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Privileged Freedom: Lives of Kathmandu’s Traditional Modern Women

7 min read

by Anjana Rajbhandary 

A similar version of this was originally published and modified for republishing. 

The upper-middle-class women of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, are born and raised in good families with a set of unspoken rules and expectations. These are not hidden secrets, but a form of tradition that is passed along generations. These rituals become modernized with every coming year, yet the root remains the same.

It is a story that some know very well, a story that some wish they understood better, and a story that some women live every day.

It is the story of the traditional modern women. The fortunate bunch has their parents to give them a beautiful house to live in, never having to struggle for food (conversely, striving to stay away from it), and most go to a good school because they are know the importance of a good education. They are the lucky crowd, as most things have been handed to them on a silver platter, which they are very grateful, but it comes at a cost.

Most of these women of Kathmandu have everything money can buy. But the unfortunate truth is, they do not have the freedom to live their lives the way they want. They live a web of lies which they eventually begin to believe.

They are ladylike. They listen but are taught not to speak or be heard because only rude women are loud and obnoxious. This teaches them that it is wrong to have a voice, to be opinionated. The life of a traditional modern woman of Kathmandu is a beautifully wrapped box of paradoxes.

They are taught to be worldly and learn about different cultures. Their families support their childhood dreams to go away for school, though some are still unsure why they should want to go abroad in the first place.

They are told that girls can do everything a boy can, but it is not encouraged. They are told that they are strong and they should fight against injustice, for their rights, and to prove their equality in politics, business, medicine, and many other fields in life. Still, someone important did not get the memo on why, in this day and age, it is still impossible to get one’s citizenship in the name of the mother.

These women of Kathmandu are very critical of their bodies and are taught to believe that the thinner they get, the better their life gets. Discipline in eating less is admired and rewarded with compliments. Little girls are seen using napkins to soak oil off a french fry. Every stretch mark tells a story of pain and victory, especially when there is an eating disorder involved.

They eat as little as possible, especially in public, because no real woman eats very much. Wherever they go, whoever they meet, someone will comment on their appearance.

‘You got fatter /thinner/ darker/ fairer…’

People seem obligated to give their viewpoint, but these women are well-trained to never retort because that would be rude and disrespectful to their elders. It just clearly does not work the other way around.

They are told they are strong but are constantly reminded that “you must have a man in your life.” Just look at our passports, they have our name, then the name of our fathers or husband, maybe they should also add the name of every other male relative as well.

Having an active social life is taboo and the sea of lies separates them from their families pushing them further apart every passing day. Having a social nightlife means a “loose” character and a reputation for not being raised in an upstanding family. Suddenly, they start “staying over” at friends’ houses more often to the disappointment of their conservative families.

Drinking and smoking, (only acceptable if you are a man) categorize women as “tramps” whose moral character is constantly questioned. Hence, these acts are performed in secret to keep up the squeaky clean family reputation, which gives birth to self-loathing guilt in these women of Kathmandu.

So the lies add-on.

Dating and relationships are also scrutinized for women. Men are not questioned as much, of course. But the question arises–so, are these men in relationships with other men?

Many of these women have given up on their dreams and ended relationships with people they loved because they were of differing castes or social standing, or some other equally ridiculous reason. They chose the obligation to maintain family lineage instead. These women are internally programmed to choose family over love, so their bloodline remains sacred and strong. They do not want to be the first one to cause eternal embarrassment to the family name.

They master the art of silently crying in the dark, covering their faces with thick blankets so no one overhears them, desperately hoping that they have the strength to maintain a smile on their faces when morning comes. And they do it so well.

Some marry whom they choose and disconnect, but most come back because they owe it to their families who have given them so much, and now it is their turn to give back. The happiness of their family means the world to them, and they would do anything to keep the peace.

When these independent women come back home to Nepal from studying in foreign schools and universities, they are no longer individuals but the pride of their family if they do things right. Their every action is associated with the family name. They go from living in apartments with roommates or alone, while paying all their bills, to becoming the next potential bride whose purpose in life is to find a good husband and have a lavishly expensive wedding.

The sad part of these extravagant weddings is that it becomes a strange coming together of two families to show off to society how many people they can invite and how much money they can spend, instead of focusing on the love between two people (if it exists). It becomes an implicit display of one’s bank statement where they try to outdo your last relative.

These beautiful, strong women of Kathmandu are valued for what they are worth to their family, or what they can bring to their old or new family…and they said dowry was a thing of the past.

At any wedding, the first word used to describe the bride is “beautiful,” if she looks it. Or else she gets an “okay” as a consolation to her existence. No big deal, it’s just her wedding day but society has to compare her to the rest of the brides of that season, or ever. Kindness and consideration from guests isn’t important, but for a bride to be that stunning piece of artwork that will someday decorate someone’s hallway is. Never waste the pretty.

These women wonder how their families cannot hear them screaming on the inside. Probably because the members of their family were never heard either and now they choose not to listen.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – but it slowly shatters the souls. The majority are very well put together on the outside; they always look proper and pretty, but some are very broken.

If a woman is unmarried by her late twenties, she is pretty much doomed for life. Her moral character is constantly questioned, a sad reality to be used as an example for younger girls.

It is baffling how letting someone be happy does not seem to cross other people’s minds. Is it because most people are so jaded by the way of their strategically structured life that they do not even believe in the pursuit of happiness anymore? How come no one asks the most important question, “Are you happy?”

Mostly, these women of Kathmandu struggle and try to fight, but very few continue fighting. As mentioned in my article “Privileged Freedom” published in the Nepali Times Newspaper, some of us give in after burying our dreams under another layer of an unnecessarily expensive diamond necklace while some of us fight to stay true to who we are: and dear God, it is hard. By this time, these women like me have learned to heavily invest in waterproof mascara or just stop feeling altogether.

These women are not against marriage, they are against the reasons that people are pressured to get married. Most of them still believe in love, at least for now, and want to create a beautiful life with someone that is not measured by how good it would look to the outside world, and how beneficial it would be for the two families. I have a crazy theory that if more people allowed others to be happy and fought for their own happiness, there would be less resentment and judgment in the world.

After a beautiful and overly expensive wedding, these women of Kathmandu are expected to have children. Most love children, but isn’t it something that they should want when they feel ready? Some fulfill the role of time while most try to postpone the responsibility. Maybe they just aren’t ready, or maybe they are scared of becoming like those who never hear their children cry in the dark silence.

Of course, there is the epidemic of extra-marital affairs that everyone knows about but says nothing.  It is no shocker that when people are manipulated or coerced to do something that they do not want to, they find other outlets to maintain their sanity. Every person in the Kathmandu valley is aware of several such extra marital affairs, if not in one themselves.  It is difficult to understand how marriages are forced and staying single by choice is frowned upon, but extra-marital affairs are silently accepted. Welcome to the big city where everything will always look pretty, superficially.

Women who question the logic behind society’s belief system silently give in and readjust to the way of life that is expected of them. If women choose to stand up for themselves and challenge society’s norms, they are labeled as rebellious and negatively influenced by the West. God forbid that women have learned to think for themselves and chosen to do what makes them happy.

The thought of a caged life is never worth any designer purse once these women have tasted the free air. Freedom is priceless, they just have to pay a lot for it.

Some of them choose to have a better relationship with themselves because it ultimately helps them have a better relationship with other people. They learn to be kind to themselves for choosing happiness over artificial traditions. These women, in turn, are able to be kind to others because they know what it is like to be constantly judged. They learn to understand that no one should be treated with such ruthlessness. They become more accepting of others and allow others to be who they are.

Some of them realize that it is okay to be happy without feeling guilty. They realize that they cannot make everyone happy. When these women smile, it is genuine.

These powerful women of Kathmandu realize that it is their right to want what they want from their lives and it does not have to be what every other woman in their family has wanted or may have pretended to have loved. They learn to treat themselves the way they want others to treat them.

With years of battling themselves  for what they want versus what they should want, they learn to stop blaming other people for their unhappiness. It is always easy to blame someone else for everything that goes wrong in their lives, but they stop playing the victim and take reign of their destiny. These women of Kathmandu hold themselves accountable for the choices they make, and that is one amazing feeling.

It will not be easy, but these women knew it never would be.

These admirable women of Kathmandu choose not to be a stereotypical traditional modern woman. They choose the uncertain life full of struggle trying to find their way to their true self. More than money, status and appearances – they choose reality.

They choose their freedom. They choose their happiness.

I choose my happiness.

Let the wedding season begin.

anjana rajbhandary, kathmanduAnjana Rajbhandary is originally from Kathmandu, Nepal. She has also lived in Italy and Ireland. She received her Masters in Human Development from the University of Maine. She now lives in Chicago, IL, and loves it.


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