It was the Fourth of July reception at the US embassy, and women's rights advocate Sapana Pradhan Malla was flush with victory at the recent Supreme Court interpretation recognising rape within marriage as a punishable offence. (See also "One small step for womankind", #99.) This interpretation came as a milestone in a country where demands for women's rights get easily derailed by (at best) Hindu paternalism and (at worst) unapologetic misogyny. News of the ruling had met with sensationalistic press coverage, mocking cartoons, snide jokes and derision. Malla had even heard, in passing, that some men felt so enraged by the ruling that they wanted to shoot her. She is a clear-thinking, experienced lawyer, though, and she was confident of the value of this interpretation, prompted by a public interest litigation case launched by her and Meera Dhungana.
Then she met someone who knocked the wind out of her sails. At the reception, a very august man said to her, without blinking, that some men were so outraged by the court's ruling that they said that they should rape Malla. That was about the extent of the conversation between Malla and the august man. But in this brief exchange, the man had managed to convey a veiled threat to her, while appearing to chat amicably over canapes and drinks.
Speaking recently at Martin Chautari, Malla spoke of this incident, her voice ringing with emotion. "I was so shaken by what I had heard, I couldn't even tell my husband at first." For a week she suffered anxiety attacks, depression and doubt. "I thought of giving up my work. I thought-why not go and work abroad, instead of putting up with such attitudes?"
Malla's talk at Martin Chautari prompted several women in the crowd to come forward with their stories of humiliation, sexual threats, harassment and rape-all in front of perfect strangers. I marvelled at the opening she had created. And, as though given permission by her, I thought of several incidents in my own life, incidents that have had the effect of controlling my behaviour, making me fearful, and instilling in me deep ambivalence about my identity as a woman.
The first incident came during an election campaign in which I was helping my father run for office. I was not happy doing this, as it meant giving up my independence to my family; but I had chosen out of filial love to do so, and I was willing to face the consequences, I thought. I did not realise that in politics, the consequences get brutal. On voting day, as the Congress party's workers became more and more confident of winning, some Congress sympathisers told me, apparently with good intent, that I should not be walking about, because their 'Congress boys' were looking for me so that they could strip me in public.
I was out in an open courtyard when I heard this, surrounded by perfectly ordinary people, many of them of good heart, and I suddenly felt extremely unsafe. A few women around me reacted with indignation; but others turned away in fear, as though they had not heard this. I went to seek shelter at a nearby house, and from that moment on I came to see my body as a liability: any man could attack it to degrade my spirit.
I thought, as a feminist, that it would be easy for me to get over that incident, but the madness of other damaged men kept preventing me. A few months later, a family friend who had heard of the threat began to drop by my apartment and, in between pretending to sympathise, ask me pointed questions about sex. A well-known septuagenarian made a very unwanted pass at me (I was 26), and even after I told his friends about this, they abetted him in phoning me. One of my supervisors spread salacious gossip about me. A few years later, a man began to stalk me, upset that I had refused to meet him after a single telephone conversation. There is, it seems, no dearth of men who get off on making women regret that they are women.
Now, as a writer, I keep encountering insidious reminders not to get too uppity. A year or so back, I was privy to a conversation that a few male writers were having about an established woman writer. The men had had a few drinks, and they were speaking with the alcohol-induced braggadocio of fallen Bahuns. One of them said, "I was at a party at which P_ went up to the woman and said, you think I don't know everyone who's bedded you, whore? He literally called her a whore, and said that he would expose her past."
"And what did she do?" another male writer asked.
"She went red in the face. She couldn't reply." The first male writer went on to count, with relish, the men that the female writer had slept with, by his count.
It was bad enough that these men were speaking so contemptuously of a woman whose literary accomplishments clearly outshine theirs. But by conducting this conversation in my presence, these men were also giving me a not-so-subtle message: no matter what my achievement, I too can be cut down to size by means of name-calling. I know, from conversations with other women writers over the years, that this kind of threat prevents many women writers from writing openly about women's experience and especially about women's sexuality: the personal risks are just too great. We might be branded as having 'bad character', or be called whores. Our husbands, parents, children might feel humiliated, or might stop loving or respecting us.people might overlook our accomplishments and see us as figures of ridicule.
Such experiences are, I believe, typical of the experience of women in Kathmandu's 'intellectual' circle: sexual threats lie just below the surface, and erupt when any crazed man feels the impulse to harm. I would wager that even the most established women journalists, NGO workers, political activists, doctors, lawyers, and professionals in Nepal have received such threats, veiled or open, at many points in their lives. Many of us talk about these incidents in private, but hesitate to bring these stories out in public, thus helping to hide just how prevalent misogyny is among Nepal's 'intellectuals'.
Sapana Pradhan Malla broke an important barrier by talking openly about the recent threat to her. Perhaps if the rest of us followed her lead, we could make it more difficult for damaged men to prey on the vulnerabilities of less advantaged women.