Teej songs, detailing dukkhas and sufferings, are being used to create political and social awareness
By Kathryn Hohman
In her 1988 article, feminist author Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak poses the rhetorical question, “can the subaltern speak?” In Nepal they sing. Each year married, unmarried and widowed women travel to their natal homes to take part in a ritual that is growing increasingly controversial. Teej has functioned, not only as an important ritual for Hindu women, but as a site of critical social commentary for dozens of years. It is for this celebration that I came to Nepal. Bearing witness to the changing elements of Teej in this crucial political environment, my mission is simple: to document these expressions in this specific space in time. I am not here as a development worker or a diplomat, as a trekker or a tourist. I am here to absorb this event and put it out into the world when I leave so that other cultures might understand different modes of identity construction and the forums in which it is discussed.
Yet this is a difficult position in which to be. For one, I am constantly faced with twisted faces and laughter when asked what I will be researching–from men and women alike. “But why Teej?” they ask. “Why not study Nepalese economics, or the human rights situation? Why would you want to study THAT?” as if THAT were not productive.
Moreover, I am a foreigner. Will I really understand anyway? Will I feel the same pain, joy, hope, hopelessness of the women? Or will I romanticize this celebration as a practice of an ‘other’? Can the “subaltern” really speak? Spivak’s question is as much a jab at westernization’s attempts to filter and reinterpret “subaltern” expressions than anything else. So, how, after all, do I fit in? To begin, I have been an astute observer of Nepalese politics and culture for the past 6 years. A 3 month residency in Nepal in 2003 gave me all the right reasons to come back. The words “Teej”, “women”, “festival” leaked into my ears, but a final year of college required my prompt return in mid August.
Over the past 3 years I have been mulling over prospects for peacebuilding, women’s empowerment, women’s political participation, the state of Nepalese politics in general. I started thinking about the way that cultural resources are oftentimes ignored in empowerment and enabling processes in favour of those imported from external sources. In the end, how are these processes empowering? And moreover, how are they sustainable? What cultural forums exist for discussions about women’s rights that are (1) easily accessible to various groups of women and (2) could be utilized instead? Then I remembered Teej.
In my experience and research I have learned that Teej has come to mean many different things to many different people depending on the physical location as well as the day/hour/minute. It can be a time of celebration, a time to meet sisters and friends, a time to decorate oneself in ornaments, a time to dance, a time to reflect, a time to express, a time to trade information, a time to practice one’s religion, a time to forget household duties, a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to move freely, a time to sing. The social dynamics of Teej offer a unique space for women’s speech acts and in turn create a space for women’s agency, to express an identity that is uninhibited for this moment in time.
A critical evaluation of the sociocultural dynamics within the Teej festival allows the observer to look beyond the purpose of the occasion (read: phallic worship) and consider, rather, the agency demonstrated through the social production of commentary that is evident in Teej songs. I could have chosen to focus on any number of the diverse aspects of this particular festival, but I am most interested in the politicization of this space as a unique and creative approach to awareness raising. While historically women’s pain/anger/frustration has been emphasized through “dukha” songs, today Teej lyrics are calling on women to act-to change the social, economic and political conditions of women throughout the country. Its status as a safe space for women’s expressions allows for this.
Yet, it is precisely this space that I’ve found many to take as a problem. With every pro there is a con. Many women have responded in very thoughtful ways to my probing of their ideas. For example, the following issues have been raised: Why must women use this worshipping of husbands/brothers/fathers as a pretense for free expression? Why must women wait a whole year before unleashing the torrent of emotions that have been building? Why, if such empowering lyrics are being crafted, must they only be sung in the presence of other women? If women truly desire to critically contest dominant ideologies, where are their public forums? If women are to use this space as one for awareness-raising, if they are to criticize the pain caused by their husbands/brothers/fathers through these creative expressions of song, how can they carry this so-called “awareness” from this space to their everyday realities?
Not unlike the national level political discussions in Nepal, women’s issues are being raised yet changes are slow to occur. Despite the Teej space’s evolution into a veritable political forum, women, in song, generally concur that girls should be educated, women should be brought into politics, that women should have all the same rights and freedoms as men, yet how are these changes being acted upon? Women might verbally agree for change but what do their actions say?
I think the cultural richness of Teej is an interesting place to find alternative approaches to socio-political questions. There are many women dedicated to using this space to talk about issues that are not being raised elsewhere, but how far does it reach? How can women go forward, transforming their expressions of objectification and victimization into dialogues that situate them as participants and actors enacting social change?
It’s true that I am the daughter of an adolescent democracy, that my country pretends to be an expert in equality and human rights and it takes pride in advising other states in their manner of conducting politics. Yet the conservative movement, with its pupeteering of the administration, is chipping away at our liberties every day. The foremothers of my nation have fought hard for the rights that I am able to enjoy as a woman. They raised issues in public forums, created safe havens to speak about oppression, and carried forth their message to the power structures and the people more broadly. Yet we still experience discrimination and abuse. We continue to live under the tyranny of patriarchy, and it is a mindset that is shared by men and women alike. Our work is not done. We must continue to raise our voices.
Women clad in beautiful red saris with shining potes (glass beads), singing and dancing is the sight almost everywhere in Nepal during the festival of Teej. On this day women observe a fast and pray Lord Shiva for the long, healthy and prosperous life of their husbands and their families. The unmarried women also observe this festival with unabated zeal with the hope that they will get to marry good husbands. From early dawn, women queue up in the multiple lines in Pashupatinath to offer their prayers to Lord Shiva. (source)
Though the unique space of Teej has been an important place to build and rebuild one’s identity as a woman, it will take more than just one day of expression and more than just women. These dialogues must occur on a broader scale and action should match words. Power is never easily released by those who hold it, in whatever form it may take. But the dogged determination I have witnessed on the part of activists and common women is staggering. The subaltern can speak.
The Nepali version of this article first appeared in the Friday (Aug 25) edition of Kantipur daily.