I believe in preserving my culture. I celebrate the festivals I grew up rejoicing, and worship the Goddesses I grew up glorifying. I use my hand when I eat, and drink ginger and honey when I am sick. It is my personal way of paying homage to my ancestors, my strategy to be at home even when I am thousands of miles away from the country I call my home, my fight to keep a civilization alive at a time when everything about it is considered to be anti-“development.”
So every time my calendar calls for a holiday attention, I give in. Gladly. Every time except every year in the eve of Teej.
It may be known as the “festival of women”, but to me Teej very much felt like a festival FOR men. Celebrated among few ethnic groups in Nepal, the married women fast for the well-being of their husbands, and the unmarried ones do it in hopes of getting good husbands. While the women are suppose to fast inside the house, men are allowed to feast outside; carefree and free. As always.
At least that was my understanding of it. To me it represented celebration of patriarchy, reinforced heteronormative coercion, and reminded how even as a young girl, my duty was to scarify and my goal was to find a good man.
As a queer- feminist- student of “development” I am suppose to reject this tradition. No questions asked. But as a Nepali who spent twenty years of her life celebrating it, I was having a hard time abolishing this festival completely from my calendar. So last week as I browsed through the pictures of my family happily celebrating Teej, I decided to explore this affair beyond what I was accustomed to, or at least attempt to understand why I was struggling to give up something that on an exterior at least, seemed opposite of my beliefs.
That same week I was invited to a Red Tent meeting. Based on the book birthed by Anita Diamant, Red Tent is a project that attempts to create a safe space for women to share stories of struggle, success and everything else.
The one I attended took place in a house of a local woman from Worcester, Massachusetts. I walked in with my roommate, both of us unaware of what to expect. After a brief and beautiful cleansing ritual, we stepped inside the tiny living room covered with red fabric and filled with women. After introducing ourselves, we talked, listened, hugged, cried, laughed, and before leaving the room, offered each other services, materials, advices, information or anything we thought were appropriate. We continued in the kitchen, eating food that all of these women had brought, and then headed outside under the moon to sing and dance. I left the Red Tent with my shoulders feeling lighter, my stomach feeling fuller, my mind feeling richer and my heart feeling happier to have had the opportunity to share bond with so many wonderful women.
When I shared the story of this experience with an older (and wiser) Nepali friend of mine, “Just like Teej”, she said. And it all made sense. Teej was my ancestors’ Red Tent.
The welcome ceremony did have sounds similar to madal, the drum women play as they sing and dance together on the first day of Teej. The space did have smell similar to dhoop, the incense we use to worship our deities. The red fabrics in the living room did have similar significance to the red saree, tika, mehendi and bangles that make up the manifestation of Teej.
The feast that precedes the fasting is called Dar Khane Din. Women in their finest traditional red attires and jewelries gather at one place, exclusive to us. Safe space where we reunite, talk, listen, hug, cry, laugh, sing, dance, eat and drink; all that and more while looking like Goddesses. It is a Red Tent of our own. If we let it be.
My understanding and interpretation of this holiday has changed this year.
Once I thought it was a festival solely dedicated to Lord Shiva. I have been told now that it is actually dedicated to his partner, Goddess Parvati. By celebrating Teej , I am worshiping the female energy.
I had thought it was about commemorating a girl finding a husband in the form of a God. I now believe that it is about commemorating the union of two different but equally glorious energies. By celebrating Teej , I am celebrating such divine union, and yes wishing on the same for myself.
I had thought it was about encouraging women to scarify for men. I now believe that it is a reminder of how we may have to give up on little and big things in order to achieve grander things, whatever they may be. By celebrating Teej , I am praying for the strength to help me make these scarifies whenever needed, for me and my dreams.
The fasting is for the spouse. But it is also for the children and for purification of our own bodies and souls.
I am celebrating this year. Not only because I believe in preserving my culture but because Teej to me signifies devotion to womanhood. It is the “festival of women”, and if you want to, it can also be the festival FOR woman.
I am celebrating this year in honor of the Goddesses that bless me, my ancestors who guide me, the women who enrich my world, and yes in honor of myself and the battles I have won in these twenty four years of my being.