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Fatalism, or, where are women in South Asia? October 17, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : Adhikari, Mohanraj, India, Nepal , trackback

Mohanraj Adhikari

The last few months have been really fantastic for me as a wedding enthusiast. On 10 March The Mirror published news about a British divorcee woman aged 46, who wedded her own pet dog in a ‘romantic’ wedding ceremony after her marriage to a man 20 years ago did not work out. This story was followed by a news item in Metro UK, 3 September, about an 18-year-old girl, around 7000 kms away from Britain in Jharkhand state of India, who married a stray dog to please her family, who think that it will pass a curse from her to the animal so that that when she marries her future prince, a real man, the marriage will be blessed with longevity. Though both these stories talk about a woman marrying a dog, the context is quite different. The wedding in the first story shows a woman’s love and connection towards an animal after spending a considerable part of her life with it, whereas the second wedding is done to pass a ‘curse’ to the animal. According to the news, both weddings were fabulously organized. The stories provide evidence of the divide between women in developing countries and industrialized countries: in one place, a woman is free to choose her husband even from a different species; in the other place, a woman believes that a dog husband will free her from a curse and give her a better human husband in later life. This kind of fatalism is very much widespread in South Asia especially in the rural areas of India and its neighbouring country Nepal.

In my recent fieldwork about women’s understanding of the changing pattern of climate and its impact in their farms, the same kind of fatalistic behavior was observed especially in the hills and mountains. Rural women, and for that matter men too, believed that rainfall is caused by heaven spitting down to earth. The cause of erratic rainfall is not because of any physical change in the environment but the decision of the heaven not to spit.

“We really don’t know why heaven is not spitting down on time. It was not like that before. It’s been six years in a row now that heaven is not spitting down frequently and we are facing serious drought. But there is nothing we could do. We keep cultivating our winter crops expecting that heaven will spit on time this year. But look at our fate, it has not rained in winter for the last six years. This year also there are symptoms that heaven will not spit on time in winter. We will not be able to cultivate wheat crop. Men have not even bothered to pluck the maize stubs out after maize harvest because there is no sign of rain this winter”.

This was the general response of women when asked about their experience of changing weather pattern in the remote Himalayan region of Nepal. Women also reported that they turn to the traditional healers (dhami-jhakri) to get the weather information when they think it is necessary. Where are we in the 21st century? How has the globalized world created such isolated islands that are not functionally connected to the rest of the world, in terms of knowledge, information and action? Or, putting it in another way, does the global connection work for some but not for others?

The answer to the second question is quite challenging. Why does global or regional integration not work for some and what is the appropriate response? Shall the world just sit back relaxed and wait for the right time for things to work out for those people or intervene to help before it is too late?

During the same fieldwork I had the chance to meet a shrewd woman, this time in a physically accessible place in the Tarai of Nepal. This woman now in her mid-30s (the world was rapidly globalized throughout her youth) was from a better-off farmer’s family then. But she was raised in a very traditional ‘Tharu’ society were women were not supposed to even look at men’s faces let alone talk to them.

“Thinking about going to school for a girl like me was out of question, even though my parents were able to afford it”, she says. When the time came she was married off to a Tharu man who was serving as a slave labourer in the nearby village. “I had to accept being a slave because it was my fate which led my parents to make such a decision”, she further says. This clearly shows how girls were valued in those days even by their own family members. “I knew no other way to think about my life. Days were passing working in my master’s farm, when suddenly one day we were thrown out from our master’s house, saying that government has decided to free all the bonded slave labour”, she says. The freedom was like a bitter pill. They had no roof for shelter, no food, nothing but the set of clothes they were wearing.

“We all went to Gulariya, the district headquarters but got no help from the local government at that time. Thus we started living in an old building of a government owned ‘cotton farm’. Here in the farm started our life changing days. People from different organizations started coming and asking about us. They started organizing us in groups. They started telling us that there is nothing wrong to talk to strangers. They encouraged us to talk. Just talk about your problems, talk about how you feel, talk and talk. I had a mouth but used it only to eat. They gave me a voice. Those experiences changed my life. I and other women like myself started raising voices, putting demands for our rights to life, food and shelter. Slowly things started changing. Government decided to provide land to all freed ‘bonded labourers’. But we didn’t have our citizenship. We struggled to get that. I started knowing that without the voice, I am nothing. I raised my voice when I was not selected for a 51-day entrepreneur training, organized in the village. After raising my voice, I was selected and out of 30 participants who received the training I am the only one who is using the skills learnt during the training”.

She is now operating a small shop where she also prepares tea and snacks for the villagers. “I now have my own piece of land; I bought from the profit earned from this shop. My husband cultivates the land and I look after the shop. My two sons go to the school and the money I earn from the shop is used to pay for their schooling. I have recently bought a refrigerator and with this I can sell cold drinks and I am sure that my profit level will rise with this. I have no loans. All this is due to the voice I have got. Thus what women need in this modern world to succeed is a voice. Fate and skills follow you if you can voice your genuine demands.”

The above four stories clearly show freedom to voice women’s genuine needs. For example, having a dog pet as a life partner for a British woman or being included in the entrepreneur training in the case of the Nepali women gave them what they wanted in their lives. Could giving information to the Indian woman that marrying a dog won’t cut her ‘curse’ or to the Nepali women that the erratic rainfall is not due to heaven not spitting upon the earth, but due to the impact of climate change, alter their circumstances? Would these two fatalistic women act differently had they been better informed about what was going on, been given other options and a voice to express their wishes? The stories of the two other women says yes.

Will the Indian woman get a better human husband or the Himalayan women get rain as per the information from the traditional healer? Chances are slim but only time will tell.

Mohanraj Adhikari is a PhD scholar in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Comments

1. Binod Chapagain - October 17, 2014

Thanks Mohan bringing the issue of ‘fatalism’ in the ‘modern’ world. Definitely the voice is the source of ‘power’ and it gives access to various information and services. However, this is very unfortunate that women are still denied their access to those multiple sources of power and forced to live the life of a slave within their house, by their husbands and family members! This may be high in one part of the world and relatively less on the other, but exists everywhere. Unless, the structural causes are addressed and women exercise equal rights to men, will they have any options that believing in their ‘fate’.