When she was thirty years old, the people in her community said she wasn’t beautiful enough to attract men and receive marriage proposals and perhaps would have to remain unmarried. They proved to be right.
“It may sound odd now but there was a time when families would be charged with selling the girl if they approached a boy’s family with a marriage proposal,” says Reshma Maharjan, 40, a resident of Chapagaun, explaining that only a boy’s family could send out marriage requests to the girl’s family and the opposite was considered almost immoral.
This was precisely why Reshma didn’t get married. She simply didn’t receive a marriage proposal and her family didn’t look for a groom either because the tradition was such. However, Reshma isn’t the only one who has had to suffer due to such social prejudices. There are many single, old or middle-aged women like her in the Newar community in the Kathmandu Valley, more so in Lalitpur, who live isolated lives in their families.
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A study on the socioeconomic status of women conducted two years ago by SNV, Nepal revealed that 30 percent women in the Newar communities of 22 administrative wards of Patan were unmarried middle-aged women. The research found the single women are widows (54%), unmarried (30%), divorced (5%), and abandoned (11%). As a result, single women are found in every alternate house in the Patan area.
However, women are often single not by choice but by compulsion or custom. Reshma too had dreams of getting married and having her own family someday. Her mother filled her head with thoughts of marriage and a husband to share her life with. But her dreams were shattered as she grew up and nobody approached her family asking for her hand in marriage.
“Even if a man was 50 years old, he would always be scouring for a teenage bride,” she says, shaking her head at the incredulity of it all, more especially for a custom that didn’t allow a girl’s family to look for and choose a groom for their daughters.
The women who were victims of prejudices decades ago are facing problems today. Culture expert Uttam Kumar Joshi says that the custom was so readily accepted back in those days that no one even questioned it at the slightest, let alone think about breaking the norm.
Currently, Reshma lives and takes care of the nine members of her brother’s family. But it’s a family she can’t call her own. She always worries about having no one to take care of her when she’s old.
“My brothers have their own families and they have no obligation whatsoever to take care of me,” she says, adding that this thought plagues her mind and is perhaps the only regret she has of not being married.
According to sociologist Shakya, unmarried women are more often than not involved in household activities and give continuity to the family business when their brothers are young, but their livelihood becomes uncertain as they grow older.
Shakya tells the story of Shaila, a 46-year-old single woman of Patan who spent her life to bringing up her two brothers after their father’s death when she was just seven years old. She also handled the family business. But today, the new members of her brother’s family take her presence as intrusion and she is often ignored and left out.
“In most of the cases, women living with their brothers’ families after their parents’ death are taken as a burden and treated as unpaid slaves,” says Shakya.
According to sociologists, there are more unmarried middle-aged or old women in Newar communities as compared to other communities. But not all cases can be attributed to the custom of their families not looking for grooms when they were young. An inclination towards Buddhist convent as nuns is also another reason.
Manahara Tuladhar, 49, and a resident of Nardevi in Kathmandu is single and lives with her mother. She resisted family pressure and decided not to get married but the decision came with repercussions she never imagined. Her family doesn’t allow her to make any decisions on her own and people in her community talk behind her back.
Even educated women who choose to remain single are at the receiving end of verbal abuse in their respective communities. According to Shakya, these women are even and often termed as prostitutes.
The situation is not likely to change unless women are more aware of their rights. Advocate Meera Dhungana is of the opinion that many women in these communities are still suppressed by their own people, and even such women don’t want to share their stories due to the fear of causing further embarrassment to their families.
“Many women don’t know that they can claim their share in the parental property and continue to live a life of meek submission,” says Dhungana.
However, the new generation does not accept this tradition, and as a result, many Newar communities have seen significant reforms over the years, But the women who were victims of this custom continue to bear the brunt of it.
Reshma has started learning to read and write. She can now write her name, albeit with some difficulty, but this small feat gives her a sense of self-respect and identity, an individuality she had lost but is now slowly trying to regain.
Source- Republica Daily
Single and Suffering