.
A couple of years later, Basundhara’s daughter, my then 16-year-old grandmother Kusum Kumari Sharma, got married. The fact that she had received an informal education was a problem for the members of her husband’s family, and she was packed off to her maternal home for seven years.
Such a situation even today would be considered a shame in many Nepali families. Inspired by her eldest sister and activist Tara Devi Sharma, and her lawyer husband, she got involved in the first wave of Nepal’s feminist movement.
Tara Devi Sharma went on to become a member of the सल्लाहाकार सभा (Advisory Council) in democratic Nepal. In 1954, she and fellow activists submitted a bill on the ‘Marriage system and provisions for a woman’s right regarding marriage’.
As for my grandmother, she was later united with her husband Bal Chandra Sharma, a founding member of the Nepali Congress movement. She even joined the party in 1947.
Her education foundation, coupled with her social awareness, prompted her to write many articles in significant magazines like युगबाणी (Yugbani). Despite her involvement in Nepal’s growing feminist movement, she had to face major discriminatory injustice much later in life based on the legal provision on nationality registration. The spouse of a public figure, albeit widowed, and fatherless, she could not obtain Nepali citizenship.
As for my grandmother, only when her son obtained his citizenship was she able to get a citizonship certificate through him. Had she had only daughters, she would have been stateless.