Semiotics Of The Term 'Cheli'

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Sometimes ago, Sumana Shrestha, a Rastrya Swatantra Party (RSP) parliamentarian, addressed a fundamental issue that has long perpetuated the patriarchal mindset in Nepali society - the way women are addressed in professional settings. It was a call to confront and challenge age-old traditions that have shaped how women are addressed and perceived within the realm of politics, in the workplace, and in society as a whole. Her message, delivered within the distinguished chambers of Nepal's parliament, reverberated far beyond the walls of that institution, resonating in a few people’s hearts and minds.

The core of Sumana's address was an incisive critique of the use of the term "Cheli" to address female parliamentarians. Historically, "Cheli" signifies a familial relationship, one that is inherently subservient and secondary in nature. This address, Sumana passionately argued, diminishes the dignity, role, and status of women in the professional realm, relegating them to a position that is far from equal to their male counterparts. Shrestha's speech went beyond the surface-level observation that the use of "Cheli" was a matter of semantics. It was a deeply rooted issue that had seeped into the very consciousness of society, perpetuating traditional gender norms and patriarchal values. The practice, she noted, was not just a display of respect, but a subtle tool of oppression that implied that women should remain in a subservient role, deferring to men's opinions and decisions.

By bringing this conversation to the forefront of institutional settings, Shrestha sought to dismantle the deeply ingrained patriarchal values that continue to influence the mindset and behaviour of society. She recognised the danger of perpetuating the use of "Cheli" when addressing women in professional roles, as it not only diminishes their ability to participate on equal terms but also robs them of their logical and reasoned voices. 

Familial roles

The essence of equal participation in a horizontal, rather than a vertical, manner within institutions is key to establishing a more inclusive and progressive society. Sumana's thought-provoking questions touched upon the importance of treating all individuals equally, regardless of their gender, age, or background, when they work together in an institutional setting. Shrestha’s statement makes a compelling argument for a horizontal society. She urges for a change in societal thinking, emphasising that respecting an individual's professional position should take precedence over traditional familial roles. We should avoid feeling inferior when someone junior holds a higher position. Avoiding feelings of jealousy or inferiority highlights the significance of a professional, equal relationship within an organisation. We should view each individual as a fellow collaborator, rather than a family member, when working within institutions.

Promoting equality, we should emphasise horizontal relationships in professional settings. Treating all individuals equally, regardless of their gender, age, or background, aligns with the principles of equality and justice. We should question the deeply ingrained hierarchical structures that have long governed Nepali society and its institutions. We should remove age-old practices that perpetuate the patriarchal mindset, which, in turn, stifles the voices and potential of women in all fields of life. Nepal is a land of breathtaking landscapes, rich traditions, and diverse communities. It's a place where ancient customs seamlessly blend with modern aspirations. 

However, beneath this harmonious façade lies a complex societal structure deeply influenced by patriarchal norms and a hierarchical approach to relationships. The traditional term "Cheli," commonly used to address women, is deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of Nepal. It signifies a familial relationship, implying a sense of warmth and affection. While these connotations are not inherently negative, they become problematic when transplanted into professional settings. Shrestha's critique of this practice struck a chord with many, particularly those who recognised the power dynamics it perpetuated. The word "Cheli" has the insidious effect of keeping women in subservient roles, both symbolically and in practice. 

By using this term in professional contexts, it subtly implies that women should be in supportive roles, often secondary to their male counterparts. The impact of such a practice reaches beyond mere semantics. It touches upon the very essence of how society views and values women. It reinforces traditional gender roles and obstructs the path to gender equality and empowerment. Sumana's passionate plea was not just a linguistic correction; it is a call for a fundamental shift in societal norms and values. The time has come to discard the patriarchal mindset and encourage more women, like Sumana Shrestha, to participate at various institutional and political levels. Only by reevaluating the language and attitudes that affect the professional performance of women can we hope to achieve true equality and cooperation within our society. 

True equality

It is time to support the Sumana Shrestha of our world and ensure that women are addressed with respect and professionalism, not as "Cheli" but as equal collaborators in the progress of our nation. We must understand that addressing women in a particular manner is not just about words; it's about the underlying values and norms that have shaped society for generations. To analyse the implications and possibilities of Shrestha's speech, we need to explore the cultural, societal, and political dynamics of Nepal.

The use of "Cheli" in professional settings does not merely affect women's confidence or self-worth; it has a broader impact on the entire community. By relegating women to subservient roles through language, the society inadvertently fosters a culture of inequality. This, in turn, affects the efficiency and progress of institutions and the nation as a whole. Nepal, like many nations, is at a crossroads. It faces a choice between maintaining the status quo or embarking on a journey towards true equality and empowerment. Sumana Shrestha's speech advocates for the latter. It calls for a transformation in societal values and norms. 

(Acharya is Social Science director of NIRI, Nexus Institute of Research and Innovation.)

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