Strangers among us

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I was once to be punished in my school by being made to sit with girls for a whole period! It was one of the three options. I opted to do sit-ups while holding my ears. Now six years after that incident, I am in an engineering college. Fourteen years of education from a government primary school in my village to a private school in Janakpur to high school in Kathmandu, and finally to the reputed Pulchowk Campus. But I am yet to see boys and girls sitting together in class. From a rural village to the most advanced city in the country, from the less educated to the highly educated, from the Terai to the hills and mountains, there is no difference in this tradition.

And when some with the courage to challenge this tradition break it, we assume there must be something going on between them. Why wouldn’t we? After all, we have grown up listening to and submitting ourselves to filmy dialogues like: “A boy and a girl can never be friends.” Perhaps this is one reason why the society has tried, with the help of the so-called co-ed schools, to keep them separated as if they are coke and mentos.

We grow up almost strangers to the opposite sex, their behavior, problems, struggles and joys. I hate to say it, but I often find myself around boys who talk about girls disrespectfully, from comments about their looks and body, to questioning their character just because they interact in a freer way. It is difficult for one to abuse somebody if one knows them. For example, if a white person is friends with a black person, it will be very difficult for him to be a racist. It is always easier to ridicule a stranger. You don’t know about them, care about them, and very less is at stake. I am sure girls also make statements based on stereotypes that may be offending to boys, except I believe girls are more sensitive regarding these issues compared to boys. This is because women themselves have been victims of oppression by men for thousands of years.

I believe this to be one reason why the gap between men and women has become so huge in Nepali society. Both sexes are in confusion and their minds are full of stereotypes taught by family, schools, and society, about one another. But ironically enough, as soon as they reach marriageable age, our society expects them to be so happily live life together as if they have been prepared well in advance for this. The bitter reality is they do not know one another; it is just like expecting a cricketer to play well, without ‘net practice’. I am a man. I know men. But I do not know well enough about the opposite sex.

Since our schools fail to offer that environment where boys and girls become friends and understand each other, I felt that the world outside school would be different. But unfortunately, I was wrong. I will share a couple of my experiences. On my trip to Delhi, I visited one of my distant relatives. We met and talked. In the meantime, his only son, youngest of six children, came back from his tuition and his father introduced him to me. But what I felt awkward about is he never introduced us to his daughters, who were there too.

They were my distant sisters, but sisters nevertheless. It seems to me that the most natural relation between a boy and a girl is that of a brother and sister in the societies I have lived, and observed. Not because the society wants you to know each other by becoming brothers and sisters. In fact, it is only a safety mechanism developed by the conservative society that views girls as needing “protection” from males.

Another instance, I lived in Janakpur for eight years. The last six years were spent in a house where we rented a couple of rooms. The owner’s son was my age and we became brothers, although his family did not live in the same house. We became so close that whenever he visited Janakpur, we would hang out together and he would stay over in my room despite having a room upstairs. Nowadays we meet less often, but we still have that bond. Now taking out the ‘sleeping in the same room’ part out, would it have been the same if that was a girl?  No! How do I know? Last four years I’ve been living in a single flat with my parents on the ground floor in Kathmandu and the owner’s family lives upstairs. A family of four with two daughters, who I know nothing about except that they are the house owner’s daughters.

I feel that this should change. The coke and mentos approach still continues. Everyone can relate to the disapproving look on your parents’ face when they see you talking to a friend of opposite sex on the phone. We live in a society full of contradictions. There are schools that teach equality and unity of boys and girls, but make them sit separately. And we are perfectly comfortable with this. This is ‘normal’ in many ways because no one ever feels the need to speak against these. To conclude, a quote from J Krishnamurti on society: “It is no measure of health to be adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

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