There was something symbolic when two Newar bank officials, in their Sunday daura suruwal and dhaka topi uniform, told me that the loan my father applied for was not going to be accepted because of me and my sister and our ethnicity. I was speechless for a few minutes. I have often shared with my friends and family that the discrimination I have faced, as a Madhesi woman is not serious compared to what others have faced, probably because I am an educated upper caste Madhesi with privilege.
“You know your father is old and he has two daughters and no sons. Girls get married. There is no guarantee that the daughters would pay back the loan. Especially girls in your jaat usually do not work after marriage.”
After a few minutes of silence, my heart started to pound and as my mother explains, I was having a hard time controlling my rage because my facial expressions said it all. I tried to argue with the men in the room. This was a generalization, assumption, discrimination based on my gender and my ethnicity. I asked the bank manager and the loan manager to show me legal evidence of rejecting our loan application. My mother who was present there spoke up and shared that her daughters have been a support for many years and they cannot question it. After almost an hour of argument and discussion, I left the bank saying that my father would talk to them after he is back in the country.
After one week I followed up with my father. The bank manager gave him the same biased arguments. After this, my father approached the chairperson of the bank and other authorities, and finally, the loan was approved after several months.
This incident brought back a memory from my first day of school. I went to one of the most famous all girls schools in Kathmandu and on the first day, one of my classmates turned around in the assembly and asked me, “Where do you wash dishes, kaali Madise?” That was the first time I was exposed to the brutal reality of being a Madhesi. I went home and asked my parents what Madise was. They had a hard time explaining to me the stigma attached to the word, while at the same time trying to protect me from such an environment. They were deeply disappointed that I faced this in such a reputed school.
As a second generation Madhesi woman in Kathmandu, I have not faced major forms of discrimination apart from name calling, having my nationality questioned, or my good Nepali being appreciated by strangers on microbuses who probably assumed I do not belong here. I believed things had changed after the three Madhes movements, that people in Kathmandu had become more tolerant and understanding, but this incident changed my perception. The stereotypes about Madhesis and Madhesi women have not changed. The bank officials attacked my identity as a woman and as a Madhesi. This was a two-pronged discrimination that people often fail to see. While discussing the women’s movement in Nepal, we try to explain that there is a need for an intersectional 1 understanding because women from different backgrounds have different experiences based on their ethnicity, caste, economic background and sexuality. Apart from directly facing a discriminating and humiliating situation, I learnt that a Madhesi man with two daughters needs to have access and power to reach authorities. My father could do that but I cannot imagine how Madhesi men and women who do not have that kind of privilege deal with situations like this.
The bank officials with their hardcore patriarchal mindset also made a narrow-minded, sexist argument that daughters end their relationship with their parents after they get married and go to their in-laws. This means that they are no more a part of their own family home and so have no responsibility towards their parents. We as a society are trying to get rid of such practices and mentality. An institution like a private bank making such an argument shows what a long way we have to go.
I commute everyday from Kirtipur to Lagankhel on a public bus and often hear people saying things like, “I bought this banana from that Madise”, and “Call that Madise over there.” Madhesi people in Kathmandu are usually referred to in a way that reduces their identity and their humanity. From the streets to banks, we face challenges of different kinds that affect us in different ways and sometimes it exhausts us and gives us immense mental stress.
It is time to address this issue by speaking out. I tried to challenge the bank authorities because there was no legal basis for their actions. As a private institution, it can have its own rules and they are allowed to be biased. But think about how absurd and unacceptable it is to use ethnicity and gender as a basis for denying such services.
In 2015 during the Madhes movement, I was the only Madhesi student in my class and I faced questions like, “Why don’t you and your people move away from the border?”, or “There is no discrimination any more, why are you protesting?” I was told, “Read the constitution before you make any statement about it.” I did. I read it more than three times in a week and still did not see reasons not to protest. Today if anyone asks me to read the constitution, I snap back at them. It has been decades of Madhesi men and women demanding equality, respect, and inclusion. Madhesi women are part of the women’s movement and the Madhesi movement. And yet we are constantly asked to present evidence of discrimination and humiliation. Why, after decades of protesting and revolting, are we still asked why we protest, and what our demands are?
There is the illusion among people that in urban societies like Kathmandu, no one humiliates others or discriminates anymore. People proudly call themselves educated and aware. But until they break out of their bubble and face reality, they cannot really unlearn their behavior towards Madhesis and other marginalized people.
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