October 19, 2014
October 19, 2014
DEKOCHA, NEPAL – In a small Kathmandu Valley salon redolent of aftershave, a woman holds a man’s face with one hand while dexterously handling a shaving blade with the other. With quick, confident strokes, she finishes shaving her client within 20 minutes.
The barber, Laxmi Napit, opened her shop, Binu Ladies and Gents Hair Cutting Saloon, in 2001. (In Nepal, barber and beauty shops are often called saloons.) Napit, 40, was the first female barber in Nepal, according to the Ministry of Industry, and is the only female barber in the market known as Dekocha chowk.
Dekocha is a town in metropolitan Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley's third-largest city.
“At the start, I struggled hard, but I did not back down and continued in this business,” Napit says.
Her caste, the Napit caste, is one of two in Nepal that have traditionally served as barbers, but Napit is the first person in her family to enter the field. Napit became fascinated by hair-cutting when, as a girl, she watched her father give haircuts to family members and neighbors.
A single mother with no vocational training, Napit had trouble finding work that would enable her to support her family. In 2001, she applied to a free hairdressing training program conducted by the Ministry of Industry’s Department of Cottage and Small Industries.
The first woman to apply to the program, she endured the ridicule of trainers who said she was trying to do a man’s job.
At the end of each day of training, she would come home and cry alone in her room.
“The trainers laughed at me and discouraged me,” Napit says. “But they gave me a good training, and my aim was to learn well.”
After three months of training, Napit set up her salon with 50,000 rupees ($500) she raised by selling jewelry and borrowing from a neighbor. At first, the salon was strictly for men.
“For the first three months, I had no customers,” she says. “People would look into my salon, laugh at me and leave.”
Eventually that year, a neighbor came for a 15-rupee (15-cent) haircut, the average price at the time, Napit says. He was so impressed by her work that he informed his friends, and Napit gradually built up a clientele.
Now, Napit is helping other women become barbers. She empowers unemployed young men and women by providing free training.
Some 65,000 Nepalis work in salons, but fewer than 100 of them are women who work as barbers, says Gajendra Thakur, president of the Nepal Barbers’ Trade Union.
Nepalese hair salons are typically separated by gender, and men do not ordinarily go to salons operated by women, says Chaitanya Mishra, a professor of sociology at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
Mishra attributes the low number of female barbers to social attitudes.
Traditionally, gender roles in Nepalese society have been clearly defined, he says. Women worked in the house and the fields, and only men were to work outside the home. Furthermore, women traditionally did not interact with men outside their immediate families.
“Society is not able to accept women doing ‘men’s work,’” Mishra says, referring to barbering.
The Department of Cottage and Small Industries has been providing training in hairdressing since 1983. It has trained 1,000 men and women a year since 2011, says Ramesh Chandra Upadhyaya, acting deputy director of the department’s development board.
The department chose hairdressing because the basic skills can be learned quickly and the startup costs are affordable, he says.
About 30 percent of the men trained in the program open salons. Although half of the trainees have been women, fewer than a dozen have started their own salons.
Balkrishna Sainju, 42, has been visiting Napit’s salon regularly for two years. His wife, Manisha Sainju, told him about Napit and encouraged him to go to her salon.
“When I see Napit, I feel that women are not lagging behind in any area of work,” Manisha Sainju says.
Balkrishna Sainju spends 30 rupees (30 cents) for a weekly shave and 60 rupees (60 cents) for a monthly haircut. He is pleased with Napit’s work, and he finds her prices reasonable.
“Male barbers are negligent about their work, as they sometimes give you a bad haircut, and their salons are expensive too,” he says. “At Napit’s salon, the service is good and also their behavior.”
Her salon is popular, says Napit, who works six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. She gets about 50 to 55 clients a week, mostly men.
She offers both hair dressing and beauty services. For men, she provides haircuts, shaving and head massage. Since undergoing beautician training in 2008, Napit has offered female customers haircuts, facials, threading, waxing, manicures and pedicures.
Ramesh Thakur, 50, a barber and owner of a men’s salon in Dekocha chowk, is impressed by Napit’s work.
“She is more skilled than us,” he says.
Although Napit’s skills have drawn a few of his own clients, Ramesh Thakur says he is proud of her achievement.
“Napit is very energetic and has not only established herself in this business but has also been training young people,” he says.
Napit has been providing a free, three-month, on-the-job training program for unemployed youths since 2010. She has trained 100 young people, 50 men and 50 women, between 18 and 30, she says.
“I feel proud to see that people who used to be desperate due to unemployment are earning good money through this business,” she says.
Napit brings in about 30,000 rupees ($300) a month for a profit of about 15,000 rupees ($150), she says.
“Women can be successful in this field one day if they continue to work as barbers, and do not give up because society hates women doing this job,” she says.
Ritu Suwal, 25, of Bhaktapur, trained under Napit in 2008. She was inspired by Napit and wanted to open her own salon.
But her family prevented her from doing so, fearing it would ruin her chances of making a good marriage, Suwal says.
“I have skill in hair cutting and shaving and am also enthusiastic about it,” she says. “But opening a men’s salon would not be acceptable in society, so I am without a job.”
Indeed, some people in Bhaktapur strongly oppose women working as barbers.
Ram Lal Shrestha, 70, who lives near Napit’s salon, has asked Napit several times to stop doing this work.
“There is no meaning in earning money by touching and caressing others’ husbands,” he says.
Napit’s 17-year-old daughter, Binu Napit, who attends a private secondary school in Bhaktapur, sees social norms changing. Laxmi Napit named the salon after her daughter.
Binu Napit believes the new generation of Nepalese understands that female barbers are professionals and are not misbehaving with strange men.
“Although people in our area frown upon my mother’s work, my friends in college appreciate my mother’s courage,” she says. “She continued her work in spite of what society was saying.”
Recalling what a huge challenge it was to enter the profession, Laxmi Napit now hopes to help the women she trains find success.
“Due to my perseverance and self-belief, I have been able to educate my children in a boarding school and live a good life,” she says.
Hari Sainju is not related to Balkrishna and Manisha Sainju. Gajendra Thakur and Ramesh Thakur are also unrelated.
GPJ translated this article from Nepali.