Two Sundays ago (Aug 23rd) our household celebrated Teej, a Nepali festival where women traditionally fast for twenty-four hours for the long life of their husbands, wear red, usually gather with other women and female relatives, and worship Shiva. I didn’t know much about Teej until I moved, two years ago, to a place with a larger Nepali community, and one with significantly more Nepali women.
Teej (in a nutshell) is a three day festival. It is not celebrated by all ethnic and caste groups in Nepal, but by some, including the Chhetri caste which P belongs to. The first day is the feast called Daar, when women come together to dance, sing and eat, sometimes staying up well past midnight when the fast begins. The second day constitutes the fast, although people interpret “fast” in different ways- some will not eat or drink anything for the full 24 hours, while some will take tea, fruits and yogurt. If celebrating in Kathmandu women will dress in one of their nicest red saris and go to the Pushupatinath Temple, devoted to Shiva as one of the holiest Hindu shrines in Nepal. Women break their fast after midnight on the second night, and on the third day engage in various pujas and rituals to purify their souls.
That first year after moving, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the festival, although I was excited to learn about this new piece of Nepali culture I knew nothing about. I was also intrigued by the feminine solidarity of the event. It reminded me of my time in Kenya, where division of labor in the rural farming community I lived in left women in the evening sitting around the dimly lit cooking house, singing and joking and making food for the entire extended family. I remember liking the community feel and the safe “women’s only” space, but it brought up lingering feelings of conflict between wanting to connect with something traditional and almost ancestral which seemed to clash with my (western) feminist views.
So I talked to P about it. I thought it would be interesting to participate in the festival, however I thought it was reasonable that if I was fasting for his long life, that he should fast for mine. I think that the idea was relatively radical. Teej was a woman’s festival not a man’s, why would a man fast for Teej? It didn’t make any sense. I explained that I thought fasting- devoid of its religious significance- was in general a good process of centering yourself. You purge the body for a day, you learn self-restraint and self-control, and it forces you to reflect on your desires and needs, and think about excess. In addition, fasting for each other could also be an act of solidarity for our family unit. We would be supporting each other, and hoping for the long, healthy and happy life of each other and our partnership. P agreed that it sounded fair, and decided to also participate, even if some of the Nepali men in our community thought it was absolutely ridiculous.
That first year, several of our female neighbors came over to eat, and relax. On the following day we fasted and dressed (in some variation of red) to go to the local temple, where we could immediately pick out the other Nepali women who were dressed in bright red sari—many with shiny green, red or yellow wedding pote necklaces. Afterwards we returned home, relaxed and lamented our hunger before breaking our fast. From that point forward I decided that we would make it an annual event- fasting for Teej.
However Teej seems to be a very “charged” even political festival. Many westerns look at it as an oppressive holiday which forces women to worship men (for more information you could check out this posting). When on Facebook I wished everyone a “Happy Teej” I got a sarcastic reply from one person that I must be such a “good little Nepali buhari” (daughter-in-law) to subject myself to that, while another person said they wouldn’t celebrate the festival because they were a “a modern, revolution-loving biatch.” Perhaps I would feel very different if I grew up in Nepali culture, but I think that the approach P and I have taken on the festival is one generated by a lot of thought. I truly appreciate P’s willingness to support my participation, and to participate himself, and I feel very loved that he is willing to take the fast for me and our partnership.
This year was the first American Teej for a very political male Nepali friend of ours. His partner fasted with me in previous years (even though he was in Nepal and she was in the US), and when I asked him if he was going to fast with her this year he said no… that the festival was oppressive and silly, and he didn’t want any part. His partner said she would not fast for him unless he fasted for her, to which he replied “fine, no one will fast.” Then she said it was important to her to keep cultural traditions alive while living outside of Nepal, but that she wanted to fast in support of each other. We had a group discussion about it which eventually led to the couple fasting two Sundays ago.
I know that we are taking the festival out of its original context, but I am still happy we participate, and I look forward to many more Teej’s in the future
Other links about Teej