Picture this: A man goes to a public tap with a bucket full of laundry, mostly female garments. He starts doing the laundry, indifferent to the curious gaze of other tap-users, mostly women.
What kind of conversation would this trigger around the water tap and later in the neighbourhood and community? In our experiment with swapped gender roles, tap-users started questioning the very “loyalty” of his female partner. Where is your wife? Is she sick? The news caused some kind of commotion, some upfront and some more behind his back.
While these expectations (men don’t do women’s laundry) appear normal, they do look funny and abnormal when gender roles are swapped. What if a man is put in a social context where he has to face unwanted comments for not complying with the set norms? What if men and women swapped places?
UNDP, in partnership with The Kathmandu Post, has been putting up in social media a series of similar scenarios, through a mixture of short films, invisible theatre and animations. The purpose is to trigger people to think from a different perspective—by exposing how “abnormal is the normal,” how gender expectations are normalised in society and culture, and how shocking things can be when conventional gender roles are flipped.
The role swap videos went viral: 1500+ comments, 6000+ shares and over 2 million views in just a few weeks. There were even larger number of views and comments in other public platforms that downloaded and used the videos. These videos created a buzz and generated a debate in both the virtual and real world. While many saw the irony behind it, there were few who objected at projecting what they said was a very “insulting” picture of a man. How can you show “men as slave for their wives?” Others countered back with tougher replies: “How could you think that the same act with swapped gender roles is insulting but not what is actually happening to women in Nepal?”
The message sinks in
The short video series presented scenarios where women are playing cards, cracking jokes, harassing men, while men are busy doing household chores. As the role swap video series progressed, we brought to screen other cultural-specific realities taking place in Nepal. Chhaupadi, or the ancient practice in Nepal that makes women untouchable during menstruation, has been another topic of role reversal, wherein a man bleeds and faces discrimination. Reacting to this episode, a viewer commented “this video made me realise why this should stop,” posted Niraj. “I identified myself with the boy throughout the video … great way to remind man about the other side of the world they would never experience,” commented Raaz KC.
While these reversed roles are actually becoming a reality with some of the younger generations that try to break away from conventional gender roles, these are very rare and those who have practiced this have faced several challenges. Even in western societies, as a 2014 Cambridge University study has shown, those who do not conform to conventional gender roles are facing stigma and isolation.
These expectations, or the norms that underlie these practices, have long been nurturing stereotypes. A recent global study reveals, “across the world, from Beijing to Baltimore, children are straightjacketed into gender roles from early adolescence, with the world expanding for boys and closing in for girls”. In fact, gender stereotypes are not just affecting girls, boys are also falling victim: with them being encouraged to suppress their feelings and adopting more aggressive behaviours in society.
A effective tool for awareness
Encouraging people to swap roles might seem an unacceptable proposition to many, as the quickest counter argument would be “you cannot change the nature” and men are naturally not good at taking care of household chores. But, what we learned from this experiment is how effective and powerful it is as an advocacy and awareness tool, especially to trigger discussions, and make people realise the gravity of gender discrimination happening today.
In Nepal, almost half of all women experience violence in their lifetime. It happens to people of all ages, all castes, all religions, all social levels and to women with and without children. According to a 2012 government of Nepal study, around 99 percent of adolescents and youth are of the opinion that male and female should have equal rights, but 4 percent of them also believe that it is appropriate for a boyfriend/husband to beat girlfriend/wife (NAYS 2012). These realities, in a society that has internalised gender-biased norms, could be exposed more effectively by demonstrating a world where gender roles are swapped.
This could be used not just in raising awareness on gender issues but could also be replicated in other areas, such as in bringing to a better understanding the old and the new generations.
A version of this article was published on 28 January 2018 in The Kathmandu Post.
About the Authors
Renaud Meyer is Country Director and Kamal Raj Sigdel is Head of Communications at UNDP Nepal.