27 December, 2009

Angry Brahmin Girls

DEC 27 - One Nepali man of Brahmin origin who’d grown up in the States, and with whom I was hanging out in those moments when you think you might be compatible enough to share the rest of your life with, told me kindly that he’d finally diagnosed what my problem was. I had, he said, the Angry Brahmin Girl syndrome. Angry Brahmin Girls could never get over the gender discrimination they faced when they were young, and consequently had trouble in later life forging relationships. As an antidote, he suggested going out to a steak dinner (steak being the forbidden food), which I would eat while he watched over his own empty plate. Then, when I was done, I could throw the bones at him to assuage my rage. We had a good laugh about this, and despite everything, parted friends.

I think back on this incident and have a good laugh once in a while because it reminds me of the self-reflectivity so often missing in Nepali culture. This Brahmin man knew enough about his own culture to understand that misogyny was rampant inside it, and gender discrimination mainstreamed into the way of life. He also understood the restrictiveness that can often come with traditional gender roles, and ways in which young women may not want to play those roles. This kind of internal self-criticism, which I tried to highlight in my last op-ed (showing the difference between authoritarian versus liberal Brahmins) is often missing inside Nepali culture. And not only in Brahmins.

Brahmin-bashing has become convenient-let me admit it, I do it myself because it’s easy to do. But the kind of internal self-awareness and checks and balances we require from all of Nepal’s cultures is missing from everyone. Brahmins often provide the convenient focus of all of Nepal’s inequality, but far more goes on in the country than can be tacked onto one group. There is no conspiracy and there is no Big Brother, as my anthropology professor used to say. If only, then it would be easy to get rid of. Instead, the world is a much more complicated mess with no clear answer.

None of the social scientists who’ve highlighted the caste-ridden society of Nepal ever think about looking at the Sherpas and how they may also be practicing discrimination. But talk to any “Rongba” (hill dweller) who’s lived with the Sherpas and tried to penetrate their mountaineering culture, and you know at once that work discrimination exists even among these most picturesque and romantic people of the high mountains.

In Manang, only Manangis are allowed to own land-never mind if they spend only a few days in Manang and the rest in Thamel. The ones who do live in Manang and who do farm the fields can’t own land-because they are lowlanders or of the wrong ethnicity.

Go to Mustang and you will find, besides the wonderful Bonpo culture and the fabulous king, Dalit people being held as virtual slaves, trafficked internally from the lowlands. Go to Mustangi villages and ask who’ve received electricity-you will find that even in the most contained villages, the Dalit households will have been left out of the communal hydropower projects.

But the Dalits themselves are not exempt from misogyny and caste discrimination. Talk to reporters, and they will tell you well known feminist Dalit activists have forbidden their family members from marrying one rung below on the caste ladder. Talk to Badis, and you will realise that the Dalit world also needs to look at internal oppression as a serious issue. Talk to the Dalit woman in Kavre whose husband was beaten to death and her land almost seized by a Kasai Newar man, and you’ll realise that Dalits are not immune to practicing oppression and exploitation against Dalits.

My sense of it is that oppression is never as even or as uniform as we imagine it to be. The far west sees far horrible conditions for Brahmin women than a Dalit man will ever do in the far east. The Dalits in Madhes face far worse conditions than those in the hills. The Madhes remains an uneven minefield, with people of all castes and ethnicities facing discrimination at various geographical points, and with no one immune to violence.

So while Brahmin bashing is easy, its time now for all of Nepal’s various ethnicities to look within and see what’s going on in their various home fronts. Until that happens, this culture won’t change. We aren’t trained to see internal discrimination and oppression, and that takes place everywhere, regardless of culture.

This lack of critical awareness may be what keeps the culture of political impunity alive as well. The Army will continue to provide political protection to rapists and murderers as if their entire flock was at risk. (Hello generals, relax. The justice system just wants the bad guys, not you.) The UML will continue to sit on the policeman who triggered the gang rape of the policewoman, and the Maoists will continue to protect the journalist beaters as if their lives depended upon it. And all political parties will continue to accuse each other of being two-faced during these incidents, while none will attempt to prosecute any of these crimes or stop the violence.

Until we start to look within and see that oppression and human rights violations are everywhere, we will continue to see it only in others. And until that culture of self-reflection and self-criticism sets into all of Nepal’s various groups, we may yet see a lot more impunity.

Until then, eat some meat. Throw some bones. Laugh.


Anonymous said...

Good one. Self analysis is certainly the highlight of eastern tradition that some like few Brahmans have learned to be good at to try to maintain balance in life. It is quickly being picked up by the west with yoga, Chopra and meditations. But in the land of the Himalayas, some foreign NGO's and Maoists are hell bent on destroying that tradition, in the name of social change. Blaming one ethnic group or other for all of the country's problem is their tactics - be it either through missionary conversion going rampant or short sighted politicians selling out in the name of secularism. This unique land and its people need more self-analysis to maintain its tradition of two of the world's most open and ancient philosophical traditions.

Sichu Rai Mali said...

Sushmaji, I totally agree. Thanks for bringing this issue up!

I come from a Newar family on my father's side. While the Newars are all Vaishyas to non Newars, there is an elaborate caste system that exists within the Newars of Kathmandu valley. There are Newar bahuns, Newar chhetris, Newar Vaishyas and Newar shudras. I've known members within my extended family, who clearly discriminate against lower caste Newars such as Chyaamis, Podes and Kasaais. While a number of Newars, especially the older generation complain about the bahun and chhetri discrimination towards Newars, they don't stop mistreating their own fellow Newars. Besides, the Newars from the urban areas of the valley look down upon the Newars from the rural areas of the valley.