JHAPA, NEPAL — “You repair bikes?”
Nirmala Pariyar has been running a motorcycle repair shop with her husband along a highway in Jhapa, a district in the southeastern corner of Nepal, for nearly two decades. Yet, every time a new customer walks in and meets Pariyar, they are startled and have the same question: “You will be the one repairing the bike?”
In her grease-stained black pants and loose black T-shirt, Pariyar cuts a striking figure amid the crowds along the dusty highway. Located in shouting distance of the busy Charaali bus depot, opposite an army barrack, other women here sell flowers in front of a temple or run tea and grocery stalls — jobs people in Jhapa easily associate with women. Meanwhile, Pariyar is the only woman in the area working in a garage. In fact, she is the only known woman mechanic in the entire district.
Hailing from a Dalit family — a severely marginalized caste group in Nepal — Pariyar embraces a profession associated with men in her society. And her success is slowly helping redefine ideas about the economic opportunities women in her caste can access. In her neighborhood, women who would rarely step out of the home to work have started assisting their male spouses in different kinds of jobs too. On her advice, the local municipality floated a scheme to teach 20 women to drive, for free. Now, several of them work as drivers abroad or drive vans in Jhapa itself.
“When I began learning this trade 18 years ago, my mother and mother-in-law were shocked. This is no work for a woman, and I wouldn’t be able to do it, they said,” says Pariyar, now 40.
But with her husband’s support, she not only picked up repair skills to help add to their income. Over the years, she also expanded the couple’s business as well by assembling bikes.
Now, the couple own two houses and a car. Pariyar also is secretary of the Nepal Auto Mechanics Trade Union, where she is one of two women members. She also was the first woman to be elected district president of the organization.
It was not an easy start.
“When I began learning this trade 18 years ago, my mother and mother-in-law were shocked. This is no work for a woman, and I wouldn’t be able to do it, they said.”
Pariyar was 17 when she quit school and married Roshan Pariyar, who ran a small motorcycle repair shop in the municipality of Mechinagar. While she did not belong to an affluent family, this was the first time the teenager had to worry about paying bills and making rent. With the little income her husband had from the repair shop, there were days they could barely pay rent on their small house.
Five years of marriage and two children later, Pariyar had had enough of worrying about money. Learning a new skill to earn a living would have cost money. But learning to repair bikes was free, and her husband’s workshop was just 200 meters (656 feet) away from their home.
The bikes were heavy, and she had not even driven a bike before, much less repaired one. Though she had decided to learn, Pariyar was convinced she’d never be able to master the craft.
Their son was a year old then, and she had to carry the baby to work. “There was no one to take care of the baby, so I used to take him to the workshop. I had the baby cradled in one arm, and … worked with the other,” Pariyar says.
Mayamitu Neupane, GPJ Nepal
“When I started visiting the workshop, everyone began asking my husband if I was learning about bikes because I did not know how to cook or run a household like other women,” Pariyar adds. The criticism got to her in the initial days. “I would often make excuses of household chores and run away from the workshop.”
Now, she says, those times of struggle feel like a distant dream.
Roshan Pariyar beams when speaking about his wife. “She didn’t require a lot of handholding. She learned most of the skills by watching me work,” he says. He could sense people’s disapproval when they entered the shop and saw his wife working, he says, but he did not pay it much attention. “I used to hear that they gossiped about us outside at the tea shop, but I didn’t care what anyone said behind our back.”
It didn’t take long for Pariyar to become a full-time mechanic. “Perhaps because my body is built like a man’s, even though the work is considered physically demanding I did not find it very difficult. Be it hauling bikes or repairing engines, I did all that easily once I learned,” Pariyar says. But it took a long time to convince customers that she was a trained mechanic, even when they saw her working efficiently. Customers often would insist on hiring her husband or other men working in the garage.
Hunched over a bike, Pariyar unscrews a motorcycle part as she talks. “My husband taught this trade to many people. Most of them left. I stayed, and expanded our business,” she says.
Pariyar has been a familiar face along the busy highway for years now. Yet, when people alight from buses or stop for tea around her shop, they stare for a good few minutes when they catch her working on a motorcycle. It amuses her now. “I remember the first few days as a mechanic. I had just fixed a puncture and was scared that the customer will be unhappy. Instead, he said I had done a good job. I was so relieved,” she says.
Her family approved of her job decision only after her husband in 2011 had an accident and fractured his arm. He couldn’t work for a month. Pariyar managed the shop by herself. “After this happened, some local newspapers took interest in my work and wrote about me. Perceptions about me started to change at that time,” she says.
“My husband taught this trade to many people. Most of them left. I stayed, and expanded our business.”
The solo stint gave Pariyar the confidence she was missing, and she began to see a future and potential in this occupation. She also started getting involved in civic work. In 2017, she was elected as the Dalit woman member of the Mechinagar municipality’s executive council. She worked in the ward for five years.
Back home, Pariyar’s mother-in-law, who used to be adamant that Pariyar not work as a mechanic, started to help her out. “Once I started working after training, she would assist me by cooking, preparing tea and snacks, assisting me with household chores … telling me to stop working for a while and have lunch first; also asking the customer to wait for a while until I finished my lunch,” Pariyar says. It made Pariyar feel that economic independence can change how people view women in her society.
Several customers who had moved to other shops, because they were not sure of getting their bikes repaired by a woman, now seek her out to get their work done. Jeevan Bhandari is one of the few people who didn’t turn his back on Pariyar when she started out, and he continues to get all his work done at her shop. “I drive past their shop every day and I see how hard she works. So, I keep coming back. The other great thing is she also helps people in need and I like that about her,” he says.
“Had I not been able to fix motorcycles, I would have become a homemaker. Or like many other women I know, I would have to go abroad for domestic worker jobs,” Pariyar says. “Though this began as a compulsion, this job has given me joy and satisfaction.”