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Freedom to love
Publication Date : 14-02-2013
In the past couple of days, I have been wandering around the proliferating gift and flower shops on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Sometimes, shopkeepers throw a questionable glance at me. They are perhaps surprised to see me around, a bespectacled woman in her early 30s interested in Valentine’s Day gifts. My interest lay not on the gifts, but on the people who buy them. A few days back, I asked a vendor at my regular shopping spot a simple question: “Who buys these Valentine’s chocolates mostly - boys or girls?” “Both,” he replied. Other gift shop owners confirmed that more girls had bought their cute little red teddy bears, heart-shaped pillows and greeting cards these last couple of days. Does this mean that urban Kathmandu girls are more 'empowered'through the expression of their love?
While exploring these questions, we need to situate Valentine’s Day in a certain kind of love popularly known as 'romantic love'. Though the ideological sources of romantic love vary, I am interested in the particular brand of brewed by the Bollywood movies that we Nepalis are so fond of. First of all, 'love' is believed to be something that is beyond our control. Second, it is boys and men who express love, and girls and women have the power to say yes or no.
A few days ago, I was talking to a group of college girls. I asked them the same question, “Who buys the gifts?” They laughed at my obvious foolishness. “Both,” they said. Apparently these days, both boys and girls who are already a couple exchange gifts. But when I asked them who buys the gifts if proposing for the first time, they answered differently. “Of course, the boys,” they said. “This is Nepali society. It is not considered good for girls to be ‘forward’ in expressing love."
The reason behind this hesitance and reluctance on the part of women to express their love for a man for the first time may be because their 'expression of love' is associated with character. An image of a good girl in love is someone who passively waits while dropping indirect hints to the boy she likes so that he gathers enough courage to express his feelings for her. Thus, one can question whether Valentine’s Day can be easily regarded as a sign of modernisation, as it is often claimed to be. Probing deeper into its intricacies and processes, I argue that Valentine’s Day reinforces pre-existing gender inequalities in new ways.
As Kathmandu gets warmer with the fever of Valentine’s Day, I remember Shiva Hasami of Bardia and Bindu Thakur of Bara, both women who died gruesome deaths after being set on fire. Though the reasons for the deaths of these two girls are disputable, both of them were killed because of so-called 'love'. Earlier, it was speculated that Shiva Hasami was burned to death by her alleged boyfriend when she refused to elope with him. Now, it has been proven that her family members are guilty in the case. Bindu Thakur became victim to a form of honour killing. She is said to have been killed by her father while she was on her way to attend tuition lessons. Her father is said to have been against her alleged love affair with a boy her family did not accept.
The case depicts an irony in Nepali society where parents are increasingly making sure that their daughters are educated and independent, in other words, empowered. But when daughters choose their own life partner, it is still, in many cases, taken to reflect on the family’s honour. These two incidences question the rhetoric that we have been led to believe. We unconsciously teach, write and speak that education and 'awareness' will increase women’s empowerment. But till today, many Nepali women do not have the power to decide one of the most important aspects of their lives: choosing their life partners.
It is impossible to reject Valentine’s Day altogether in the current era of globalisation. But the least we can do is be conscious about the way we adopt it. We should not limit Valentine’s Day simply to a festival of red roses and chocolates. Why don’t we redefine it as a celebration of the freedom to love and the freedom to express love? After all, the expression of love has more or less been seen as the responsibility or entitlement of men, as proven by the many real life and reel life love stories that we see.
Though one may argue that it makes no difference who proposes, I disagree. The outcome itself (whether we are accepted or not) is not that significant. But in expressing love we are taking charge of our lives, doing things rather than just waiting for them to happen. In many love stories that I have heard in the context of my research, women had misgivings that they did not express what they felt, conforming to the ideal image of women in love. Many women live with the phrases 'what if' and 'if only' constantly humming in their hearts. It is perhaps time to change that and rewrite our future love stories differently.
Coinciding with Valentine’s Day today, the Occupy Baluwatar movement, an ongoing campaign protesting violence against women in the country, is commemorating its 50th day in solidarity with One Billion Rising. On this day, one billion women and men living in different parts of the world are coming together to join hands for the rights of women. So, all of us believers in love, let’s come out and advocate freedom to love and freedom to express love.
Khanal is a lecturer at the Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology, Tribhuvan University