Teej and the changing definition of womanhoodWith the expansion of urbanisation, migration and economic opportunities, women will continue to resist subordination.
The District Administration Office (DAO) of Kathmandu has recently urged women to celebrate the Teej festival in a ‘decent, disciplined, traditional, and peaceful manner’. Several other DAOs in the country have published similar ‘orders’.
The orders raise these questions: Why is the government seeking to intervene in the manner in which a festival is observed? Has something seriously and legally wrong been taking place in recent years in the manner Teej is celebrated? Why is the government reminding women to observe Teej in a ‘traditional’ way even as the polity, economy and culture, i.e. the society as a whole, is changing?
Teej has long been celebrated, particularly by Hindu women, as an important religious festival and ritual. It is a ritual where women, mostly married ones, fast and worship Lord Shiva for the health and happiness of their husband. The belief is that married women who fast for a whole day and night, worship Lord Shiva and break their fast with designated ‘pure’ foods contribute to their husband’s health and longevity. For a long time, the festival has also remained an occasion where women mutually shared, through songs, dance etc. accounts of their subordination and oppression. The most congenial setting for such sharing was among friends and matri-relatives at the natal home, which women would visit during the festival. Songs would often be loaded with stories of suffering experienced in patrilocal households where married women spent their life.
The preceding regime, however, is changing. Earlier, most women did not go to school, were not members of savings-credit unions, community forestry, mothers’ groups and other local as well as more encompassing associations, had no agency in childbearing and other routines of householding, did not hold electoral office, had no income and, most importantly, were not regarded as public beings. Within the regime of patrilocal post-marital residence, which was almost universal in Nepal, women strictly adhered to rituals and other regimes of such households.
There are many women today who have not been affected by these changes. However, the lives of many other women, particularly in urban areas, has undergone a profound shift. As a corollary, with the change in the lives of women, the observation and celebration of Teej has taken on a much more public, urban, among-friends-than-among-relatives quality. Earning and independent women also observe and celebrate it in novel and ‘non-traditional’ ways. The government acknowledges the importance of Teej by, among others, regarding the day as an official holiday. But it is amiss and high-handed in asserting that the practice be limited within traditional bounds. This order is discriminatory. It may also be illegal.
Teej today encompasses several ‘modern’ themes of expression. Modern-day Teej songs are loaded with descriptions and slogans of women’s empowerment, and not merely with stories of subordination. The songs today also take up issues of sexual relations. In addition, urban women, in particular, exhibit their economic and social status by wearing new clothes and jewellery and exchange gifts with other women. Occasionally, the location of the celebratory gatherings has moved to restaurants rather than being limited to the home. There is undoubtedly a new focus on consumerism here. Teej has also become a more pronouncedly social rather than religious occasion. The prominence of religious rituals, as such, is far less visible than was earlier the case. All of this is attributable to the emergence of a new womanhood and a new society.
Not all women share the same characteristics or the same definition of womanhood. That is why there is, as noted, considerable variation in the manner in which Teej is observed. Nor is Teej something that is static. As such, one should expect to see variation in the observation and celebration of Teej across time and generations. Grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters within a single household, therefore, interpret and practice Teej differently. In fact, given the weight of ‘modernity’ that grownup granddaughters carry with them, even mothers and grandmothers are changing their interpretation and practice of Teej.
Additionally, the creation of new womanhood has to do with democracy, urbanisation, growth, inclusionary policies within the government, political parties and other agencies, feminist movements as well as global and international efforts for the betterment of women’s lives. Further, the relatively rapid social change, which means the weakening of tradition and grafting of new ways of thinking and doing also encourage women to take on agency roles.
Women’s agency was and remains severely limited within patriarchal boundaries. This is less the case for a majority of urban women today. Among households and groups that are re-shaped by various social changes, mothers and mothers-in-law who were used to celebrating Teej in a traditional manner and who possibly had motivated or forced daughters and daughters-in-law to do likewise are changing themselves. In the urban areas, even the older generation, tired of domesticity, enjoys celebrating Teej outside of the family setting and in a public venue.
Many women today, unlike in the past, tend to question whether religious rituals make their husband lead a healthier and longer life at all. They are also attempting to find lifestyles that would make themselves enriched and healthier. This does not imply that women are rejecting Teej altogether. They are, however, trying to redefine Teej in a way that empowers them.
The advisory and warning statements issued by the District Administration Offices suggest that the government is unaware of the rapid changes taking hold in women’s lives in the country. To the extent that it is aware, it finds the changes difficult to accept. It may also be the case that a section of politicians and administrators within the government are strongly beholden to tradition, and wish to bind women in the ‘old ways’.
It is always the case, everywhere, that independent women threaten patriarchy. Traditions in general and religious ritual in particular, on the other hand, are institutions and strategies that sustain and strengthen patriarchy. A call to maintain tradition is mostly a call to maintain the subordination of women. Any challenge against patriarchy, on the other hand, leads to resistance from institutions that are grounded in patriarchal relations. To varying extents tradition, religion, bureaucracy and even ‘progressive’ political parties and governments remain complicit with institutions that uphold patriarchy. Tradition carries with it powerful inertia fueled by these institutions and forces.
It is important to note that the DAOs did not see the need to publish an advisory warning as long as women observed Teej in the traditional manner and within the confines of the household, family and neighbourhood. Singing and dancing, sometimes seen as un-befitting married women, was nonetheless accepted during a traditional observation of Teej. Not so, however, once the celebration of Teej left the confines of the family hearth and neighbourhood and became public. The expansion of women’s space, circle, capability and financial clout was enough to challenge all of the structures and agents of patriarchy and, in the wake, invite admonition from the government.
Women are unlikely to remain subordinate. With the expansion of urbanisation, schooling, migration and other forces recently unleashed, women will put up questions and resistance against subordination. They will seek to lead new lives, including in the ways they observe Teej.
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