I recently read that light touch sets off our body’s protective warning system, and recently – in Nepal – I had cause to intervene to protect myself from light ‘chunu’ (touch) from men.
I would like to share my personal experiences of this because it taught me a lot about preludes to sexual violence for myself as a ‘bideshi’ (foreigner), as well as for women in Nepal. It also builds upon other such experiences that I have had with (some) Nepali men in the many years I have worked inside the culture.
All my experiences occurred in public places; in a café, near a temple and at a Tihar Festival gathering with friends. All the approaches were from (young/older) married men from the same ethnic group* and alcohol was a factor in the experiences.
The touch I experienced was light, to my skin or skin through clothing, and made me cringe with extreme discomfort.
In the first scenario, I was in a café and made an enquiry to the café manager about the bread they used on their menu; I was interested in buying a loaf to make toast for breakfast in my nearby apartment. On learning I was in Nepal alone, the man took an ‘unhealthy interest’ in me and offered to take me on his motorbike to several nearby bakeries to find a selection of good breads. Although this initially sounded innocuous, I found myself negotiating a safe endpoint to this proposed ‘adventure’, which coincided with a coffee date with a friend nearby to one of the bakeries I had hoped to go to. This is because I had experienced repeated proposals like this from Nepali men before and I knew it could encourage unwanted attention. On finishing this conversation with me, the man went to shake my hand. He clasped both hands tightly around my right hand and pressed his body a little too close to mine, at which point I smelled alcohol. In a visit to the café a few days later, he initiated conversation again and started asking for my contact details in Australia. This double intrusion set off alarm bells and I then cancelled the upcoming motor bike ride via the café staff, so I did not have to confront him. Suffice to say, this situation also reminded me of a scenario I knew about where a young Dutch girl had been raped at Shivapuri National Park after a motorbike ride that began seemingly innocently like my experience. In 2016, I was privy to her full story, so I knew how shocking it was and why, also, much of the story was kept from the press. Notably, this was not an isolated incident. Many such incidents have been occurring recently in Nepal making many of us from outside the country take extra precautions to stay safe from sexual harm.
In the second scenario, I was returning to my apartment one evening at around 10.30pm after a dinner with friends when a male Nepali ‘friend’ who lives nearby saw me. He and his joint family own a home/guesthouse that was opposite my apartment. I had stayed there a few times and had been very welcomed by him and his extended family, and I had even attended his daughter’s first menstruation celebration in early 2019. His home and my apartment were divided by a small temple. As he said goodbye to a male friend – there had clearly been a Dashain Festival gathering at the family home – he called my name. I could tell by the slurring of his voice that he had been drinking, heavily. He then negotiated his way around the temple towards me. With my bag on the ground on the step of my apartment, in a well-lit area, I began to scour for my keys. As I stood up, he ran his hands around the lower part of my back as if to try and embrace me. I pushed him away, quickly picked up my bag and put it in front of my body, then scowled at him and said: ‘Where are your children?’ It was the only thing I could think of to say in the heat of the moment as I peered across at the open windows of his family home. This was not the first such approach I had had from this ‘friend’. On my arrival in Nepal, he had invited me to a have a cup of tea with his family in their home. When he discovered I was staying alone in my apartment, he ‘hinted’ to me about coming to visit, after I mentioned I planned to entertain friends there. At the time, I was aware of my internal reaction to this: ‘No way!’. This is because I had already dealt with a few issues with him. In the past, he had repeatedly called me ‘beautiful’ in front of his children and his wife, including when she was once sitting on a sofa beside him. (She speaks English, so this must have been an affront to her.) I had repeatedly told him this was inappropriate because of the connotations it has – that he is making a pass at me. After this latest incident, I stopped all contact with the man and, sadly, with his family, and I actively avoided him every time I came back to my apartment thereafter. I also blocked him on social media, and I warned another young woman who was staying at his guesthouse to be aware of him and his behaviours.
In the third scenario, I was at Tihar gathering with friends. I was sitting around a small fire enjoying the singing and guitar and madal playing when I sensed someone staring at me. I looked up and I was right. Indeed, a man seated opposite was fixated. As it made me feel uncomfortable, I tried to avert his gaze. However, his eyes were immovable. A chair then emptied beside mine and he saw an opportunity to converse with me. He made his way around the group and came and sat in it. As soon as he initiated conversation, I realised he was extremely inebriated: the conversation kept going in a circuitous route. He then began to stroke (the top of) my right hand, moved to my right forearm, and then the top of my upper right thigh. I shirked and pulled my body away, then physically shifted my chair. Trying to negotiate the moment, I heard my inner voice say, ‘You don’t have to put up with this!’. Then a fire brewed up inside of me. I eyeballed him, put both my hands up in front of my chest and forcefully said: ‘Stop touching me!’. He froze. After a moment, he looked back at me and said, ‘I’m sorry’. Then he kept reiterating this so I began to feel extremely embarrassed because of the close proximity of others who could likely hear him. I then said, ‘It’s ok’, though I knew it was not, to get him to stop talking. I repeated this several times. Eventually, he cowered like a baby and said: ‘I’m a small man’. It seemed like an attempt to make me feel sorry for him, but all I could feel was pity and disgust, and agreement with him about his smallness. As I had given him my phone number, under duress, I also quickly blocked the number, along with his Facebook page later so he would not track me on social media. On reflection, I also realised that his pattern of behaviour reflected some of the issues women working in dance bars have to contend with from some Nepali men. I recalled this from my PhD research.
In Nepal, I shared my stories with the Asha Nepal team who encouraged me to write about them here; they know how much Nepali women suffer in relation to issues of sexual harassment from men and how difficult it is for women to voice their concerns as they are raised to be passive. In addition, they cannot respond in the situations I have described – lascivious (sexual) stares and being touched – because they often feel completely paralysed. However, as a result of my experiences – and those my female friends and colleagues from other countries who work in Nepal have also recently suffered – I also felt it was doubly important to share my experiences. During our discussion, I learned that ‘chune’ (touch) is a very sensitive issue in Nepal, and that women and men in families need to be educated about ‘safe’ and ‘non-safe’ touch for the long term safety of their women and girls, and in particular, for the prevention of sexual harassment and violence. However, I also heard an incredibly positive story about a young girl who has developed her own strategy to stop people touching her, as she does not like to be touched and has always been like this. When someone tries to touch her, she puts both her hands up in front of her chest and says, forcefully: ‘Malai nachunus!!!’ (Don’t touch me!’). And when she says it, she really means it. This resonated with me because it largely replicates what I did to stop some of the inappropriate touch that I received from Nepali men. However, from this young girl and the Asha Nepal team, I have now learned to say ‘Malai nachunus!!!’ and I will use them along with my hand gestures if – in the future – I encounter more unwanted touch from Nepali men. However, I am also determined to learn other techniques to address these issues because I think these strategies are not enough. In Nepali culture, multiple tactics are needed to emphasise ‘Nai MATLAB nai!!!’ (‘No MEANS no!!!’).
*For reasons of privacy and confidentiality, the ethnic group will not be named.
While I have been through the above experiences in Nepal, I would like to acknowledge and thank the many male Nepali friends who have also treated me with the utmost respect. Nepal needs more men like you.
*Originally published on Asha Nepal’s blog