Saturday Features

In Nepal, a woman’s identity is still tied to their male kinfolk -- first father, then husband

- Bibhu Luitel, Kathmandu

Jan 18, 2019-

In 2015, when I appeared for a job interview at a popular Kathmandu school, the very first question the principal asked me was, “Are you a Newar?”

I wasn’t surprised. This wasn’t the first time I had been asked that same question.

My nose is not pierced and apparently that are still many who assume that girls with noses unpierced belong to the Newar community. But this is not the only reason why I’m constantly asked if I’m a Newar. I also happen to live in Kirtipur, a Newar stronghold.

"No, I am a Brahmin," I remember answering the principal.

He looked over my resume and said, “You must be a student living in that area."

Since the establishment of Tribhuvan University, Nepal's first university, in 1959 in Kirtipur, the city and its outskirts, including Tyanglaphant, Panga and Nagaun, have hosted a growing number of university students renting rooms. So people tend to assume that all non-Newars who live in Kirtipur are university students, temporary residents.

"No, I live with my parents and we have our own home," I replied.

I knew the next question he would ask me. This is a script I have followed countless times in the past. As expected, he asked again, "Where is your pahaad ko ghar?"

My father comes from Tehrathum, a district in the far-east of Nepal while my mother is a typical kaathe, a term used to define people who’ve been living in the Kathmandu Valley for so long their origins are murky.

On learning this, many people call me a purbeli -- someone who hails from the eastern part of the country. And so did the principal.

But does my father being a purbeli make me one too? I have never been to where he was born. My citizenship certificate, along with all my legal documents, read Kirtipur. This is where I was born and raised.

The principal, however, was only done with the interview once he’d managed to trace my roots. After three days, he asked me to join his school as a teacher. I declined.

People like this principal are everywhere, leading me to constantly ponder my identity. Even in my current workplace, there are colleagues who ask me about my roots when they find out I come from Kirtipur.

"You need to stop calling Kathmandu your home,” one colleague said to me. “You belong where your father comes from, until you get married. And when you get married, your husband's home district becomes yours."

My mother too has undergone similar situations. Whenever she’s asked where she comes from, her answer is always Koteshwor, where she was born and raised. "How can you expect me to say I belong to Tehrathum? I have never been there and I don’t even know my husband's side of family properly," she answers to those who don’t stop questioning.

In Nepal, it appears that women’s identities are still intricately tied to their male kinfolk -- first fathers then husbands.

I was once helping the grandmother of a guy I was dating put all her legal documents into a clear bag so the old lady wouldn’t misplace them.

"You come from Parsa?" I asked, seeing the permanent address on her citizenship certificate.

She shook her head. "I actually come from Makwanpur but my husband is from Birgunj, Parsa," she said she belonged to Parsa once she’d gotten married. As she began to tell me the story of how they’d met, fell in love and gotten married, I couldn’t get over the fact that she’d said the identity of her husband had now become hers.

Society tells me that I have no identity of my own. My identity comes from either my father or husband (if I get married someday). It appears that people still believe in coverture.

But despite all of this, I could never call myself a Tehrathume, or a Newar, just because you think I look like a Newar or because I live in Kirtipur.


Published: 19-01-2019 07:07

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