I wrote a little piece on my friend Sandra on NANA. When I received back the answers to my questions, my level of pride to be her friend rose by 500%.
Meet Sandra — born to a Dutch father and Nepali mother. Although Sandra’s mother is from a very traditional caste — the Newari — in Nepal, she is also a very active female & children’s rights activist. “His western pragmatism and her activism allowed us to break free from the traditional ways women are expected to behave.”
Being around the extended family, however, Sandra was told to behave like a Nepali Girl — “Don’t be too loud, Sandra. Don’t smile too much. Don’t eat too much, you already are quite chubby. Don’t sit like that, only a boy would sit like that.”
Even though Sandra questioned these statements, she would nod and walk away to keep face for her mother.
“Boys got away with twice as much”
At the age of 8, Sandra joined a boarding school in Nepal with students that came from different parts of Nepal — boys and girls, rich and poor. She soon discovered that as a Nepali girl, you were required to
- Understand that girls and boys are not equal: Although all under the same school system, boys and girls were clearly treated differently. If girls would swear, wear short skirts or even just let their hair down — they were told off and sometimes required to write out an apology letter. If you were caught talking with boys, you would be blacklisted by teachers — “She might be a loose one.” Boys got away with it all.
- Censor yourself: “I made an explicit boob joke and while some girls laughed, others said that I was disgusting and should be embarrassed as “This is no way for a girl to behave” and that my “Foreign ways are not acceptable!”
“I was a loud-and-out-there-person, which is disliked in Nepali culture. I was constantly teased and fought with boys because I would not take shit from them. I could not, and did not, ever want to be seen as “someone who is submissive and just let things slide by”. I was stereotyped as “rowdy”, and “rowdy meant you could not be smart.” Sandra showed them differently when exam results came in and ranked top three in her year.
“How come you speak English so well?”
When Sandra turned 18 she moved to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to study International Business. Girls were allowed to talk to boys. And being loud, honest and witty was actually much appreciated. However, it seemed she now encountered another stereotype: “Telling people I was from Nepal was such an outrageous thing”.
“Wow Nepal — did you climb Everest?” (Similar to asking someone in France whether they have climbed the Mont Blanc)
“Wow — how come your English is so good?” (English is taught in Nepal as of pre-school)
Although she doesn’t feel discriminated largely due to her skin tone – “A man did think I was the maid at this Swiss Hotel.“
The one skill she learnt and applied to these situations was, and still is, empathy: “I did not necessarily take offence in these questions and viewed them as a sheer act of curiosity.. and a barometer for how much life experience and general knowledge people have.”
“I was hell-bent on escaping societal expectations of a traditional Nepali woman”
“After leaving Nepal, I was hell-bent on finding my identity and escaping what society expects of a traditional Nepali woman. I think in this hurried rush of escaping — I lost a part of me. I realise now how my Nepali upbringing and culture have actually shaped my character and my values — loyal, generous, seeing the good in people and having good karma.”
Today, Sandra resides in Switzerland with her Swiss husband, raising two sons and setting up her own publishing house. “I have found a balance between my two worlds. After years of struggling with figuring out where I fit it — Am I Nepali or am I Dutch? Am I a sweet demurred girl or a loud outspoken girl? Am I Hindu or am I an atheist? — I have now come to terms with the fact that I truly do not fit in either way. Here nor there, just in my own category of my own self.”
“I’m grateful for having two boys who will not experience the things girls have to”
When thinking of her two boys, Sandra feels guilty for being grateful for having two boys “who, thank God, will not have to experience the things girls have to — as I did”.
“It’s not just the aspect of being discriminated against or being told to behave according to a certain gender stereotype, but also on being (sexually) harassed in public or being accused of being a whore because you sat in a cab with three other male friends. Of course, boys can experience variations of this but I do feel guilty to be relieved that they are boys, and on top of that, light-skinned.”
“I take this guilt as a sign of empowerment and I harness it together with my experience that I have seen from my mother’s work for women and children in Nepal. Issues of gender on the debate about Equality vs. Equity plays a role, but more important is that I raise my sons to be humble, to be empathetic and to speak out. I do not want them to grow up thinking there is a gender role, e.g. “Mom cooks and the boys play games with dad” or that white men deserve to be privileged.”
“That is why through my publishing house I want to convey stories to children that ignite curiosity. Stories that focus on empathy and invoke self-awareness. And at the same time, stories that instil confidence in who they are and how their actions can influence the world around them.”
“I do not just want to break gender and racial stereotypes, I want to help the coming generations to challenge and overcome them.”
A successful woman..
“..is someone who feels empowered and has the confidence to stand by the decisions she makes. She does not need to justify herself, she recognises and embraces insecurities and uses those to leverage and push herself further in life.”
Lessons from Sandra’s mother – a women’s & children’s activist
“Never judge anyone for the decisions they make. Often we don’t know what others are going through. This is especially in the context of her working with female sex workers. She didn’t provide them with alternate jobs but understood that if this is what they need and want to do, then at least her NGO can provide education and support on safe sex and reproductive health. This is more important than some micro-credit scheme to open up their own shop. Life is about dealing with your reality.”