6 July 2011
I’m frustrated and depressed. Most of the women at the center have never been to school or studied a different language, unlike their brothers and husbands. They have been coming to English classes now for more than a year and still do not know how to conjugate the verbs “to be” or “to have,” not to mention any of the other useful verbs in the English language. And then there is the problem of getting them to understand how to use the verb “to do” in combination with other verbs, as in “do you have a toothbrush?” or “she does not live at that address.” If they cannot progress beyond this very rudimentary level, then how am I going to teach them to think critically about gender, which is what I imagined I would be doing with them?
I had this lovely fantasy of getting them to talk about their relationships with their husbands and their sons and daughters and asking them why they go along with certain customs. For example, if the family is having meat for dinner, then usually only the men will get some. Why do they regard women whose husbands have abused and abandoned them as fallen women? Why do they think it is so shameful for a woman to get divorced? I had imagined having stimulating and revealing discussions about these and other, similar questions in class.
One of the women in the class is, in fact, divorced, but she doesn’t want any of the other women to know. This woman’s husband beat her before taking off and leaving her with three children. She gets by on the earnings her 13 year-old son brings in. She can’t reach out to her sisters for emotional support, because the women have internalized the cultural codes that stigmatize all women who have cut themselves off from their husbands. The underlying, unconscious assumption is that women do not count in and of themselves, but have value only in relation to men, who alone have inherent value. So, a woman who stands alone in society is valueless, without worth, and should be treated accordingly. The very few Nepali women who have gone to college and established careers are beginning to challenge these assumptions, but they must fight their own and their families’ deeply-ingrained beliefs. Women who marry work 40+ hour weeks and then cook, clean, and cater to husbands, sons, and father-in-laws. Women who wise up and reject this drudgery are shunned. It is an appalling situation that does no one any real good.