By Anuja KC/@Anzkc
I recall the days when I was in school, probably in 6th grade doodling images of houses, cars, trees and everything that filled my imagination while my teacher would lecture to his heart’s content about things that never mattered to me. I was delusional yet very creative at heart. What seemed to my teachers as a diligent note taking was actually my secret escapade to the world of imaginations and possibilities. Sketching was my form of self expression for things that I feared verbalizing in front of the whole class. If I had to summarize my young self in one word, it would be “Devi”. For those who are familiar with Hindu mythology, Devi is a gendered specific term for a female deity, a goddess. In colloquial Nepali language, “Devi” is synonymous to a female who is decent, diligent, disciplined and full of good qualities that society expects a woman should have.
The school I went to was a residential school that reinforced discipline very seriously. Hence, I somehow felt being the “Devi” was the only way to achieve great things in life and to get accolades. I succumbed to studying hard, ignoring boys and nodding my head for every expectation my family had of me. It’s not that we were discouraged to speak up at school, but the decisions made for us were evidently not in our favor. I vividly remember one instance when I was in 10th grade when a group of female students proposed that they should be allowed to wear pants during winter because Kathmandu’s winter can be brutal (let’s be real) no matter how many layers of stockings you pile up under that ghastly looking grey uniform. The school’s management committee declined the proposal and there was no explanation whatsoever. Now that I reflect on that instance almost a decade later, it was the female teachers who did not feel the need to support us because they were practicing their own form of “Deviness” by not taking a stance to support our proposal. Throughout my school years, I spent every winter break hunting for the warmest stocking on New road and the Asan gallis. Yet, again no matter how outraged I was, the “Devi” in me suppressed my teenage angst and I didn’t complain. After all, we were the “Devis” to be seen, not to be heard.
Then, came my “Diva” phase when I arrived in the US to pursue college education and I finally felt what freedom actually meant in every sense of the word. I didn’t have to ask for what I could wear, I didn’t have to worry about shameless men catcalling me from local chiya pasal (tea shop), and most of all I didn’t have to mask my “Diva” self by being a “Devi”. The best decision I ever made was to go to an all-women’s college where I truly felt empowered. No, this was not the Padma Kanya Campus that my mother was coerced to join because her parents felt it was a safe choice for women of her age. I made a conscious decision to apply only to women’s college because I knew the environment there fostered learning that had real implications in my life. Courses like Nutrition, allowed us to freely discuss the importance of breast feeding, body fat and iron consumption without cringing if the students in the back would pass any awkward comments. Similarly, customized courses like Women in World Economics, made me feel like there was so much potential for women to be the leaders in every frontier without having to ask for permission.
Growing up in Nepal, asking for permission was hardwired in my brain, but while I was living my “Diva” phase to the fullest, I wittingly forgot how to ask for permission. Reluctantly chugging Tequila shots, beer-pongs and dry shampoos were no longer the sign of “Charitraheen Naari” as long as I maintained that Achievement Scholarship and honor roll throughout all four years of college. My dignity was no longer defined by societal expectations and I felt good about it. After having a couple of internships under my belt, I felt I was ready to take the world when I graduated. Little did I know, the financial crisis that my Finance professors discussed in freshman year was soon going to be my sad reality during my job hunt.
Five years down the line, I think I have come out unscathed. It wasn’t easy to find what I really wanted to do and be fully content with the so called American life. For better or for worse, I have now entered the “She-Devil” phase of life. If I had a choice I would wear a “Get to the Point” t-shirt to work meetings and I no longer feel inhibited to cut off senseless lunch time small talk. Relationships for the soul and not for Facebook status has now become self evident in my life and I am finally immune to the most dreaded question of all “When are you getting married?”. I have learned to own up to my mistakes and not be be bogged down by the fear of uncertainties of life that is so deeply embedded in the mindset of all Nepali women. I know! I know girlfriend, I need to worry about marriage, buying a house, school districts for my kids and which city has the best dog parks, but can we pause for a second and internalize that “living the moment” actually means something. How about we replace our bedside table reads with books like“Eat, Pray, Love”,“ Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” and not “I am Miss-Know It All & Miss-Have It All”?
As I have traversed through the “Devi”, “Diva” and “She-Devil” phases of life, there have been a lot of lessons. The most prominent one has been that I am who I am, and who I am yet to be because of the inspiring women around me. There have been times I have been completely broken, but it’s stories of triumph and strength of women in similar circumstances that helped me pull myself back together. When in joy, I feel I need to share it with other women who need that extra dose of happiness. I am not naturally an extrovert, but I have inculcated the habit to do so recently. Let’s confess that there is a fine line between humble bragging and sharing your joy with pure intentions and it takes a lot of sincerity to strike that balance.
Similarly, it’s very easy to rant about gender equality, and breaking the glass-ceiling, but it’s take enormous kindness to lift other women’s spirit without any hope for reciprocity. Instead of bashing each other on social media, let’s leave an encouraging comment. Instead of gossiping, let’s confront each other with honesty. When we get a chance to speak up and be opinionated, let’s do it without any inhibition of being judged by boyfriends, husbands and family members. We form our opinions and we should learn to own it regardless of our backgrounds. Especially those of us who grew up in Nepal or have familiarity with the arcane society we grew up in, let’s not take the freedom we have today for granted no matter which corner of the world we live in. Let’s use our intentions to make someone else feel good about themselves inside and out. After all, whether we are Devi, Diva or a She-Devil, we are only half as good as the wonderful women around us in all walks of life.