When I learnt that it required sex to make a baby, when my pubescent curiosity lead me to discover porn, and after I was caught, my annoying aunt decided to schooling me on marriage. “You need to marry a virgin,” she began, without any acknowledgement of my behaviour. The first time she said those words, they hit me hard like a lightning bolt. As if this was punishment for the unforgivable crime I had just committed. She clothed her arguments in words like ‘necessity’, ‘tradition’ and ‘purity’. I was not alone, she also instructed her own daughters to stay well away from boys. Until the lucky one came along, that is.
The first few times I got this lecture, listening to my aunt felt like sitting through detention. After a while, it became an inescapable chore. But once I hit my rebellious teenage years, I started arguing with her.
“Why does it matter if she is a virgin or not?” I asked.
“Sleeping with more than one man is the behavior of a randi, a whore! That is a trait of an animal, like a cow that is brought together with oxen.”
‘This kid will ruin our culture someday’, she would say on days when she wanted to end our discussion in a civil manner. Most often these talks ended in a shouting match. She always won, with support from my mother.
I never was indoctrinated; or so I thought. I firmly believed that a woman had a say over her body. When the time came, in my late teens, for my first relationship, I realised that my aunt was a better teacher than I thought.
I was happy because of my girlfriend, and grateful for our intimacy. I was, however, uncomfortable with the feeling that somebody else had already, in the language of my high school friends, ‘grazed through her pasture.’ The phantom of her previous lover hung large over me. I held on to my fears and inhibition, nurturing it, until I transformed into the type of I never thought I’d be. And during moments of contention between us, as I looked at her, my inner voice took would come out in a raspy voice, similar to my aunt’s, as I threatened my girlfriend, “You whore.., I will…”
She broke up with me, and the last time she spoke to me, she said, “I thought you respected women.” Her words hurt. They really hurt because I had grown up thinking that I respected women. I was tender and kind, unlike my father and uncle who beat their wives with what seemed a religious devotion. I respected women, I would never lash out at them. So why had I called a person I loved such horrible things? And, why, as I passed by women, judged them by the length of their dresses?
I still did not have answers to these questions when I jumped into another relationship two years later. Scared that my demons would rear their heads again, I sought the help of counselors and close friends who hadn’t grown up with the same notions.
Slowly, I understood that pre-marital sex did not indicate the mighty masculinity of men or the promiscuous nature of women. For most, sex was simply an act to remain healthy and functioning. Realising this liberated me.
When I returned home, I saw that my high school friends had also changed. Feminism, or murmurs of it, had arrived at our doorsteps as well. My female cousins were allowed to have male friends now. My aunt and everyone else in the family had started to trust their decision making.
Conversations with my aunt became different. “Your generation is different than us,” she claimed with a certain kind of realisation in her voice. She added, “A woman will always be tied to her husband. Your cousins will have to learn the ways of the kitchen.” She was referring to our regular family gatherings, when the men took over the living room. As they sipped on whiskey and talked about business and politics, the women crowded in the kitchen, working to keep up with their spouses’ gastronomic needs.
During such gatherings, I fight – in my mind – against the inequality in my home. Often I act on this by helping in the kitchen. But more often, I fall back into the slumber of male privilege.
When I’ve seen women harassed on the street, or even been the culprit myself, I’ve felt very palpable remorse; but I’ve never fought against traditional gender roles with the same urgency. This is a shameful, but much needed admission.
#Woke men, including myself, are all in for fighting sexual abuse (and this has to continue), but, we should also simultaneously be questioning and breaking gendered social structures, and take actions that go beyond neoliberal feminism.
Woke men are also, however, if not hesitant, at least delayed in bringing this transformation into our own lives. Because it would mean giving up our own luxuries. Since I started helping with household chores, a new openness has emerged between me, my mother and aunt. It is a language that we all understand, and because of it, my life and choices do not seem as bizarre as they might have first appeared to them. Nor does their life seem as oppressed as I had often imagined it to be.
And, with a sloth’s pace, my uncle and father have begun helping in the house work too. This slow crawl towards equality at home has not just been about giving the women in our family what they’re due. It has also liberated the men from the oppressive roles they had taken on.
Sandesh Ghimire lives in Kathmandu, Nepal. He tweets @nepalichimney.