In most parts of the country, women will be of interest mainly as foreigners rather than for their gender, but a few specific tips are given below.
For women travellers, most parts of Nepal are relatively easy: the atmosphere is tolerant and inquisitive rather than threatening or dangerous. Nepali society is on the whole chaste, almost prudish; men are mostly respectful to foreign women. Sexual harassment is unlikely to upset your travels: you might get staring and catcalling or a rare attempt to cop a feel in a crowd, but it’s not as bad as in India, or indeed most of the rest of the world, and seldom goes any further than words. The chief danger comes from the rare predatory trekking guide (see Sexual politics in the mountains).
Wearing revealing clothing will up the chances of receiving unwelcome advances. That doesn’t mean you have to wear Nepali clothes, though it may help – consider covering legs and breasts (and shoulders) and avoiding skin-tight garments.
A woman travelling or trekking alone won’t be hassled so much as pitied. Going alone (eklai) is most un-Nepali behaviour. Locals (of both sexes) will ask if you haven’t got a husband – usually out of genuine concern, not as a come-on. Teaming up with another female stops the comments as effectively as being with a man. If you find yourself on a public bus, you can make your way to the front compartment, where preference is usually given to women and children.
Terai cities and border towns are another matter, unfortunately. As in North India, misconceptions about Western women mean men may try for a surreptitious grope or even expose themselves. Travelling with a man generally shields you from this sort of behaviour. Don’t be afraid to make a public scene in the event of an untoward advance – that’s what a Nepali woman would do.
Of course, you may want to strike up a relationship with a Nepali man. There’s a long tradition of women travellers falling for trekking or rafting guides and Kathmandu has a small but growing community of women who have married and settled. However, Nepali men are not without their own agendas: exotic romance, conquest, perhaps even a ticket out of Nepal. Be aware also that many Nepali men use the services of sex workers and that HIV/AIDS is a growing and largely concealed problem.
A frustrating aspect of travelling in Nepal is the difficulty of making contact with Nepali women. Tourism is still controlled by men; women are expected to spend their time in the home, get fewer educational opportunities and speak much less English. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Nepali home for a meal, chances are the women of the house will remain in the kitchen while you eat. Upper-class women, who may even work with foreigners, are often well educated and free of these restrictions, but they have few encounters with travellers.
Sexual politics are different among highland ethnic groups. Along trekking routes, many women run teahouses single-handedly while their husbands are off guiding or portering. Proud, enterprising and flamboyant, these “didis” are some of the most wonderful people you’re likely to meet anywhere. There are a few female trekking guides now, too.