It is said that every girl born into a Hindu family is a Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. As a young child, however, this religious belief caused considerable anxiety to Sambida Rajbhandari. Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sambida remembers feeling insecure. “What if I am not goddess Laxmi and I will not be able to cause riches to my family. Would they still love me?” she thought miserably.
Sambida notes the irony of how girls are likened to the wealth goddess, when in reality, women are “not given any property rights.” It is assumed that women will bring wealth to the family through marriage, and not through their achievements.
Today, 31-year-old Sambida is indeed very rich—a woman rich in knowledge, experience, and courage. She holds a masters degree in literature and was previously an officer with LOOM Nepal, a feminist platform that helps young women address discrimination. Currently, she is an independent consultant actively working with feminist and LGBT organisations.
When Sambida was only 12, she underwent a ritual wherein she was decorated as a bride and married to a ‘wood apple tree.’ This ritual, undertaken by girls before their first period, is meant to determine their future husbands.
She recalls wearing a red sari, gold jewelry and a red veil and her mother gushing over her “I was so proud that I got married to a well-shaped, smooth and beautiful wood apple tree,” Sambida wrote in her journal.
As she underwent puberty, she slowly realised the restrictions imposed by customs were formed by patriarchal and religious beliefs. Sambida considers herself lucky that unlike other Hindu girls, she was not forced to undergo the ritual exile called ‘Bara’ among the Newars or the historical inhabitants of Kathmandu. The ritual is also known as ‘Chaupadhi’ (five days exile) and ‘GunyoCholi’ (seven days exile).
According to the ritual, as soon as a girl has her first period, she is shut inside a cold and dark room. “Once she bleeds she can give birth to a child, so hide her and let her know that her body is sinful and dirty,” Sambida said.
Girls are prohibited from any sunlight and looking at any male person for the prescribed days. “The sun is the symbol of power, light and life associated with manly power in Hindu community. On the last day, young girls are taken out from the room and after a certain ritual of worshipping the Sun, she is allowed to live her life normally,” Sambida said.
Menstruating girls and women are not allowed to enter temples or participate in rituals. It is believed that failure to follow this Hindu custom will result in a mishap befalling the girl or her family.
One day, Sambida secretly performed a prayer ritual while menstruating. For many days, she waited to see if something bad would happen as a result of her transgression. But nothing happened.
When she was of age, Sambida was asked to pose for photographs that would be sent to the man chosen by her parents to be her husband—a Norwegian whom she had never met. Sambida felt like cattle being prepared for slaughter. “How will that man whom I have never met before be my perfect life partner?” she asked herself.
The next day, Sambida packed her bags and left her parents’ house to escape the arranged marriage. At the age of 25, she married a man she chose, much to the dismay and anger of her parents.
Sambida only made peace with her parents when her father passed away in 2016. Upon reflection, she realised that “change is not an overnight process,” and that everyone is influenced by social norms since birth. “In my silent prayers, I asked my father for forgiveness for everything I caused him knowingly or unknowingly. And I forgave him too,” she wrote.
The struggle is not over. As a married woman, she feels the pressure of being expected to have a baby. “I have decided to live my life for myself and I choose not to be pregnant, for which I am judged, criticised and often questioned in many ways,” she wrote.
Sambida bravely stands by her decision. In her work, she continues to raise awareness on patriarchal interpretations of religion that are used to control women’s mobility, body, and right to property.
“Number of times while struggling against the rules, I have fallen down. Number of times while challenging the ‘norms’, I have drowned myself in tears…I have cried aloud in an empty room and in empty streets. Number of times I have leaned on my own shoulders and picked myself, stood up and fought back. I am in a constant attempt to understand me, to discover myself and to live life – that only happens once – in my own terms.
“I am trying to attain that level of ‘good’ that Hinduism or any other religion defines as being human. Hence, I shall continue to raise my voice for – life, justice and the pursuit of happiness with my body and soul and continue to celebrate my being,” she concluded.