14 November, 2008

Kathmandu has gone to the dogs

Sushma Joshi

Walking out of my house one evening, I was puzzled to find the street empty -- except for a pack of aggressive male dogs. It was eight pm, and not a load-shedding night. And yet it appeared everybody had decided to call it a day. The vegetable market was closed. So were the shops. Walking down my own street suddenly became a discomfiting experience.
Kathmandu has darkened noticeably in the last few days since Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam implemented some of his urban improvement policies. Girls shall no longer dance in dance bars. Alcohol drinkers may need to show ID. Street vendors shall vanish from the streets -- while the monarchy used to bus out vendors and street beggars in a truck and put them outside Thankot each time a hi-fi foreign mission came on a visit, our progressive home minister will simply get the police to clear the streets. And 11pm is the time of business closure, with a curfew as cutting as the one that Ranas implemented on a much older Kathmandu.

Of course, the income generation activities of women, who have much fewer options than men for making a living, are the first to come under control. Dance bar employees now have to policemen each day who pull them out of cabs and harass them at their will. Street vendors will be chased off.

Unfortunately Nepal has the distinction of being one of the still remaining patriarchal countries where almost every single professional activity is dominated by men (you need only to take a look at the Reporters Club, or the Federation Nepalese Journalists, or the Nepal Bar Association, to realise the validity of this observation). This exclusion from most professions is exacerbated by a very common, through disregarded, fact: transportation, which has come to be dominated by the elite and middle class who own cars and motorbikes, is almost exclusively male-owned. I don't know if the Department of Motor Vehicles keeps a gendered ownership record, but I will be willing to bet 99 percent of the private vehicles are owned by men. So where does this leave women at night? To ride cabs and to be harassed by the police because any woman out on a cab after 8pm necessarily must be harassed, as I found to my dismay that night?

I felt profiled through my gender, and was angry. The taxi driver was as irked as I was when the police stopped me. But middle class women had it easy, it appeared, when the police waved me on with just one nasty glare. The driver told me that the police had stepped up their activities with working women. Late night female riders from dance bars were now taken off his cab and made to sing and dance in the street at night. "The police curse them with very foul words," he said. They were also asked for bribes.

The dance bars, through which women suffering from conflict were able to make a living, had seen their earnings go down significantly -- while they made as much as 15,000 rupees per night during the UNMIN heydays, now they are lucky if they make five hundred, he reported. "Women with money are treated better," he said, his sympathies clearly lying with his late night passengers. "Sometimes the women get gifts from the men." What gifts do they get? I ask curious. "Motorcycles!" he said, enthusiastically. It doesn't surprise me that the first thing women want is the gift of freedom and mobility. Their mobility is tied to their ability to earn, and financial freedom brings other possibilities. Unfortunately, it seems the current Home Ministry thinks less about making it possible for people to earn a living than about being tough.

But women are not the only ones to be harassed. I was in a cab with a few male friends outside Ring Road when a policeman stopped us again. The policeman insisted that my friends step out of the cab. He demanded ID. My friends, former UN employees, argued with him but the young policeman was inflexible. Finally, the ATM card being waved at his face seemed to confuse the policeman enough, and we drove off. "Do you see how they harass us if we're not elite, like you?" said my friend, in what I thought was a rather unjust accusation. After all, former UNMINers probably count as part of the privileged elite, but never mind that.

What is apparent is that the sudden policing of Kathmandu is long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. Please, Minister Gautam -- why don't you monitor the taxi meters but leave the passengers alone, why not put up street lights and make some space for vendors, and why impose this 11pm curfew and hit upon people's economic life? Perhaps it's time to rethink some strategies or else we'll have to concede Kathmandu has gone to the dogs.

Posted on: 2008-11-14 20:22:10 (Server Time)

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