Last year, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. It was assigned reading for a class, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But unlike the many great books and articles that I have read on feminism and gender, The Second Sex felt personal. I guess every budding feminist has certain works that have had an exceptional impact on them. For me, it was The Second Sex, because after reading it, I could finally describe exactly how I had felt during one crucial phase of my life, and to finally be able to do so was extremely gratifying.
Now, my gross simplification of the text of course does not do justice to de Beauvoir, but I could summarise what I learned thus: The male sex will always be the primary subject, while the female sex will always be regarded as the Other, an object whose sole purpose is to complement the male sex. If you take away the male sex, you take away the one link to subjectivity that a female has – she will be reduced to being merely an object. As an object, she is stripped of her agency and her freedom to make decisions for herself, and she will be treated as something that only has secondary value. Of course, to an enlightened, progressive reader, de Beauvoir’s arguments may seem too absurd or even exaggerated. After all, today, we live in a society where women are regarded as having agency even without their male counterparts. But when de Beauvoir published her seminal book in 1949, among the few rights that women had was the right to vote, and in some societies, the right to education–although even providing them that right seemed too radical for some. De Beauvoir’s work was so powerful that it blazed the trail for a whole new movement in gender equality that we now refer to as the Second Wave of Feminism. Today, we look at Western society as an ideal because women can voice their opinions freely, become presidents and prime ministers, have pre-marital sex and not have to hide it, but this essay is not about all the feats that the West has achieved. It’s about my first realization of being the second sex in Nepal.
I was always aware that being a woman in Nepal comes with numerous challenges. Yet, I kept telling myself that with “hard work and perseverance”, my gender wouldn’t be of much relevance in the real world. Like every Nepali kid who went to a boarding school, I too believed in the myth of meritocracy. In 2011, however, I had a rude awakening. That was when I first felt that I was just the second sex and undertood that no amount of law amendments or inclusion of women in parliamentary bodies could change that. Of course, at that time I wasn’t aware of the terminology itself, but I did realize that as a Nepali woman, my voice didn’t have the same value as a man’s.
In 2008, my mother and father got divorced. My mother was a victim of domestic violence. My father was a raging alcoholic who used to beat my mother so hard that she had to be rushed to the hospital ER numerous times. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father dragging my mother by her hair and throwing her off the bed; I must have been three years old at the time. There were times when I did feel that women were dispensable in Nepali society, but my mother was a strong woman who never backed down even after having lived through that hell, so I told myself that women would have a place in society if we only toughened up. After years of suffering at the hands of my father and conforming to societal beliefs that a married woman should keep enduring abuse no matter what, my mother couldn’t hold back anymore and decided to file for a divorce, and I wholeheartedly supported that decision. Many of our friends and family members turned their back on us despite knowing how abusive my father was. When I voluntarily chose to stay with my mother, they accused her of manipulating me into doing so. I used to zealously watch American sitcoms, so divorce didn’t seem that unnatural to me. But although I respected my mother for filing for divorce, I was never truly aware of how immensely courageous she was. After the divorce, we moved to a new neighbourhood. I felt like the hardest part was over and that we could start anew, but I later realized how embarrassingly naïve I was to think that.
In 2011, my mother decided that it was time for me to get my citizenship. It had been three years since I had been living with my mother. The ‘Nepal Citizenship Act’ had been revised in 2006, which meant that I was eligible to get my citizenship under my mother’s name and officially change my surname from Limbu to Tamang, since my father was a Limbu and my mother was a Tamang. We were both so hopeful–only to realize later on that a change in the law meant nothing in a country like Nepal, where women were still merely second-class citizens. Despite the revision of the citizenship law, I couldn’t get my citizenship because we had failed to prove that we didn’t know the whereabouts of my father. Yes, the deal-breaker was that we had to prove somehow that my father had voluntarily abandoned us. The fact that my mother had raised me by herself and that my father, despite living only a few hours away from us, hadn’t shown the slightest interest in doing so didn’t matter to the district officials. We also had two intelligent and well-spoken female lawyers who came to defend our case. They raised many valid points, but this one, in particular, has stuck with me to date: Sujata Koirala’s (the politician) daughter has a Nepali citizenship under her mother’s name and her father’s whereabouts are known, so why should this case be any different? Unfortunately, this statement didn’t sit well with the man in the district office–who ordered us to get out of his office. Of course, my mother wasn’t a Koirala. She was just a working-class, divorced Tamang woman with neither powerful connections nor the means to pay a bribe, so how dare she ask for the same treatment as the descendants of political powerhouses like the Koiralas! It was appalling that we even made that comparison!
For the next few months, it seemed like my mother and I would relive the same routine over and over again. I was in grade 12 and I would finish my morning classes. She would ask for early leave from work and come to pick me up. Then, we would frantically rush to the district office in Babar Mahal. On better days, the person in charge would be out on his “tea-break”, so we would have to wait anxiously for a few hours, just to be told to go to another department and then another, until the office closed. On most other days, the officer wouldn’t come back until 5 pm, and in true governmental official manner, the officials would ask us to come the next day. We repeated this routine two or three times a week for almost five months. When we didn’t have to go to the district office, we’d apprehensively wait for them to call us back. The lawyers representing us–although very competent–were not able to help our case either since they had committed the worst sin a woman could possibly commit, which was to question the authority of a man in power. I could see my mother spiraling down into the depressive space that she went into back when she was married to my father. I guess my mother’s coworker noticed this too because, usually, my mother isn’t one to give up that easily–our several arguments stand as testament to that. The coworker had always treated my mother as her little sister, despite her coming from a completely different socio-economic and ethnic background, so the coworker decided to resort to the final option. Her husband knew a person who had a high-ranking government job, so she begged him to request the CDO to look into my case. Within a week, my mother and I were called to the Babar Mahal district office, and there it was, my citizenship, which read, “Dalima Tamang”. After five months of relentlessly running from one office to another, waiting for hours and hours for the officer to come back from his “tea-break”, patiently waiting in the manner that law-abiding citizens are supposed to–as they had told us to–and going where they asked us to go, and even hiring two lawyers who specialized in human rights issues, all it really took was a phone call from one man to another, and all the criteria that I had seemingly failed to meet prior to the phone call were suddenly of no importance. When I finally got my citizenship, my mother and I were both so happy. We cried and hugged each other, and people congratulated us. Our battle was over. We had gotten what we wanted, and yet to me, it didn’t feel like a win. Our victory felt bittersweet at first, but today, years later, as I reflect on it, even the sweetness seems to have been long gone. For I’ve come to understand that I was one of the few fortunate kids who could get citizenship through my mother’s name and that this wouldn’t have happened if we were not vaguely connected to a powerful man.
As I read The Second Sex years later, I could finally theorize the mixture of feelings I had felt when I first received my citizenship — that I, my mother, the lawyers, and even the coworker who helped my mother were just second sexes whose voices didn’t matter unless a man was there to speak on our behalves. It didn’t matter if a woman was speaking the truth because it was a truth coming from the mouth of a second sex–that the truth we presented had lesser validity, and power, than a lie coming from a man’s mouth. It didn’t matter that a woman was demanding her rights as provided by the law, for it was a law that gave barely any authority to the female sex. This was nine years ago, and thanks to that citizenship, I was able to get a passport, come to Japan, study at an international university, and read the work of a progressive French woman of the 20th century. If we analyze Nepal’s development cursorily, we might conclude that we have come a long way: We have a greater number of girls in school and in the workforce compared to the last decade; traditions that subjugate women have been illegalized; we have more women in powerful positions; we even have a female president, for god’s sake, so what more do Nepali feminist social justice warriors like us want, right?
But like I said, those are surface-level, statistical, changes that have very little importance to an everyday, working-class woman. There are still many single mothers in Nepal who cannot get citizenship for their children despite the law’s being revised 14 years ago, just because they were not fortunate enough to know a man who knows another man in power. Rape victims still get shamed for wearing certain types of clothing, and marital rape seems like an absurd, non-issue to most Nepalis. A woman’s choosing to keep her family surname stills seems like an act of betrayal to her husband, and although a woman can claim inheritance of her parental properties, she may face some backlash for doing so. Some people name the few women who hold seats in the parliament as proof that the female is not the second sex anymore, yet turn a blind eye to the fact that most of the decision-making power in district administration offices is held by stubborn men who are more than willing to twist the law to their liking rather than being open-minded towards and understanding of a divorced woman’s situation. Rape jokes are routinely thrown around on social media, under the guise of “dark humour and free speech”, and every time a female issue is raised, people are quick to point out that men also face similar problems: they do this knowing full well that they could raise men’s issues as a standalone topic. These are the realities that Nepali women still face to date, and no amount of revisions of the law has been able to change these facts on the ground. If a new law that favours women’s rights does get passed, it always comes with a series of loopholes that misogynistic officials can deliberately misinterpret.
For working-class nobodies, just a greater number of women in parliament or a female president does not change their reality. They would rather have actual feminists (of any gender) in local district offices because even if all the laws designed to subjugate women are overturned, that still wouldn’t matter to parochial district administration officials. Of course, women with resources could fight their cases in courthouses and probably win, but less privileged women do not have the time or the money to do so. Nepali women do not need female presidents (that seems more like window dressing, to trick a distant observer into believing how “progressive” we have become) but rather a society where we don’t have to constantly police the tone of our voices and conform to the diktats of the men in power. We want a society where Nepali women of all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds aren’t just second sexes, but rather, individuals with the same freedom as everyone else, without our having to lean on male counterparts. We want a society where we are assured of our rights under the law–because just having a few women in positions of power or the country’s passing a few progressive laws doesn’t guarantee equal rights to all women