Even though legally banned, the caste system is still a social reality in Nepal. Several projects try to fight this social stratification. Surprisingly, this challenge is also the aim of a beauty contest. I met the winner of the first beauty contest for the «untouchables».
On my trip in Nepal, I met Chet, a young woman studying health sciences in Kathmandu. With a friend, we stayed at her apartment which she shares with her sister for a couple of nights and spent a lot of time with these two smart, funny and kind ladies, walking in the city, having coffee or cooking traditional momos together. We learned more about Nepal and its society, and that the two belonged to the «dolits», also known as the «untouchables», the lowest caste.
The caste system structures society and determines the professions and social classes of Nepal. The four main groups are Brahman (priests and scholars), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaisya (merchants), and Sudra (labourers), which are divided into subgroups.
It is not possible to tell to which caste a person belongs just by their appearance. But in situations where Nepali need to present themselves to someone, they must tell their full name – not only the first name but also the family name – which reveals the caste they are belonging to. Chet’s full name is Chet Kumari Bishwokarma.
Castes still matter
Even though Nepal’s society, especially in big cities like Kathmandu, became more liberal and open these last decades, there are still many situations in which the caste matters.
Chet gave us one example. At university, she has friends from different castes. But if she gets invited to a birthday party of a friend from a higher caste, she usually tries to avoid it. «I know that the family will not be happy to see me. Even if they might not tell me directly, I can still feel them stare and know they will talk about me behind my back. So I prefer to stay at home», Chet says.
Officially, the discrimination between different social classes is forbidden according to Nepal’s constitution. But the caste system is still a reality. Several projects aim to raise awareness of these problems and try to open Nepal’s society. Not only NGOs with educational projects, but even a beauty contest. Such an event was organised last year for the first time, with the aim to find the most beautiful «Miss Dolit».
Beauty and politics
This is not just a beauty contest where girls need to trip on the catwalk and throw smiles at the cameras. This contest was accompanied by a month-long preparation session where the participants would not only attend beauty classes about make-up or styling, but also learn how to speak in public, or how to become more self-confident.
The idea is to foster the self-esteem of the lowest caste in Nepal’s society. Therefore, famous people like Min Bahadur Bishwakarma were invited to speak to the girls during the preparation sessions. He is a member of the Dolit community himself, but also a famous politician representing the Dolit on a national level. With his speech about his own struggles but also the success he achieved even though belonging to the lowest caste he wanted to encourage the participants.
«He is a role model for our community. It was very inspiring and motivating, and an honour, to hear him talking to us», says Chet. He also talked about the origins of this societal system. «Most of us didn’t know much about this, it was very interesting – and important.»
Chet actually never wanted to participate in this contest: «I was convinced I was too short anyway.» But her older sister Nari motivated her: «Height doesn’t matter, you should at least give it a try», Nari said. So Chet participated.
One of the hardest parts for Chet was learning how to walk in high heels – it was her first time, and since she was shorter than the other girls, her heels were even higher. «I felt so much pain, it was very tiring!», Chet remembers. But being a very determined person, she wanted to go through the whole contest.
During the finals, every girl got to wear a traditional dress and a modern dress. But the show was not only about presenting the clothes, they also had to answer questions. Chet’s question was «What would you do to unite Dolit people?» Not an easy task. Chet talked about the important role of information.
«First, I would inform the people, talk about the background, create awareness about the system. If we are not united, everyone looks down on us, so we need a strong bound to fight together.» But this alone would not be sufficient, she supports programmes like the beauty contest to raise awareness but also to foster the self-esteem.
Before crowning the winner, awards were given for different categories, for example for the most beautiful smile or the best walk. Chet received the award for «best discipline» – which made her even more proud. «This means a lot to me because for me working hard and having a good discipline are very important values.»
Then the coronation ceremony took place. Chet thought she would stand no chance against the other participants – so it was a big surprise when she heard her name when the winner was announced. «It was an incredible feeling, I have never been so happy and proud in my whole life», she says. It was the first time she had won something – and something she had worked hard for.
This experience had a big impact on her. «My sister and my friends told me that I’ve become much more confident», she says. «I want to use this for encouraging other girls. Everybody should believe in themselves.»
She hopes that this title might open new opportunities. She wants to become a social worker, and do volunteering for people of her community who have a difficult life. «Dolits are not given education because, according to their caste, they are going to be shoemakers anyway», she explains.
Even though society is slowly changing, there is a lot of progress to be made: «We, the Dolits, build temples, but we are not allowed to get inside because we are considered impure. This needs to be changed.»