Kathmandu (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - In the midst of various Nepalis fighting for rights and struggling for equality, it's no surprise that much effort is being poured into human rights and alongside it, women's rights. While these initiatives that spread across the country and range from grassroots programmes, to art exhibitions, and even travelling theatre productions are appreciated, most do not realise that a campaign's name may say a lot more than what the title suggests. When trying to bring change, it is crucial to remember how something is said may play a large role in the outcome.
Using different approaches to reach a variety of populations, there are many examples of softer titles being used for initiatives with much heavier implications. For instance, an art exhibition held by WaterAid in September 2011 at Hotel Himalaya focused on menstruation, an integral aspect of femininity, and was delicately titled Dropping in on Development. Currently, Walk for Respect, scheduled for 1 pm today from NAC to Dubur Square, adapted the principle from the Toronto based SlutWalk, but changed the name.
Prakrit Nepal, one of the core members of Walk for Respect argues that SlutWalk strives to claim the word 'slut' and asks, "If we used the name 'SlutWalk' what is the first thing that would strike minds?" But the larger objective of SlutWalk is to change people's mentality which blames the way a woman dresses for her being raped or sexually assaulted. The idea, of how men respond to women, remains much the same for the goals of Walk for Respect which intends to minimise eve-teasing and sexual harassment.
Most things related to sex are still considered taboo in Nepal, but this has not deterred other initiatives from being more open about their objective. In December 2011, Y-Peer held Talk to me: Let's talk about sex at Patan to encourage dialogue about sex. Shubha Kayastha, International Coordinator at Y-Peer, says they opted for a bolder title in order to, "Make sex an issue which could be easily taken into conversation among peers and communities." She adds, "Sex and religion/culture are already very interrelated but in Nepal, sex is considered beyond religion and culture. Although many people think that this is destroying Nepali culture, sexual undertones have marked our history, culture and religions such as Hinduism." A point worth keeping in mind when people argue that these topics are not culturally appropriate.
Stretching the border of "culturally appropriate" even further is The Vagina Monologue, which has already been staged in Kathmandu twice. The V-day campaign works to end violence against women though various performances and presentations which share true stories of abuse women have endured. Until the Violence Stops was organised by HELP/Nepal in 2006, and in 2010 Anyone of Us: Words from Prison was a result of the efforts of Seema Gurung, Arbinda Subedi, and the over 50 volunteers involved.
Gurung says, "The usage of the word 'vagina' did raise eyebrows at first, especially when it was translated in Nepali (yoni). It's not like we use these words openly in our everyday lives, but honestly the criticism based on the word was not as huge as I had feared. I thought that it was either because Nepal had matured and was ready to accept these terms, or maybe the majority did not really understand what 'vagina' meant."
Here, Gurung brings a valid point to light: since the concepts behind these movements are complex and difficult to understand and accept, strong female words leave room for misinterpretation. The 2006 production of The Vagina Monologue was translated into Nepali and did not have the intended effect. Subedi who was involved in both productions says, "It wasn't presented the way it should have been and we realised that we needed to use more appropriate words."
These issues are something the organisers of Walk for Respect are mindful of, "In Kathmandu, I didn't find people who knew about SlutWalk-the so called educated aware youth of our country didn't know about it; most people don't know what 'slut' means. Some of my friends asked me, but those who looked it up in the dictionary will link it to prostitutes."
However, there are means of addressing the linguistic differences. The 2010 Vagina Monologue was a combination of English and Nepali, Gurung says, "We translated some pieces in Nepali and we were very careful in not letting the usage of words go astray. We wanted to bring the message out, through The Vagina Monologue, we wanted to tell people that we need to speak up, speak out, and talk about the violence happening in our lives."
In 2006 and 2010, the very word 'vagina' was prominent on all marketing materials for the shows. Gurung says, "Personally speaking, I was never uncomfortable with the word 'vagina' since it's a beautiful word and an organ that gives life. Just like our eyes, ears, or nose, we need to respect it and take care of it." With regard to the actual production, Subedi adds, "It's very important to use the word itself, as soon as you say 'vagina', there's so much in that word, and by that word I mean the organ as well."
So why do the language and words used matter? Archana Thapa, editor of Telling a Tale and Swaastitvako Khoj, anthologies of women's stories, explains, "Language is radically contextual, therefore language cannot be abstracted from cultural politics of specific times and spaces." She explains gender speech usually favours men (eg, 'chairman' and 'man' when used to represent humanity), while a list of lexical words degrade women and have sexist underpinnings. This begs a need "to further invent inclusive, alternative, and non-sexist vocabularies" as well as to be mindful and intentional about what 'female' words are used.
Acknowledging the potential power of language and certain words, it is all the more important that Nepal is bolder in social approaches. Of course, change won't happen overnight, but as Subedi points out, "there was initially hesitation about sex education and condoms but eventually people open up about it." Using reaction-inducing words is more likely to get people talking, and since that is an essential step to bring about change whether the response is negative or positive is irrelevant.
Subedi says, "Even in Kathmandu, the educated and elite aren't open about many things." Chaupadi, where menstruating women in far-western Nepal are ostracised, is still practiced in a milder form in Kathmandu where women aren't allowed into kitchens or puja rooms during their period-the basic concept of a woman being 'impure' pertains. Because of our society, culture, and upbringing, Subedi highlights that "there are many things we need to try to penetrate into the elite and more privileged circles first," only after reaching people who can grasp causes like The Vagina Monologue can we "create an environment where there can be open conversation."
And when conversing, Kayastha summarises the importance of using more jarring words, "In my viewpoint, 'sex' is like any other word, the more you use it the more it becomes casual-and the more you try to find softer alternatives, these topics will remain 'big issues' and if they're not talked about, nothing will change."