Having spent over three months in Nepal, it was kind of shocking that I really hadn’t spent any time with Nepali women. They seemed so mysterious to me. On my last trip to Nepal, I spent a month in Pokhara, and while I met lots of guys, it seemed women never went anywhere unaccompanied. Groups of male friends hung out at night, but I rarely saw women without a date, brother or father in tow.
In the tourism industry, the positions for guides, porters, etc. are filled mostly by males, so my interactions with women were limited to speaking to shopkeepers. I was extremely excited when I had the chance to go trekking with a group of Nepali girls, but the timing didn’t work out right. It wasn’t until I was in Bardaghat visiting my friend Suraj’s hometown that I really got a chance to see a small glimpse into the lives of Nepali women.
One incredible woman who had cooked for us on the very first night of our stay, was generous enough to offer to cook for us several times during our 4 days there. I asked if I could help her make the curried chicken so that I could try to make it back at home. It was literally the best curried chicken I’d ever had in any country. She kindly agreed to let me watch even though she didn’t speak English.
Something wonderful about being in the kitchen was that it was my first time really hanging out with Nepali women. Suraj’s cousin’s wife and niece joined us while the men all chatted outside. His niece spoke fluent English, so I had the opportunity to talk to her about things my guy friends couldn’t shed light on. For instance, we got on the topic of periods. In Nepal, a woman who has her period can’t touch any of the food being prepared. She can’t even touch the refrigerator or faucet and must sit away from everyone else during dinner in a form of exile.
Apparently, back in the day they couldn’t even sleep in the house or touch their husbands during their period. In fact, it wasn’t until last year that the government put a ban on “menstrual huts” where women were banished for a week. There have been a few cases in rural parts of Nepal where women have died in these huts due to poor conditions. Women also aren’t allowed in temples during that time of the month. For me, it seemed awkward that everyone knew when you had your period, something we only tell our girlfriends when complaining about cramps back home.
Although these rules seemed very bizarre and unnecessary to me, I tried to see it from a Nepali perspective. In Nepal, it’s rare that locals use toilet paper. Some toilets have a “bum gun” which is a small hose that you use to clean yourself after going to the bathroom. In rural areas, the way one cleans oneself at the toilet is to use their left hand and water. Since periods are viewed as “unclean” it makes sense that a woman wouldn’t be able to touch food after cleaning oneself this way. That being said, people wipe their asses every day and that doesn’t seem to be an issue. The women I spoke with were able to joke that at least they got a week off from cooking.
I also got to see first-hand how women and men interact in Nepal. While the women cooked, the men sat and drank in the living room while relaxing. The women served the men their food and served themselves last. Not only did they serve themselves last, they also waited till everyone else was finished before eating. After the men were done, they’d often leave the table and the woman who prepared the meal would eat alone. In the US, it would be considered extremely rude to leave the table before everyone was finished, especially the person who cooked.
I, on the other hand, sat with the men while eating and felt like an intruder who didn’t belong. It was an odd sensation which made me feel awkward and out of place. The woman served me seconds, and I felt like I should be sitting in the kitchen with them. Perhaps the women preferred to be amongst themselves, but it felt like an odd separation to have especially during a large get together with so many friends. Plus, many of the men who came to dinner didn’t bring their wives and family. They stayed back home.
After dinner, I spoke to my friend’s niece who was off to Australia for school in a few months. She was just waiting for her visa to get approved. We talked about how overprotective Nepali parents can be about daughters going out on their own. She explained she couldn’t do a trek in Mustang with her friends, but she was allowed to go to Australia because her brother was there, and she would have someone to look after her. The other woman present was a feminist who felt girls should get the chance to see the world too. She spoke of how often men travel for work, but women are encouraged to stay home.
At the end of the evening, I said goodnight in Nepali to the woman teaching me to cook and tried to thank her as sincerely as I could in another language. She touched my cheek gently and said goodnight in English with a smile. Even without words, I felt we’d become good friends. The other women all dispersed to their rooms, and I felt thankful I had gotten a chance to see a small part of Nepali culture through their eyes.
You can read about the rest of my trip to Lumbini here.
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.