When I was five years old, my mother told me she almost died during childbirth. The doctor told her it was too dangerous for her to have more children. “Your grandma said you were born on an auspicious day and had a very strong will. So you will be our son.” Three years after this conversation, my brother was born.
It was a lot to process at such a young age, the guilt for almost being the cause of my own mother’s death mixed with pride that I could take the status of a boy, then eventually, the shame in realizing that my older sister and I were not enough. My mother had to risk her life to have a son because, in my world, daughters were not a gift but a heavy burden.
I wrestled with what it meant to be a girl child throughout my life. Born in Kathmandu, Nepal, my family moved to Tokyo when I was eight. Being in a new environment, I started finding my voice but was quickly told that girls were not meant to be heard. My parents believed in education and wanted me to prosper, but it always came with a slight caution to know the limits placed on me. I began noticing that culturally, any investment made in girls was not to ensure that we would be strong, independent women but to ensure we would be attractive potential wives. I saw that as women, our lives were never our own—we first belonged to our parents, then our husbands, and then our children. I believed that. That was my mother’s life. That would be my sister’s life. That would eventually be my life.
When I went to university in England, I finally got a little taste of freedom and started dreaming of an independent life. But that door slammed shut the minute I finished my degrees, and arranged marriage came knocking loudly. Despite resisting, I succumbed to the pressure and started talking to potential candidates. What I hadn’t expected then was to find a Nepali man who rejected all the gender norms and social constructs—a man who saw me as his equal and not an object to be owned. I felt very fortunate to have found love in a situation where some women had to compromise. After getting married, I moved to the US to start a new chapter of my life. But still, I struggled to unlearn everything I was conditioned to believe. Even though I had a supportive partner, I was part of a community that kept reminding me that my needs and desires came second as a woman. When you are constantly being pushed to only think about others, it’s very easy to forget yourself.
The most significant shift in my life came when I started working at Perennial, a leadership development organization that focuses on the inner lives of social change leaders. Suddenly, I found myself sitting in a circle—not behind anyone. I was finally being seen. And eventually, I started seeing myself. I was immersed in a world where we worked with leaders to expand awareness, practice reflection, enhance wellbeing, and deconstruct and recreate reality. Slowly, I started doing that for myself. Feeling more centered, I dared to begin questioning everything I knew. Feeling more aware, I began to dismantle the constructs and the conditions that shaped my identity as a Nepali woman. I felt more courageous to challenge the deeply rooted patriarchal culture disguised as religious traditions. But still, I felt there was a part of me holding back. It was during this time that I received an email announcing the start of the Girl Child & Her Long Walk to Freedom reading journey.
I was excited and nervous as I contemplated this opportunity. I was born Hindu but not religious, and I identify as a spiritual agnostic. I wasn’t sure how the religious element and Christianity would land on me. But, the idea of having a space to “understand the historical roots of patriarchy, become acquainted with real-life faith-inspired change agents who challenge unfair gender norms around the world and learn about the deeper, emancipatory current that lies at the heart of our faith traditions” felt like an opportunity to learn and get unstuck. Though the story was not centered around my faith, we all have been formed within an ancient patriarchal construct and thus share similar struggles and a shared human quest. And one of the most beautiful things I often witness in my work is the transformation that happens when we are open, curious, and committed to learning. With this commitment, I embarked on the reading journey.
The journey was not an easy one — and why would it be when the reality we face is so bleak? Each chapter addressed the crushing inequities and injustices girls meet globally but ended with hope through a story of an inspirational leader who refused to accept defeat. I appreciated the structure and how it allowed me to be with nature, take a moment to reflect, and just breathe. While I was unfamiliar with the stories from the Bible, I was struck by the core message it shared with the Upanishads and Geeta, the message to love each other as whole human beings. I also reflected more deeply on Hinduism and the patriarchal Brahman culture and tradition, using the same process used in the book. This exercise was enriching, as it allowed me to untangle the essence of the religion which has surrounded my upbringing from patriarchal traditions. I have a clearer vision of the role patriarchy played in subjugating women and girls.
I enjoyed taking this journey with Emily and Rev. Domnic in my ears. I was deeply moved by their stories and their path to healing and discovery. I went on many walks with Emily and sat with her as she experienced her spiritual awakening. Likewise, I was with Rev. Domnic as he witnessed his mother face violence that led him to question his own beliefs. Being part of their world, experiencing their fears, and finding strength in their struggle was extremely valuable.
The reading journey also came with the opportunity to be part of a learning cohort that convened once a month. This is where I found a sisterhood of courageous women. We processed the atrocities that we witnessed in each chapter and related them to our own experiences with patriarchal traditions through storytelling. Being around them, I realized that courage doesn’t always come with armor, ready for battle. Instead, courage comes with a beating heart, a caring soul, and an unwavering conviction that we are made equal. Being around them, I realized that change is possible because we are that change.
My journey with the Girl Child Journey is not over; in fact, it has only just begun. Arundhati Roy so beautifully said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
We are indeed on our way.
Priti is the Director of Programs for Perennial, where she oversees the coordination and administration of all aspects of ongoing programs, including planning, organizing, staffing, leading, and delivering program activities. She is passionate about helping build global communities through mutual understanding, love, and connection. Originally from Kathmandu, Nepal, Priti grew up in Tokyo, Japan. She studied and worked in England for eight years before relocating to the US, where she lived in Chicago and Pittsburgh. Priti currently feels at home in Seattle, amidst the snow-capped mountains, which reminds her of the Himalayas.