Category Archives: Women’s Issues

Panchami and the Bhutanese Refugees

Back from New York, Teej and fasting.

I fasted from about 9pm on Friday night until about 9pm on Saturday so that when we were in the South Asian section of the city (Jackson Heights, Queens) I could eat at the Nepali restaurant with our friends. I found fasting a bit easier this year, I think because we were so busy walking around and doing things in the city that it made the day pass more quickly and kept my mind off of it. Although when someone sitting next to me at the tennis match ate a delicious smelling panini it made my mouth water.

Me at the US Open, Roger Federer in the background, wearing my red Teej clothing

On Sunday P and I woke up early and drove back to Massachusetts so that I could meet up with AS and S-di at the Bhutanese refugee gathering. By the time I arrived one of the pujas had already taken place, but I was quickly ushered to the newly forming ring of women preparing for the second puja.

AS and S-di were dressed in beautiful red saris, AS wearing the same clothes as she wore several months prior for her wedding including potes, bangles, dori and tikka. Since I was walking in straight from the highway, I was only wearing a red shirt and sweater and P’s mother’s red Teej necklace, but at least I had the right colors on.

AS explained that the women had organized a puja for Panchami, which is technically the fifth day (panch= five) but was actually the third day of Teej (Day 1—Daar feast, Day 2—Teej fast)– sometimes I really don’t get the Nepali calendar. The puja is in honor of seven gods represented by seven stars in the sky that are in the shape of a question mark (I’m assuming she was referring to the “seven sisters,” or Pleiades, in Orion’s belt, but maybe she meant a different constellation?). Again, the women generally fast until after the puja, and the puja is supposed to cleanse them of any sins they committed during the year (particularly sins they may have committed breaking menstrual taboos such as touching food, etc).

I enjoy pujas, especially larger chaotic ones. I don’t ever really understand anything that is going on, but there is always a lot of activity and confusion. Yesterday the large cluster of women sat in a circle with the priest (the only man in the group), who had spread before him an assortment of puja paraphernalia such as flowers and flower petals, fruits, rice, water, and incense. As the priest chanted prayers the women would pass around paper plates/bowls with flowers, water, or rice. I’d periodically be prompted to take a small handful of flower petals or water, hold it between my hands (in the namaste gesture), drip the water on my head, or touch the petals to my forehead, and then throw the petals into the middle of the circle.

At one point I was given a small plate on which  I  had to place a banana, apple, rice, flowers, water dyed with red tikka powder, and coins, and I offered it to the priest as a blessing. Even if I’m unsure of what to do, the other participants are usually willing to share or help me out, passing me handfuls of rice or miming the hand gestures I should follow.

Near the end of the puja the women stood, and started shuffling clockwise around the pile of puja material while the priest chanted, and plates with apples stuffed with handfuls of incense were lit as an arti and burned like candles. We were supposed to circle the altar seven times (but I might have only made it around three), and after the priest circulated through the crowd giving post-puja red tikkas.

Here are a few pictures from the event—

women sitting in the circle near the priest

AS (left) explains a few nuances of the puja as I'm passed a bowl of water. The priest's peach-pink-gray topi hat is seen to the left.

Listening to the priest for the next step. S-di is in the red sari with green pote to the left

Center of the puja activity-- bananas, flowers, yogurt, incense, apples, oranges, money, rice, nuts, even glass bangles

Giving offerings to the priest

Apple arti

Circling the puja area. You can tell the married women from the unmarried women by their necklaces (or lack there of).

Puja aftermath

And apparently a Nepali website (Sajha.com) captured me in action too-- chatting with AS and S-di

And posing for pics! AS, me, S-di, and an acquaintance of S-di's

For more views of Teej you can check out Nepal News video clip on celebrating in KTM this year.

It’s Time Again for Teej

It is time again for Teej, the Nepali festival where women (from some of the ethnic groups in Nepal) fast for the long healthy lives of their husbands.

One of my first blog postings last year was about Teej— what the festival was about and my own personal feelings about participating in the festival.

This year I was quite excited. A few weeks ago several women in the community started planning a gathering so we  (with significant others) could be together during this female centric holiday. S-di was planning a big Daar dinner (the feast before the fast), with lots of music, dancing and merriment (as usual).

Next the plan was to be together for the fast on Saturday– relaxing, dressing in red, and going to the temple to meet with other Nepali women for the puja. Lastly, after breaking the fast at midnight on Saturday, we would gather on Sunday morning at a community center where the local Bhutanese refugees were planning a special puja to close the festival celebration.

Women in Kathmandu celebrating Teej

Until… I realized that months and months ago I bought tickets and agreed to go with P and some of our male friends to the US Open Semi Finals in New York on the same day as the Teej fast. If the tickets were less expensive, or the plan more spur of the moment, I would definitely drop it, but I feel kind of locked in. Needless to say I’m really disappointed.

That’s the problem with Nepali festivals. I never know when they are going to happen. I generally know when to start asking about them—Teej is usually in late August or early September. Dashain is in early to mid October (I think this year it’s Oct 8-23rd, but I’m not sure when the main day is yet) and Tihar is in early to mid November (this year Nov 4-7th), but festivals never seem to be on anyone’s radar until they start talking about festival dates and celebrations during conversations with parents back home.

So I think the fast this year will be hard. Waking up early, walking around New York all day, sitting out in the sun, pretending to watch tennis while day dreaming about food. As I’ve mentioned to some of my Muslim friends and students, I have a lot of respect for those who participate in the Ramadan fast. It takes a lot of dedication and will power not to cheat, and for those who come from whole cultures and communities that celebrate, it must be truly challenging to move to a place where there are very few people who commemorate such an important festival. (And by the way, today is Eid-al-Fitr—Mubarak!)

Thus Saturday won’t be as enjoyable participating in the fast essentially on my own instead of with a community, but I’m still going to do it. It’s my last Teej before marriage, and next year will be particularly special as my very first married Teej– which I will be able to prove to the wider Nepali community by wearing my very own red wedding pote. No tennis matches next year for sure!

Our friends AS and N who got married this summer ("Nepali Wedding in New England"). AS is wearing her red wedding pote with golden tillary. She will wear this necklace again tomorrow for Teej.

I also still plan to wear red. Last summer when we were in Nepal P’s mother gave me a few red necklaces and red tikkas that she specifically asked me to wear during Teej. I’m wearing one of her necklaces today in honor of Daar (I’m also wearing a reddish-orange kurta top as well).

So happy Teej to those who might be celebrating, and happy fasting. May the lives of you and your partner (and family) be long, happy and healthy!

Monsoon Wedding Part II- Begins with the Bride

P and I missed the Supari, but since we planned to be around for the rest of the ceremonies, we didn’t think it was too big a deal. At the time we were still on our Solukhubu trek, but things became tense when we got stuck in Lukla and I was worried we would miss larger chunks of the wedding.

The Supari (as it is known in Newari culture) is a type of engagement ceremony, or at least a formal announcement/acceptance of the relationship. The bride’s family isn’t able to proceed with any of the wedding parties until the supari has occurred.

Supari is the Nepali word for betelnut, and the ceremony bares its name because the nut has a central role. The groom’s family travels to the bride’s family for the first time, bringing gifts (we will see these gifts again later). Traditionally they brought 4-6 betelnuts in little pouches for the family as well as sindoor which is used during the “actual” wedding ceremony (swayambar), although now more gifts have been added over time in addition to the betelnuts. The bride’s family provides refreshments while the groom’s family gives the gifts, and the bride is essentially sitting pretty so the groom’s family can check her out. Interestingly enough the groom is not allowed to come to this ceremony at all. Poor S spent his evening sitting out in the car during R’s supari since he wasn’t able to be part of the ceremony, until a friend came along and took him out for a beer.

S's mom gives R blessings (tikka) during Supari. During the entire wedding process (days and days) R could only wear clothing in shades of red.

A few days after the supari… and luckily once we returned from Lukla, R decided to have some cousins and aunties over to put henna on our hands. Bridal henna is not a Nepali tradition, and isn’t traditionally part of the wedding preparations as it is in many parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However Nepali brides are starting to use henna because of pop culture influences like Bollywood. I wanted to do it too, even though P’s family seemed confused as to why R was having this done.

My henna application begins

I pose with two of R's cousins with our finished henna... well almost finished. We sat with the henna paste drying on our hands for hours... occasionally applying a lemon juice/sugar mixture which supposedly helped the henna dye to darken and permeate the skin better

While we were getting our hands henna-fied, R’s brother and cousins were helping to fold hundreds of invitations. Most of these invitations are hand-delivered a few days before the ceremony. The invitations are organized into bundles and given to various friends and family members who know others and they spread through the community it that way.

The Henna Evening was a nice way to get to know the bride’s family before the formal wedding began. The women bonded, and during the wedding itself it felt like we had a special code… occasionally I’d flash my henna-ed palm at one of R’s cousins or aunties, and they would flash it back like a secret greeting.

Shortly thereafter R’s family had the bride’s reception. Both the groom’s family and the bride’s family have wedding receptions, but the difference is that during the groom’s reception the couple is already married and both the bride and groom are present. However the bride’s reception occurs before the marriage ceremony (probably because traditionally the bride is married away into another family, so the bride’s family has to have their party before she leaves)… and since the bride and groom don’t traditionally meet before the “actual” wedding that means the bride presides over the reception without the groom. She sits on a platform at the front of the reception while friends and family come up to congratulate her and bring gifts.

I get my chance to pose with the lovely bride

From left to right: P's mom, me, R, P's dad, J Phupu, and P's cousin. P is the photographer so he isn't present :(

The thing that is probably most shocking to the average American is the number of people that attend these various receptions. Average American weddings are around 100-150 people. Average Nepali weddings have hundreds more–  between 400-600, and remember there is more than one party! The sheer numbers are a bit boggling. One friend’s brother had 1200 people. Can you imagine?

Most weddings are buffet style, so the organizers don’t have to worry so much about seating, and who is eating what, or even RSVPs, like in American weddings. That’s how friends and neighbors of invitees can be randomly invited along as well. (remember “invited to the wedding…“?)

Birth in Rural Nepal

P is the one who usually finds the interesting video clips on Nepal. I think he knew of this one because one of his friends back home helped with the video editing. It is a 20 minute documentary on the challenges of giving birth in rural Nepal– a production by Subina Shrestha made for an Al Jazeera program called “Witness.”

I found the program really interesting, and would recommend watching it if you can. It highlights the challenges faced by women in the rural areas who are far from hospitals and have to give birth in their homes. The streaming video can be found HERE. Or you can watch it on the YouTube link below:

Pote Necklaces

On my way back from Georgia, P and I stopped in Pennsylvania to meet up with his brother. U went home to Nepal during the winter and brought back lots of goodies. My gift was a packet of potes.

Some of C's collection of pote...

Potes (pronounced kinda like po-thays), are colorful glass beaded necklaces of various colors and lengths that women wear as one of the symbols of marriage, kind of like a wedding ring or red sindoor in the part of your hair.

Don’t worry P and I didn’t sneak away and get married when you weren’t looking, but even though I’m not married, I think potes are really beautiful and elegant, and I like to wear them occasionally when dressing nice for work or a party. Some of the Nepalis tease me about wearing one, “oh are you married now?” but I don’t mind. I feel it is okay to wear them occasionally since the first two potes I owned were given to me by P’s aunt. Plus, none of the necklaces I own have the golden tillery pendant which truly signifies a marriage pote.

Pote shop in Nepal... with various strands of colored beads ready to be paired and twisted together to make a pote. Some potes are solid colors, some have strings of various colors.

As noted, potes can come in many thicknesses and lengths. The ones I like to wear to the office are quite short, and more traditional “necklace” length, but wedding potes can be very long. During wedding ceremonies the groom generally gives the bride a long green wedding pote which is so large it is worn like a sash over one shoulder and hangs all the way down to the bride’s hip. In addition to this long green pote, some brides receive red, yellow or golden colored potes as well.

Picture 1: Our friend S gives R her long green wedding pote during the ceremony; Picture 2: R sports her green wedding pote in pictures after the final wedding reception

Different castes and ethnic groups have different traditions surrounding the wearing of a pote. For some a women not wearing a pote is bad luck, foreboding of her husband’s early death—and thus these women will wear it all the time, even at night. For others it is more of a fashion statement like sparkly bindis and tikkas. You don’t often find women wearing their long green wedding pote out and around town, although sometimes women may wear this symbol of marriage on a holiday like Teej.

Once I get married, I’m sure the pote will have a lot more significance for me, but for now, I just think they are fun to wear. Not to mention short potes in Nepal cost about 100 Nepali Rupees (about $1.30 US), but if you buy pote style necklaces in stores in the US they cost $20-$50.

C wearing a blue pote for Diwali

A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?

Teej

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.

Women celebrate Teej in Kathmandu with red saris and green/yellow pote (Photo credit)

Women celebrate Teej in Kathmandu with red saris and red/green/yellow pote

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.

Women at Pushpatinath

Women at Pushupatinath

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.

Teej ladies ready to go to the temple near my home...

Teej ladies ready to go to the temple near my home...

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