March 7, 2012

Men Holding Hands: OK in Nepal (still), Not OK in the West

In yesterday's photo-post about the Nimesh / Bhawana engagement celebration, I mentioned being pleasantly surprised when, as Nimesh's family was walking down the road to Bhawana's house, Nimesh's grandfather took my hand and kept holding... as you can see from this photo.

Displays of affection between men are common in Nepal, and have nothing to do with homosexuality. It's the same in other cultures, including many Arab countries.

The custom of men-holding-hands can cause discomfort in Western countries. I remember how many Americans were shocked when President George W. Bush kissed and held hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah in 2004. This clip is classic!

But in Nepal, you see policemen holding hands as they go out on patrol:

So, why is this practice completely normal in Nepal, but unacceptable in the West? I'd suggest two reasons:

In the past, unmarried young men didn't have the freedom to be physically close with women, except their mothers. Psychologists tell us that touch is fundamental to human communication, bonding and health. So, physical closeness between young men -- arms around shoulders, or holding hands -- provided an opportunity for that essential "intimacy." Unmarried men and women seem to have more physical contact now, but the relaxed physical intimacy between men remains part of the culture.
Probably the West's chief deterrent to public displays of male bonding is the terror of being perceived as homosexual. Even if being gay is more accepted than ever, straight men often feel compelled to proclaim their heterosexuality, shining a spotlight on that continuing dread of being thought "queer."

Perhaps the more a society accepts homosexuality, the less comfortable straight men will feel displaying affection for male friends, unless their team has just scored a touchdown! Until very recently, most Nepalis knew little about homosexuality, and it would never occur to them that two men holding hands might be gay.

Since first coming to Nepal in 2001, I now see fewer displays of affection among young men. This observation may be the flip side to Nepal's recently becoming the first Asian country to accept gay marriages.

While Nimesh's grandfather was completely comfortable reaching for my hand, I'd bet that Nimesh's son -- many years from now -- won't be so inclined. My fear is that future generations of young people will only reach out for their computer mouse or their iPhone... but not for someone else's hand.


1 comment:

Rachel MacDonald said...

Thanks for sharing this. I remember when I was in India in 1986 as a young girl, and saw men holding hands, and my Dad explaining that that was the custom there, and then explaining this to my grade 5 class at school when I returned home to Canada and showed slides. I agree that our society is sadly avoiding touch and to our detriment. I had some Karen refugee students from Burma, and we were getting ready to take a class picture and one of the men took my hand, with fingers interlaced - which felt uncomfortably intimate to me, but I noticed that the other men and women in the group were doing so too, and it was a sign of friendship and acceptance. Later I went to a wedding dinner and one student (male, married) held my hand that way and led me down the stairs to get food. I also remember two African men who came to my city as refugees, and used to hold hands, and live together, and dance together, until someone told them they were probably perceived as gay. Then they moved out, and stopped holding hands, but sometimes you could see them touching hands when they were alone. It's sad that they feel forced to do that. Why doesn't the society just change to accommodate the greater freedom people bring? That is a freedom, to touch and show love among humans you care about. I had an art show about this issue in 1999 - drawings of people touching, and the borders between them. Thanks again.