GENDER TROUBLE IN NEPAL
Over the last few decades, Nepal has undergone tremendous changes, with the core social and political fabric that makes up the nation having been radically challenged with a Maoist uprising, a violent civil war and the abolishment of Nepal’s royal family. In emerging from these events, Nepal is in the process of reinventing itself, which along with funding primarily from HIV/AIDS organisations in the developed world, has created an opportunity for a legitimate LGBTI movement to make itself visible. Thus, in 2007, Nepal became one of the first countries in the world to add a ‘Third Gender’ category to official citizenship documents. While other countries have implemented similar measures, none have been as complete as Nepal’s, which has been called “the single most comprehensive judgment affirming protections for gender identity anywhere in the world”. And so, Nepal’s 2011 census was the world’s first to allow people to register as a gender other than male or female.
Nepal has consistently been ranked as one of the world’s poorest countries, being placed at a similar economic level to Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Haiti. Furthermore, it is seen as a conservative nation in that it traditionally has had a strong allegiance to its monarchy, religious and caste system, as well as exclusionary politics where rights for the marginalized have not even been considered. The last ten years have witnessed incredible progress in the fight for equality for sexual and gender minorities – where in 2013 we are at a point where a third gender category has been added to citizenship and official government options. Nepalese banks became the first in the world to allow individuals to open accounts as a ‘third gender’, and a same-sex marriage bill has been approved by the Supreme Court.
In the wake of such revolutionary measures being introduced at such a pace, some of the people who identify themselves as sexual or gender minorities are almost at a loss at what to do with their new-found freedoms. For a nation where homosexuality and cross-dressing were only legalized in 2007 to make such strident progress on gay rights, making it possibly a world leader in the field (and definitely a leader compared to other Asian nations) is both extraordinary and encouraging. The reality is however quite different from what the politics may suggest. The conservatism regarding sex, gender and sexuality as well as taboos surrounding any forms of non-normative sexuality are still prevalent in society, and strict codes of conduct surrounding sexual behaviour has left LGBTI individuals in particular in constant danger of becoming automatic targets for police and civil violence, beatings, blackmail and even murder. In traditional Nepali society, men who have sex with men and transgender individuals do not only face violations of their human rights and limited legal protection when this occurs (even if the Interim Constitution supposedly provides such protection), but are also forced to contend with exclusion from ceremonies and cultural functions.
Nilam Poudel is 22 years old and was born into a large family from Morang, located in the far southeastern corner of Nepal. Her parents are very poor and when she was just six years old, they sent her several hundred kilometres away to live with and work for a wealthy family, cooking and cleaning before and after school. She liked studying a lot but due to her economic circumstances could only study until the age of 14. She really didn’t enjoy her childhood, because she was always sad when she would see other children playing outside, while she never had any free time. At the age of ten she’d already realised she was different, and that she had no interest in doing what the other boys were doing – climbing trees and playing football.
For the last two and a half years, Nilam has been living and working in Dubai, as a housemaid. She made £150 a month – or about five times what she could earn in Nepal. She was able to save some money and send funds back to her parents, but she hated her employers. The master of the house would force her to have sex with other staff while he watched, and would beat her if she couldn’t get aroused. She has been back in Kathmandu for six months and is searching for work. In order to survive she engages in sex work but hates herself for this.
Nilam is excited about the third gender categories for citizenship. She says that at the moment she gets confused – should she go to the men’s toilet or the women’s toilet? Should she queue in the men’s queue or the women’s queue at the airport? She says that she hopes the constitution can be arranged quickly, so she can get on with her life.
Watch her story here:
A large proportion of the transgendered women who live in Lazimpat work for the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s first, largest and by far most influential LGBTI rights organization, which is also based in the district. The Blue Diamond Society was founded in 2011 by Sunil Babu Pant, the first gay member of parliament and legislator in Nepal’s history, with the aim of changing the existing laws against homosexuality and to advocate for the rights of the country’s marginalised gay, transgender and other sexual minorities.
By 2007, the aims had been achieved, in law at least. The Blue Diamond Society’s work has been crucial in increasing national awareness on issues surround LGBTI groups, and has offices in more than 40 cities throughout Nepal. The organization now has more than 300,000 members. Thanks to the Blue Diamond Society’s constant work, where previously LGBTI rights were not even considered, now almost all political parties are vocally supportive of LGBTI issues.
While it is true that many transgendered people in Nepal (and all over the world) face stigma and discrimination just for being who they are, it is just as true that the majority of them are well aware of the successes they want to achieve in their lives. Some of them manage to use their third gender status to their advantage. They are unapologetically honest and fierce in their determination to build their careers as well as build a strong foundation for LGBTI rights in Nepal, and in their hopes of becoming role models for transgendered people all over the world.
One of these transgendered women is Sophie Rana. Sophie is 28 and was born and raised in Kathmandu. She is an up and coming make up artist in the Nepali glamour field and her popularity is growing – precisely due to her third gender status. Through her struggles to achieve success in her career, Sophie is determined to show the world’s transgendered population that they can achieve whatever they wish, as long as they have strength and believe in themselves.
Watch Sophie talk frankly about her breasts, discrimination in Kathmandu, and the recipe for success here:
Another transgendered woman using her third gender status to improve her life is Anjali Lama.
Anjali is 27 and originally comes from Nuwakot District in northwestern Nepal. At the age of 18 she came to Kathmandu for higher education, but because of economic hardship she couldn’t continue studying and had to drop out. After working in a restaurant and being told she should model by a customer, she eventually signed up as a contestant in a beauty pageant organised by the Blue Diamond Society. She didn’t win the prize but it spurred her interest in modelling. She now successfully walks the runway for Nepali and international designers and is looking to take her career to the next level.
Watch Anjali tell her story here:
Nepal’s government is now in a state of instability – with different political parties fighting for different issues, the Maoists constantly imposing bandhs (strikes) and the people almost indifferent to the whole situation. The constitution, which was initiated in 2007 and was due for completion in 2011 is still ongoing, but it is clear that the lives of LGBTI individuals in Nepal are slowly improving.
Despite the fact that the laws are in place – providing transgender people absolute equality – it is not the laws that change people’s hearts and minds. Much more than politics, it is the work of organisations like the Blue Diamond Society and people like Simran, Susheela and Anjali that is making the difference. Without them and their constant campaigning and travelling throughout Nepal, the situation would be so different.
As Nepal’s political, material and social infrastructure develops, it is evident that the country’s future peace, stability and prosperity really do depend on the full realisation of the rights of all its citizens, including sexual and gender minorities. Thanks to the Blue Diamond Society, and the work of transgendered men and women throughout the country, these aims will no doubt be achieved sooner rather than later.
To donate to the Blue Diamond Society, click here.