If you leaf through any fairy tale, it seems the sole purpose of the female protagonist is to find a suitor, and the story ends with the couple then living happily ever after. Except, life is not a fairy tale.
Even in 2022, many girls grow up thinking that their primary purpose in life is to find a husband. Education, skills, and talent are encouraged, but the sense of existence always ends with marriage.
Modern society speaks highly of gender equality, and even as women continue to fight for equal rights in all aspects of life, including equal pay, much of it is limited to words with no follow-up actions.
Growing up in a Newa family, I did not look forward to gatherings where I was constantly asked, ‘Kaile bhoj khuwaune?’ When was I getting married?
There would barely be any mention of my professional achievements, that topic is solely reserved for a boy. Because as a girl, my marriage is more important than my career or goals in life to Nepali society.
From a young age, girls are programmed to think that if they are not able to find themselves a husband by marriageable age, they are failures. This is not a diss on women who have chosen marriage and are happy, but we are focusing on those who are mentally traumatised by the underlying pressure to get married or have to continuously justify the reasons they are not married yet.
Our sad reality is that early on girls learn it is more important to be pretty than competent. Sure, everybody wants to look beautiful and beauty is valued everywhere. But how far will you go to attain it?
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According to a study published in Journal of International Marketing, ‘the pursuit of beauty’ is very high in Asia, evidenced by the amount of “‘appearance-enhancing products’ Asian women use.
While there are now voices about accepting yourself for who you are, the desire to be prettier, fairer and thinner still largely exists, and the pressure is predominantly higher for Nepali women than men.
Think of every wedding you have been to this week during the marriage season, one of the first things you say is how ‘beautiful’ the bride looks.
There countless stories of accomplished women who are valued more for how they look than who they are. Given the amount of work women put in to be academically and professionally successful, if it comes down to just looks, many women would rather stay single than be selected from a catalog of girls.
Sara is a college student who got a full scholarship to study in the United States, but she gets constant comments about her weight. “Marriage is a partnership between two people. It depends on compatibility and compromise. I value myself too much to be ‘chosen’ based on my appearance,” says Sara. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone who chooses me for my size or skin colour. I’d much rather be happier single, living my life.”
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Tara is a successful banker but when it comes to her private life, she has stopped attending family parties frustrated with people not respecting her boundaries.
“Aren’t you getting too old? Who will marry you now? You will have to settle for a divorcee or a widower at this point” are just some of the comments she has received. “I know my worth, but the continuous belittling makes me furious,” she says.
I myself waited so long to settle down because I did not want to give up my financial freedom and live with the in-laws to cook, clean, and serve, and become a glorified maid of sorts.
If I were lucky enough to marry into a family that allowed me to work, I would still have the obligations and put myself last. I have heard many stories of this kind from my girlfriends and cousins.
One’s financial condition can also determine the preference for marriage. Tina is a medical doctor and has been practicing for several years now. “I am financially and emotionally independent. I am self-sufficient, so I don’t feel the need for a partner,” she says.
In Nepal, men are more financially independent than women. This is mostly because most women are not as educated or are not allowed to work after marriage, limiting their resources.
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This also makes them dependent on their spouse for support. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it worse with limited economic opportunities as it is or reduced income for many.
“Women choose to remain single because they have a choice and capacity to navigate and lead their own life,” says LOOM Nepal founder Jyotsna Maskay.
Indeed, women today do not feel the same pressure as our parents and their generation to settle down. Educated women know that they have a choice, and one of them is marriage.
One choice is not better than the other but they choose to do what is right for them and what makes them happy.
Isha recently got out of an unhappy marriage, and the resulting social stigma has followed her everywhere. “It is not easy being called names and held responsible for an unsuccessful marriage, especially as it was mostly his fault. But in our society, we women are to be blamed,” she says.
Isha had her own painful journey and the path to self-acceptance was filled with challenges, but in the end, she chose herself over the image expected of her.
She adds: “Some days are harder than others. In the marriage, every day was torture. Honestly, I feel empowered to have broken stereotypes.”
All marriages are not awful, of course, but some can be. In the end, you have to prioritise yourself instead of being a people pleaser. Given a choice, it is always smarter to choose happiness over a husband.
Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues. Some names have been changed.