Sarina Prabasi: Pushing Boundaries One Hat at a Time
Interviewed and Written by Isa
A Nepali woman who holds power in America? The traditional Nepalese culture would dismiss this thought out of sheer impossibility. The social norms require women to perform household tasks and fall into a system of silent submission. Women are raised to be mere accessories to men in every sense of the word in the vast majority of this country. The gender role boundaries are hardly pushed because of the potential backlash it may have not only on the woman, but her family line as well. Sarina Prabasi, a proud Nepalese woman, dared to breakout of this constant cycle of prejudice and in turn is living a life she often refers to as “a dream turned to reality by me, myself, and I”– something that could not be done in the country of her adolescence.
“I am a wearer of many hats [laughs]. I’m an entrepreneur, a CEO, a mother… the list goes on.”
In her early thirties, Sarina Prabasi defied all narratives that pushed against her in order to become the CEO of the international non-profit WaterAid America in New York City. The humanitarian organization focuses on building sustainable ways to access clean water, improve hygienic situations, and provide education to women and young girls in places such as South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. When asked to define WaterAid America in her own words, she includes that the non-profit stood for the simplicities that are necessities in life.
“It’s a need, but it’s also a right.”
Alongside having the position of power at her full-time job, she is a wife, a mother of two rambunctious youngsters who I had the pleasure of meeting, and the co-owner of the entrepreneurial coffee shop, Buunni.
Prabasi has served as a mentor to me ever since I met her in 2016 for a summer internship for WaterAid. Our first conversation involved her narrating her incredibly inspirational life story to me over a cup of coffee outside the office. My respect for her undoubtedly originated from her outwardly strong sense of service toward women and the lengths she was willing to go for communities she chose to immerse herself in. Having being raised in Nepal in the late 1970s, her story involves hardships derived from the immense amount of status-quo stories and mythical norms working directly against her in the midst of a transformative time in her life as an adolescent. Prabasi met the oppressor’s gaze, as bell hooks would write, time and time again until a path was forged not by the forceful hands of Nepalese culture, but her own.
It is important to recognize the structure of traditional Nepalese thought and the expectations that it projects onto the familial line for an indefinite number of generations and how this counters to Sarina Prabasi’s nuclear family’s beliefs. Having grown up with her parents holding a perspective outside of the societal norm, she was able to notice the gender oppression encompassing her and others around her.
“Nepal, as you know, is a highly sexist, patriarchal society. It was even more so when I was a teenager, applying to college. In a way, I was used to that. It made me mad. It made me strong, but it was something that I was aware of. I knew– or thought I knew– how to respond to that or how to deal with it.”
Her awareness allowed her to move away from the acts of oppression and recognize when it was being used. This recognition was a privilege in many senses and she addresses it as such. Many women in Nepal are able to recognize their oppression, though very few are able to act against it and change their path. Prabasi’s parents being quite modern in their thinking had allowed her this window to look out upon and room to interpret it as whatever she so felt to. Though it takes will to act against the societal norms in one’s country, it is definitely easier said than done. The amount of risks involved with a woman going against the hundreds of years old grain and challenging history from it’s hegemonically perceived origins has the potential to deeply affect her life and future. My mother, for example, was overtly rebellious as soon as she was sent to be married at the young age of twenty. Her inlaws became increasingly angry with her clashing viewpoints and as a result, attempted to shame my mother’s family line.
My respect for Sarina Prabasi was already at the utmost level, though after analyzing the potentialities of her decision, I was able to understand my respect more deeply than before. I believe that her decision connects to Audre Lorde’s line in her text Age, Race, Class, and Sex, “The ‘generation gap’ is an important tool for any repressive society” (2). The seemingly gray area that lies between the elders that rule Nepalese society and the generations that follow it is obviously in effect. There is a cyclical element that is continuous throughout this interview and keeps surfacing– it being that the oppression against women is simply being swept under the rug which is something I believe to be true even outside of Nepal. It is almost as if the bystander effect is in place, but applied to an entire country’s history. It is occuring all around us, yet often times we choose to let it slide thinking that another individual who may be more passionate or better educated than us will embark on the change. Responsibility disspipates and the pattern remains. I have fallen guilty to this effect as well, but it cannot be tolerated any longer. History is able to be molded through the will and power of the people. Banded together in solidarity and only solidarity will women create an echoing voice for us all. The concept of these status-quo stories and the need to identify the oppression that women and women of color share stem from the thoughts and ideologies of a recurring author discussed in class. In her work titled Beyond Intersectionality, feminist author AnaLouise Keating states, “While our lives and experiences may be widely divergent, we are all, in various ways, the product of a racist/sexist/oppressive social system, and we have all– to varying degrees– internalized these beliefs… And, because we are all in this “same boat,” Morales suggests, we should build additional commonalities and work together…” (41). With her consistent work in the empowerment of women, Sarina makes her understanding of this concept clear.
The traditional perspective in Nepal heavily relies on the hegemonic view of a male being superior to a woman. Though, there are a plethora of complexities that stemmed and evolved from this view. Having being detatched from the longstanding traditions of my origin country, I was curious as to how the specific hegemonic view differed in Nepal to the white, thin, Christian, financially stable, heterosexual male in the United States and how this affected and traveled through Prabasi’s journey towards her career. When being asked about the equivalent of this hegemonic view in our native culture, she explained what she believed was the prominent view in the relatively small country. Prabasi philosophizes that it is result of long-standing class issues that derive from the ancient caste systems that are still enforced, in defiance of the regulations to abolish it. She explains, “… I think the whole struggle of groups that have been neglected or marginalized or have not been given equal opportunity in the past is a big part of the current struggle in Nepal… You know, the people in the mountains versus the people from the plains and having representation in the constitution and a lot of that is a reaction to the dominance of the Brahman middle-class, or upper-middle class Brahmin culture that has been dominating Nepal for a very long time. So I think in Nepal the high caste, Nepali speaking male is the equivalent [of the United States’ idea that the white, thin, christian, financially stable, heterosexual male is the superior in society].” Being a progressive woman in Nepal and moving to the United States in order to pursue a life that meant more than to be dutiful in the eyes of her male counterpart comes with a culture shock. Prior to her move to the states, Prabasi was considered to be ahead of her time. Whether that was perceived as good or bad greatly depended on the audience: her elders in comparison to her classmates. The United States, in addition to being reigned by the highly sexist patriarchy, has an element of racial bias that is woven into its society. Sarina Prabasi reflects on her expereince in the following clip.
Immigrating to the United States from such an oppresive country and building such a positive career for herself is one of the many aspects of Sarina’s story I found to be highly interesting. The United States, although comparatively progressive in relation to Nepal, still implements a severe level of sexism in the workplace. Although women have more of an opportunity to reach a higher position in relation to many of our global societies, the glass ceiling is still immensely thick. Statistics complied by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org team found that in the C-suite– positions such as chief financial/operating officer– 19% are women and 81% are men. Sarina addresses her expereince in regards to the field of non-profits.
Unfotrunately, like many Nepalese women, Sarina’s most prominent oppressor were the overbearing, traditional Nepali societal ideals. Positively, she was able to stand tall and forge a path for her life, setting an example for those who are more able to do so for those who are not.
Both of my parents being immigrants from Nepal and growing up around the same time as Sarina, I feel as though I have a strong connection to the culture and can better understand the difficulties of her life. Hearing her story and interviewing her further gave me the unfortunate feeling of familiarity. I am the first of my family to be born and raised in the United States, thus I have a lot of family members who are shackled– some willingly, others unwillingly– to the traditional Nepalese culture and perceive it in different eyes than the members of my family who come before me. Though I was lucky enough to have been raised in a progressive household that valued individualism rather than the norms constructed by the patriarchy, my non-nuclear family constantly countered this. I am constantly badgered by my external family to look at my future in a way that will make them look best due to the heavy weight that is placed on females and their responsibilities to their family’s name. The seemingly silent war between my views on the world and my deeply traditional family’s trudges on, though I refuse to back down. In this way, I find that I have quite a strong connection to Prabasi’s experiences growing up, recognizing the oppression encompassing her, and establishing a future for herself. Sarina Prabasi and her perseverance to construct her life on her own terms have fueled the already wild fire within me. For that, I cannot thank her enough.
Stand tall. Stand together.