Hugs are a social construct. Along with Dylan Groves I am well known for my ability to spot social constructs, whether they exist or not. However, I never thought of the act of hugging as something that is not universal. It is such a natural reaction to us in the states, when we win a sporting event we hug, when someone is crying we hug them and when we say goodbye to someone we are at all close with we hug. It is an act that can express so many things and we do it so often; yet, it something that we never think about.
Nepal is a place where the inability to hug has come as a shock and the fact that it comes up so often is surprising to say the least. My first incident was when our land lady gave us a piece of furniture for our clothes and gave us some grapes she had just picked. Naturally I gave her a hug to thank her, this turned out to be a faux pas. I could tell by her reaction something wasn’t right and then asked and apparently men do not hug women, even if said women is in her late 60’s. Since I have never thought of the hug as remotely sexual, it had never occurred to me. I made this mistake again thanking a friend of ours who is a tailor for cutting quilt squares for us for free.
Needless to say I do not want to cause a scandal and have been more careful in my actions. The inability to hug yes is hurting my ability to express myself, but it really hasn’t caused me that much harm. That however changed yesterday, when we visited a home for ex-kamalahari girls, girls who had worked in a debt-bondage system and were orphaned. We were having a grand old time getting tours and asking questions. We painted quilt squares with the girls and helped them, express how they felt well they were working. Sure it was heavy stuff but everyone was smiling and enjoying themselves. As we let the quilt panels dry we thought it would be a good opportunity to interview any girl who wanted to speak on camera. The idea is that they can tell their story and the world can listen.
The interviews were going well, we wrote questions and Pinky was asking them for us. We were getting what I thought were candid answers and there were some emotional moments, but everyone was doing well. Then we got to our 4th interview of a girl named Ranjita. She was telling a heartbreaking story that made her cry. In fact at the time I could not even tell what the story was about, but you knew it was painful and sorrowful. Hopefully within the next weeks you will be able to see a translated video of her story. I cannot do it justice here
However, having worked with children for over a decade my first instinct was to hug her, but I could not. I was unable to help her in any way. The camera kept rolling and she kept crying. I wanted to stop the interview as a way to protect her and make myself feel like I was doing something to help her, but she needed to get the story out. I was unable to express my compassion for her and her experiences. Gender roles had handcuffed me in this small way.
As the interview ended she ran out crying and all I could say was could someone for the love of God, please give her a hug. Luckily, Rachel was able to hug her for 15 minutes as she cried on her shoulder. A cathartic moment that I am told ended up with 15 girls hugging and then taking fashion photos of each other.
I have never been in a gender segregated society like Nepal, where girls sit on one side of a classroom and the boys on the other. In this case it was not being able to give comfort. In other areas it is not being able to express joy or get the real opinion of a woman because of cultural norms. I understand every culture is different, but when someone is crying you just want to comfort them and that was impossible merely because of gender.
Posted By Alex Kelly
Posted Sep 3rd, 2012