Teej is changing: What does it mean to today’s Nepali women? 

Once viewed as a celebration of patriarchy in the name of culture, modernity, money, freedom and women’s rights have come to define what Teej should be and should not be.

Shrutika Raut

  • Read Time 6 min.

Kathmandu: The majority of Nepali women across the country are celebrating Teej today. There is more enthusiasm this year as such celebrations were halted for two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, in the past few years, the celebration of Teej has gone through a drastic evolution. In the past, the focus was mainly on the pain of women living away from their birthplaces and the difficulties of married life, as well as worship of Lord Shiva through fasting so that their husbands would be granted a long healthy life. Teej was more about one of the two; women coming together and sharing bittersweet moments through an age-old celebration, or women holding up, directly or indirectly, the patriarchal notion that they need to dedicate their lives to their husbands.

After the women’s movement, the focus shifted from praying for their husbands to preaching against the patriarchy. Artists like Komal Oli and Jyoti Magar have quite a few Teej songs against male-centric standards and societal expectations. Even though such songs were slammed for being anti-cultural and crude, they marked a new age of cultural revolution for Nepali women.

In the past, women had to travel miles and miles to reunite with their mothers and sisters in their homes, and that wasn’t something they could do regularly. So, Teej used to be a special time of the year when they could visit their homes and spend time with their loved ones.

In today’s age of technology and social media, it’s easier to stay in contact with family.  The patterns of Teej songs have changed. The way women celebrate it has also changed. 

Culture and modernity 

There has been a fierce debate regarding the “Westernization” of Teej celebration. Just recently, a video compilation of women dressed in traditional attire twerking to the song “Kala Chasma” went viral, receiving a lot of hate and a lot of support at the same time on social media.  

One side was condemning women for “ruining the culture of Teej”, while the other side was praising the move as an empowering feminist move and as a “stand against the status quo”. 

PS Luitel, a 19-year-old law student from Kathmandu, says that people should be allowed to celebrate it in their own ways. “Teej can be different for different generations. It can be a celebration of culture and tradition for some, while it can be a celebration of womanhood and liberation for others,” she said.

In her view, changes seen in the methods of celebration of Teej are the results of the larger social change. “Culture is always changing and adapting. A lot of our cultural practices are borrowed or have been modified throughout time. So trying to stick to a certain set of rules and traditions is not only restrictive but also fruitless,” says Luitel.

Luitel also commented on the online onslaught against the supposed malpractices in Teej celebration. “A lot of the cultural and moral policing seen online are just tactics to control women. Anyone should be allowed to celebrate festivals the way they want as long as it doesn’t directly harm other people,” she said.

According to her, it’s no business of men to dictate what women can and cannot do. “True equality won’t be achieved until men stop trying to dictate what women can and can’t do, and this moral grandstanding is definitely not what Teej is about.”

Money over morals

Apart from cultural and gender issues, there is an economic side to the celebrations.   There are voices that Teej celebrations are becoming costly and that such celebrations are becoming a source of financial drain.                 

Amrita Bhattarai, 36, from Jhapa is worried about this aspect. “I’ve observed that Teej has become more of a capitalistic venture than a cultural celebration,” she told Nepal Live Today. “Teej was meant to be an outlet for women to express their emotions in a mutual gathering through singing, dancing, fasting, worship, and other activities. Now it has become commoditized.” 

Bhattarai, who is a lecturer of Nepali, argues that capital is taking hold of culture. “Teej has been overtaken by the wealthy who can afford to show off. The spirit of this festival is to listen to the voices of the women and celebrate womanhood, and even fight against patriarchal standards together,” Bhattarai said. “Now, the voices that need to be heard are being suppressed by a showoff of lavishness.” 

According to her, women need to take Teej as an occasion to strengthen the bonds of sisterhood and unity. “Not all traditional practices of Teej should be followed. I personally don’t believe in fasting or waiting in long lines to worship in a temple,” she said. “I do believe in the bond of sisterhood, I think Teej helps strengthen relationships between family members. Such honest celebrations of this festival are seen very few and far between in today’s age.”

In today’s age of technology and social media, it’s easier to stay in contact with family.  The patterns of Teej songs have changed. The way women celebrate it has also changed. 

Prensha Katwal, 20, from Morang is upset with the show-off culture that is developing over the years. “When I was little, Teej was a day when all of my aunts and sisters gathered together, chatted about their lives, cooked delicious food, and bonded over song and dance,” said Katwal. “Nowadays, it has become more of a runway for women to show off their wealth.”

Katwal, who is a student of Social Work, says that social media influence adds a kind of pressure on women to present themselves in a certain way but a lot of women can’t afford to dress lavishly or throw big parties during Teej. “That makes many women feel left out of a festival that is supposed to be for them”, she shared.

“I am glad that women are breaking conventions regarding Teej celebration,” Katwal added. “But I miss the days when Teej was more about female reunion and friendship, and not a competition of who is best dressed. That’s what Teej means to me.”

Let women decide

It is difficult not to look at Teej in gender binary terms since it is a festival predominantly observed and celebrated by women.

Jasmine Ojha, women rights activist and central member of All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU), has observed how Teej is made an occasion to impose restrictions on women. “Women are rarely allowed to step out of these restrictions. Even in a festival supposedly for their celebration, women are constantly being dictated on what to do and how to act,” Ojha said.

Ojha believes that women should be allowed to do whatever they want as  long as it doesn’t affect others. “If something isn’t causing any real harm, why should it be ostracized? Why is a group of fully clad women having fun a matter of such panic?” 

According to Ojha, Teej celebration should be a private affair. “There are still a lot of women from different parts of Nepal that feel pressured into fasting and worshiping, because if they don’t do so they may be lambasted for being a ‘bad wife’. Teej shouldn’t be a hectic compulsory activity of starvation and tireless worship. Women should be free to celebrate the way they want to”, she said.

Anjali Subedi, a commentator and freelance journalist, is decidedly not against the increasing consumerism that has become a part of Teej celebrations over the years and argues that it is important to embrace the new trends. “Teej has become a capitalistic endeavour, just like other festivals. That’s just the unavoidable reality of today’s day and age, and commercialization is just going to help it to grow and thrive,” she said.   

Subedi thinks that we need to look at present trends from a progressive perspective. “The modern way of observing Teej is a part of the new lifestyle of the newer generation. Culture is important but so is accepting newer trends. Nepali society is evolving, and we shouldn’t be stuck in a traditionalist mindset.”