Despite the obvious gender disparities I discussed in my last blog, in some ways my experience so far has padded me from some of the gender-based social realities present in Nepal. For example, in the SWEET-Nepal office, we have a healthy 50% balance of men to women (although I gather this is far from the norm). Indeed, my Focal Point Facilitator and closest Nepali friend is a friendly, outgoing woman and I often socialize with her and her husband’s friends without noticing any difference in the way she is treated on account of her gender.
In fact, it wasn’t until my wife arrived in Mahendranagar that I suddenly became aware on a personal level of the extent of the divide between male and female social interactions. When I was here alone I didn’t think about how my gender was shaping my interactions and experiences. However, now that my wife and I interact with others as a mixed-gender unit, these differing gender-based norms of interaction and behavior have become apparent.
It started when I brought my wife to the little hole in the wall restaurant/student cafeteria where I eat my daal bhaat (a typical meal consisting of lentil soup, rice and curried vegetables) every night. I had had some slight reservations about bringing her there, as the clientele is 100% male. While I was perfectly comfortable eating there by myself, the students could be overwhelmingly (almost aggressively) sophomoric in their jokes and conversation topics. I wondered if I was setting my wife up to feel slightly out of the loop, or worse, to be ogled and made uncomfortable.
When we arrived, the students who before would have shouted “Hello! Mr. Jeff!!!” slapped me on the back, and pulled up chairs to begin a conversation on sports or love marriage, were markedly reserved and even standoffish. Conversations that were normally loud and unbroken died down to a low murmur. Everybody seemed to be on their best behavior, and unfortunately this apparently included not speaking to me in my wife’s presence. As she was the only woman in the establishment, I couldn’t help but feel that her being there was perceived as some sort of intrusion into their male world.
On the other hand, I had warned my wife that the mother and young Tharu girl in our house acted quite indifferently towards me and that she shouldn’t feel bad if they seemed less than friendly. Therefore, imagine my surprise when emerging from the shower one night I overheard the sound of laughter coming from our room. Upon further investigation I found both of them giving my wife a crash course in Nepali and critiquing the Nepali shirt she had purchased earlier that day. In the three weeks I had lived in the house they had never once entered my room and had even seemed hesitant to return my “namaste.” Yet the presence of my wife opened up a door into their world, and through her I am now able to interact and share with them on a level that simply wasn’t possible before.
As a result of these incidents, I have gone back and started to analyze the situations and relationships through a more gender-sensitive lens. I can see that though we have gender-balance in the office, the women only really socialize with the other women, and visa versa. Although men and women share the office, they do not interact with each other socially. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in this organization which is dedicated to women’s rights, the leadership positions are all held by men.
I had thought that my good friend Usha didn’t seem to be affected by society’s gender expectations. She is assertively bold enough to insert herself into the male social sphere. Yet, I’ve observed that by doing so, she cuts herself off from the female social world. For example, while visiting friends the women usually gather in the back of the house to chat while Usha remains up front with the men. She is not quite part of their world, yet not fully understood nor accepted by the female world either.
In some ways, hers is the most difficult situation, because while she has been “revolutionary” enough to gain acceptance in male-dominated social interactions, at home she still faces the expectations of the female world. After a long day at the office, she must return home to clean, prepare food and wash dishes and clothes. She may not like this situation, but this is what her husband’s family expects of her. She may be strong enough to cast off the social conditioning of her own mind, but she is still held hostage to the internalized norms and values of those around her.
While the facts and raw data paint a picture of gender discrimination, much of the problem lies in the fact that by and large both men and women have internalized these social divisions. Thus, attacking gender discrimination is not merely a question of changing men’s attitudes and values because often women place the same expectations and values on other women, as well as themselves. Patriarchy is not merely the domination of one gender by the other, but is an entire system which permeates one’s psyche and not only determines how one relates to the external world, but also how people internally understand themselves.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Aug 8th, 2007