Gay Marriage, Nepal.

Gay marriage in Nepal is back in the news, with the first same sex wedding in the country between foreigners ( Sanjay Shah, 42, a Briton from Leicester, and an Indian man who did not want to be identified).

The government is bound by a ruling of the constitutional court to provide for equality for all couples, and legal provision for same sex weddings is expected to be included in the new constitution currently being worked out, and due to be enacted some time in 2011. However, even in advance of the legislative environment coming into place, several same sex weddings have already taken place. These are not “legal” weddings because the regulations do not yet provide for them – however, in rural areas, most people do not bother to have their marriages registered with government, as marriages performed by religious leaders are widely accepted.

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This is a useful reminder that the common, careless language referring to “legal” gay marriage is usually entirely misplaced. There are few areas in the world, and none in Europe or North America, where same-sex marriage is illegal. Any two people may marry before a priest, pastor, or other religious leader who is willing to perform the ceremony, without any interference from civil authorities. What the state does, is provide for statutory recognition of those marriages, and for civil marriages contracted without the benefit of clergy. Thus, the political battle is not for “legal” gay marriage, but for its statutory recognition, and for political equality of treatment for all marriages.

I do not know too much about marriage regulations in the rest of Asia, but if other countries in the region also have a significant proportion of people who simply do not bother to register their marriages, this could explain the otherwise remarkable absence of news about progress towards marriage equality in Asia – unlike Europe and the America’s. For instance, the marriage in India between Sandeep Soibam and Nikhil Sharma Hidangmayum was widely reported as the country’s “first gay marriage” – but was done entirely without government recognition or opposition. (Elsewhere in East Asia, I saw one report of a couple who were able to wed simply because the marriage officer was unable to locate anything in the regulations to prevent it. ) Is it possible that gay marriage may spread across Asia by stealth, rather than by high profile legislative victories?

The Hindu priest was somewhat apprehensive at being asked to conduct the ceremony ( a first, for him), but was as much concerned that it was between of partners of different religions, as the same-sex. Nevertheless, he was able to set aside his hesitation, and conducted a ceremony in full accord with traditional rituals:

From Hindustan Times:

Tuesday evening was an ‘unusual’ day in office for Mukti Neupane, a 58-year old Hindu priest in Nepal’s capital. One he won’t forget in a long while. Having conducted hundreds of weddings in a career spanning nearly four decades, Neupane was “apprehensive” and “shocked” when he was asked to  officiate a gay wedding. The ceremony billed as Nepal’s first Indian gay wedding took place at small temple in the heart of Kathmandu.

“I am a bit confused whether to worry about such a union or make merry. But it’s a sign of the times and people should take it positively,” Neupane later told the small gathering at the ceremony.

Amidst chanting of mantras, Asif Khan, 30, a Muslim from Ahmedabad exchanged rings with longtime Hindu partner Sanjiv Sha, 42, a UK citizen of Indian origin (names changed).

Sensing that the priest might be unwilling to conduct a Hindu wedding as per rituals, the organizers had asked Neupane to preside over a short ceremony lasting five-ten minutes.

But the daura-suruwal (traditional Nepali dress) clad priest insisted that since it was a wedding all the rituals would have to be followed.

“He was apprehensive at first. But later agreed to conduct a proper ceremony that lasted over 30 minutes,” said Sunil Babu Pant, Nepal’s first openly gay lawmaker and founder of Blue Diamond Society, organizers of the event.

Neupane’s task of conducting the wedding was also difficult as Sha is a Hindu and his partner Asif, a Muslim.

“This is a wedding of a gay couple. But since the partners belong to different religions, it can also be seen as Miteri ritual tying two persons to a lifelong bond,” said Neupane.

Miteri is a centuries old form of fictive kinship witnessed in Nepal that serves to promote social interaction between various castes and religions in a complex hierarchical social order.

And from Edge, Las Vegas:

Gay rights have improved dramatically in a country where just five years ago police were beating gays and transsexuals in the streets.

Now, in addition to having an openly gay parliamentarian, Nepal is issuing “third gender” identity cards and appears set to enshrine gay rights – and possibly even same-sex marriage – in a new constitution.

The charter, however, has been delayed because of bickering among political parties that have been unable to choose a new leader since Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal resigned in June.

Tuesday’s private ceremony was attended by a small number of gay rights activists and members of Pant’s group. Pant said there have been a few same-sex wedding ceremonies among Nepalese people, but it was the first for a foreign gay couple.

The improvements in gay rights have become a major marketing opportunity in a country where tourism is a main driver of the economy. Government officials hope gay tourists will spend more money than the backpackers who now stay in cheap hotels and travel on shoestring budgets.

Pant’s group has established Pink Mountain tour company, which caters to gay tourists and promotes Nepal as a safe destination for them. It offers gay honeymooners trekking trips in the Himalayas and has proposed same-sex wedding ceremonies at the Mount Everest base camp.

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