Teej Ko Lahara Aayo Barilai: Politics In Nepali Women’s Festival

Teej Festival Dancing

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.

Teej Festival Dancing

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.

Teej Festival Dancing

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.

Teej Festival Dancing

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?

Teej Festival Dancing

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.

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45 thoughts on “Teej Ko Lahara Aayo Barilai: Politics In Nepali Women’s Festival”

  1. I do not know whether the fasting of women in Teej can make the promongation of their husbands life or unmarried women will get good husband. But with the passage of time and in the 21st century we have to change and amend nitty gritty of this Parva.
    Today we have to also remember Chhaya Devi Parajuli who died at the age of 88 this morning. What I did not know was that she was a Congressi karyakarta and Mahaan GPK is going to wrap her body with four star flag at the central offfice of NC. I thought she was a simple housewife from an avarage family Nepal.

    I remember when in 2008 BS a student named Chiniya Kaji was killed by the Police firing, he did not have any political orientation. But later UML made him their Karykarta because his name was “Chiniya” Kaji.Still they “worship” him annually. So he must be a communist, they made the “adkalization”.. Long Live UML and NC in Nepal.

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  2. subalterns can speak is not the right statment. or the conclusion.

    subalterns do speak. subalterns have been speaking. and will do so.

    but you, me, and majority of us dont care to listen. we listen only what pleases us. and the voices the subalterns raise are obviously unpleasant. so we pretend of not hearing anything.

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  3. Man, I’m not sure what a subaltern is, but if I was one and I heard what gajadi said, I sure would want to grab a gun!

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  4. Limbu,

    Tradition takes discipline. Just because you lack it and do not understand it does not mean the rest of us do lack discipline and do not understand the tradition.

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  5. teez has good and bad perspectives. In one way, it adores males which is ridiculous, but for married woman it is a kind of prayer to keep their betterhalves safe,sound and successful.
    Best of luck to all females…….

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  6. In Hinduism, both sexes are worshipped, but females are worshipped more than in any other culture. In Christianity, woman is a curse, woman is considered evil and thus christianity destoryed all ethnic religions that worshipped women deities or living women (such as Greek, American Indian, Egyptian and many pagan religions). Hindus religion is the last surviving religion that still worships woman, the Female energy as mother, sister, wife (who is considered laxmi) and in any form as all women are the representations of Durga, the Ultimate and supreme of all male gods.
    Teej is the only festival a woman worships (not her husban or son) Shiva, the Supreme male consort of Mother Durga.

    Worshipping for the life of husband in Teej is not humiliating for women, it is empowerment of women-that wmen can pray God Shiva and save their miserable husbands. Unmarried women can wish their dreamboys to be their husbands. REMEMBER, THEY ARE NOT WORSHIPPING THEIR HUSBANDS OR DREAMBOYS, they are just praying for their lives, that means their husbands’ or sons’ lives are in the prayers of the women.

    Also, there is no compulson to fasting-in Muslim countries, fasting during Ramadan is a government/constitution mandatory rule and is punishable to 80-100 lashes if broken.

    It is very much left to the women folks to decide whether to eat, what to eat because men rarely interfere. Women makes their own rules in their house, families depending on their own traditions. Yes, fasting should not be encouraged and new generations might not want to adhere to it, which is very good.

    Brother-sister’s day is bhai tika
    Sister-sister’s day is teej
    Woman’s

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  7. Somebody wrote the sardarji joke about KIRAT=LIMBU and i too believe it now.Read the limbu post today and its not difficult to make out.Why does this guy think that he sounds democratic when all the time his sole aim is to critisize Hindu rituals and practices.Why is he always online and always so dogmatic.This guy is either a maoist or a missionary or just too dumb to get a job.
    Teej is a festival of Joy and freedom.It’s about celebration of womenhood.Singing,dancing and praying.You dont HAVE to fast,and its not just about fasting!! My wife tries to fast as long as she can which usually is till the mid day and then she eats fruits.How better to make the husbands feel loved and how better to compile LOVE,Devotion and Religion together.May be that’s why everyone loves this festival so much.Even here in US,we had a huge ceremony and our women having DAR and having a lot of fun.As the saying goes,YOU CAN TAKE A NEPALI OUT OF NEPAL BUT YOU CANNOT TAKE NEPAL OUT OF A NEPALI.

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  8. Actually many people believe that I am Kirat or Limbu or anything. That is my penname for this blog. I live in Europe and work in a prestigious European company for three years now. Above all I am a Nepali and make frequent comment about Nepali politics and culture. I have also lived in the US for five years. I know the helplessness of Nepali people living abroad very much.

    I agree with you what you have wriiten in block letters but Nepali’s (who are living abroad) love for Nepal is like shedding crocodile’s tears. They think that they can do a lot of things for their country but they are helpless guys. They can not do anything like what Chhaya Devi did for Nepal and Nepalese.At least she could participate in a grand manner in the 2nd Andolan at the age of 88 and ecouraged the youth to go against tyrrany of the dictator King.

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  9. Parewa (kabutar in hindi if you prefer)…

    What is wrong in criticizing hinduism? How does that make LIMBU less democratic any more than you for opposing his views? The whole idea of democracy,liberty and freedom of speech is to allow you to express your opinions freely without any inhibitions as long as it does not physically harm other people (perhaps you might want to read “On liberty” by Stuart Mill to get a better understanding on these principals that you pretend to know about). The reason for doing that is to challange existing opinions and beliefs for better tomorrow in the hopes that mankind will eventually be a step closer to truth and justic. As for your understanding of Teej itself, it is lacking and incomplete at best. Perhaps you want to re-read the article one more time.

    As for criticizing hinduism, there is plenty I can say about it, starting with the fact that it has created an unjust social hierarchy that underlies the reasons for present conflict.

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  10. I agree with another limbu in the last para. Because being a Hindu, I felt so frustrated that I wanted to convert myself to Buddhism.Hindiusm is discriminatory that we have so many castes and creed. Yher are three main types of bahun: Upadhyaya, Kumain and jaisis. In many places, they do not eat in each other’s Bhanchha.So many types of Chhetris and Rana and Shaha think that superior chetris than karki, khadka, basnet etc.In newar also, there are Pradhan and Rajbhandari who think they are superior than others.These are all factors which is affecting our attitude and hampering development.
    I would like you to watch the Movie made by the Govt of India about Dr. Ambedkar, who had studied International law in Colubia in 1914.He was an untouchable and became father of Indian Constitution and law minster in Nehru cabinet. He converted to Buddhism at the end of his career a

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  11. one has asked what subaltern is. originally a military word, subaltern means those who are at the bottom of social hierarchy. those who are considered powerless, cant speak their mind.

    obviously, a kuhire came to ktm to do research on teej, got space in kantipur and i guess ktm post as well, and also on blog. see the kuhire power? and she says, the subalterns can speak. badhai to her findings! hahaha.

    i repeat, subalterns do speak. but who cares? neither the powerfuls like kuhires, with all the money and info and arms nor the native power brokers who are more kuhire than the kuhieres themselves.

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  12. Kathryn,

    Though rhetorical, talking in the language only Gayetri Spivak would understand, perhaps, let ME be rhetorical – indeed, subalterns do speak, but does the greater world understand the language or recognize the content/context of such expression when there is growing attempt to universalize a standard framework throughout different cultures – especially when, foreigners like yourself cannot help but view the ‘native’ culture through the prism of some inundated eurocentric predisposition, where, the beat of ‘western civilization’- ever so projected in the native lands since YOUR renaissance, signal to reduce its pitch so that ‘voice of the subalterns’ are even heard?

    Me thinks, the above para is probably too verbose for you; nevertheless, it is full of surprises that I hope you will take it as lesson learned – of natives and their ‘nativeness’, rather than attempt to impose your own on them.

    You see, the fundamental difference between the feminist movement that arose in the west during the sixties and the growing tide of modern socio-cultural ‘expressionism’ one finds in cultures different than yours is simply this: yours believe in identity of an individual itself to be absolute; our’s do not – we believe our existence or identity to be relative where individuals are only as important as the position they serve in society. Therefore, the ‘struggle’ seen in that light is only an attempt to find their relative position IN society; not OUTSIDE of it. Get it?!

    Who is to say one is significantly ‘better’ than the other, after all, each ‘culture’ grew out of some fundamental beliefs governing their individual relation with the larger society they operate under. Now that western culture has taken a much individualistic stance while propounding a universal law, so to speak, we naturally see conflicts arising as a result. Without getting too abstract, had the western culturalists recognized the importance of native culture earlier, perhaps theirs own would not stand at the brink of extinction today – threatened by barbarians with long dark beards who ride camels in the desert at night.

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  13. LIMBU and the other LIMBU listen guys,about status of Nepalis in America,if u were staying with 10 people in your apartment in long island then thats what u know.Its not the same with most, I know hundreds of young nepalis who earn in the top 1% catagory(six figure).
    And limbu u went to Europe from US shows what sort of a work u were doing here (if at all what u are saying is true,i have every doubt!!)
    About hinduism,its a peace loving religion thats whay stupids like u can cry around.U want me to count atrocities of other religions?And being a hindu i dont believe u can convert to buddhism form hinduism,i never considered Bhagwan Buddha a lesser god than any of our gods.
    About the contribution of Nepalis staying abroad u have to be really dumb to not acknowledge that.To begin with how about a yearly contribution of 92 billion rupees to the Nepali economy.
    By the way u can change 100 names Kirat or Limbu or matwali or some other,I will always catch you coz ur dogmatic ideology doesnt change.Gadha lai dhoyera gai bandaina!!

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  14. Hush hush Kabutar (PAREWA)…kya bola aapne ye saab? And that too in the name of peaceful hinduism? Shame on you for being a bad brahmin! You have been living in that pigeon hole for far too long, its time to get out…and I bet there are more parewa haru sharing that hole than LIMBU with 10 people in long island. Looks you choose to be hindu because according to you it is best among the worst. Goodness of your belief and religion is relative: as long as the rest of the world looks uglier than you, you are beautiful ho? Bravo for being a smart ASS (gadha), and I bet you have your cows that you worship to thank for it.

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  15. parewa, what an idiot you are. Go see a shrink (if you can afford one). LIMBU said he/she lives in the US. I live here in Kathmandu. Ask Dinesh (he will know from our IDs). Perhaps we all sound the same to you because we all disagree with a lot of things you say (or are you being racist and saying we are all the same?).

    And hey LIMBU I see you consider yourself a Hindu (nothing wrong in that, I hate all religions equally). So you really are not a Limbu then?

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  16. Politics in religion is not the good sign for the country. Let it run by itselft by culture not by politics. This time I found many political issues in the Teej even in the songs.Sometimes I have the feeling that aren’t we heading toward dividing like in back to 237 years before unification?? But I am not saying good and bad in this issue, the future history will tell.

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  17. Its a sad affair- when religion is dragged into politics. I see this as more unfortunate than Maoist and SPA. If the core values of Nepal is politicized then no teliing where it will end.

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  18. all sisters and ladies out there,

    enjoy your teez..

    ..and dont listen to foolish commentators…who r interested in knowing about kirat and limbu instead of saying…happu teez ladies !!!!!

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  19. Parewa,
    I am sorry for you guys. Because your life is ruined by doing all sorts of things in America.You think that you know everything.When you come back to Nepal you will remember only Howloween and Thanks giving and Christmas. Nepal will not forgive you. You talking about remittances, it is not the Nepalese in Amrica only they are sending, it is the people working in Gulf and South East Asia who are contributing more than you.It is like Moot Ko Nyano.When you have some blood remaining in your body, think to return to Nepal.As for me I have still time I am only 28. Kirat, I am from your community, we have to kick out Bahun Chhetri and rule Nepal one day. Jaya Kirat and Khumbuban !!!

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  20. Pundit,

    What a small world, how’ve you been bro! Indeed, I am he – ‘Mystic’ from samudaya.org. I see you have diversified, expanded and traversed the Nepali blogosphere. Keep it up. Drop by samudaya for old times sake.

    ciao!

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  21. First of all i am not agreeing or disagreeing about Parewa’s post regarding teez.

    But the comment about Limbu and another Limbu being the same person I think its true. Its funny how one after another comments by them follows each other and perfectly compements each other. \

    I am not sure of Kirat being the same person because even if i dont agree with most of his posts atleast he is a decent debater “at time”. But the thing he said abour him being in nepal and limbu being in US or europe is fully. How would we know, its not like this blog site indicates your physical location.

    As for teej, its a hindu festival that is very sacred to nepali hindus just like other religions have their sacred festivals. If other religions want hindus to be sensitive to their festivals the gesture has to be reciprocated also. I mean its a democracy and we can decide if we want to follow teej or not. And yes other religions can criticize teej also but I believe in live and let live and not trying to push ones ideology into the other.

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  22. Its a waste of time and energy to talk to the imposter called Kirat who blogs with names limbu,the other limbu and matwali.He is dogmatic like an ASS and i am sure he is a maoist.I hate maoists and i hate him but to talk to him is a waste.Let him cry,cry foul against us.He is doing it coz there is nothing else that he can do.About his location,be sure he is in Nepal coz nowhere else in the world u can survive by just bluffing all the time.

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  23. parewa, me thinks you have gone nuts with bitterness. I recommend you eat large spoonfuls of sugar.

    LIMBU, I am afraid I don’t agree with your communal thinking. Sure there has been a lot of discriminations against us over the last couple hundreds of years. We should address this more positively than resorting to let’s kick the Bahuns/Chettris out of Nepal. That’s wrong and not very intelligent.

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  24. well me thinks,i am just being true.Truth is bitter at times,u and ur friend maoists are relising it right now i guess.But with ur dumb mind i dont think u can still see/feel it.

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  25. Parewa:
    I think it was you who made nice analysis somewhere. Please don’t degrade yourself now by these senseless attacks… Stick to the topic.

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  26. Hey LIMBU bro, I know where you are coming from. I can certainly empathize as I have felt the same anger. But think about it. Our anger is only good if it is channelled positively.

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  27. Kirat and co…u guys are the ones who brought racism to this blog.Call me whatever or channel or funnel ur anger towards anything/anyone its not going to change anything.;
    Its the anger of underacheivement,racism and foolishness.Channel it to study/teach ur community,rather than bluff ur life off.I have seen people like you everywhere who preach/profess racist views talk about their community all the time but have done nothing for them.Look in the mirror,talk to yourself,hate yourself not other coummnities coz the reason of ur downfall is not us,its u and ur laziness,underachievement.I wrote long back about how blacks accuse whites of not giving jobs but never bother to study,its the same story there.

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  28. Hey parewa,

    I have been reading you post on this topic about teez. You talk about racism, you talk
    about 6 fig salary, you talk about 10 people in 1 apt in long island, you talk about black and white – looks like you seem to know a lot of things – but missing one BIG concept. disparity. Sure blacks don’t have same level of education as white – I won’t if you ever thought about social impacts of the slavery for more than a century. You talk about 6 figure salary and think the person who left for europe as a loser. Obviously, you measure success in the monitory terms.. typical american! I just wanted to say that if you are a bahun/chettrri, you don’t represent many like me who differ from you. Obviously, you look like you are from family who made money out of poor limbu, another limbu and what not for centuries and, now you are in the States from that blood money and lecturing the rest about the plight of blacks of the US and Limbu’s of Nepal. I feel sorry that you are so vocal about these issues without knowing the details about it.

    LIMBU,I understand the anger that you have. But kicking bahun/chettris out will not solve anything. Why do think that Nepal is more indegenous to you than to bahun/chettris. Obviously, you seem to know half of everything. Like three kinds of bhrahmins and it’s relation to hinduism. Hinduism did not specify three kinds of bhramins, it all came from when/where they came from. About the Newar, let me tell you something, it’s not a caste. It’s a linguistic community which has it’s own caste. It’s only after Shah rule that Newars collectively became one caste. There are lots of literature describing these.

    I agree with Kirat, venting anger in right direction is the most positive thing. Hatred will kill yourself and nobodyelse. Obviously, parewa is sitting on a pedastal of american dollars – I won’t what how good the american dollars will be when there is nuclear explosion right on her backyard.

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  29. Parewa jee,

    “its u and ur laziness,underachievement”..wow BIG words from a wise guy! Is the studio that you are sharing with 10 other people geting bit cramped? Lootne bela ma lootyo, aaba kasko thulo swor bhanda ta chor affai ko!! Haina Parewa jee, ki kaso?

    BTW why are there so many bahuns in all the major political parties? Let me guess, they are the only people in Nepal who are educated! Aha!

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  30. a bahun
    your statement that blacks do not have the same level of education as whites is false. it is not the color of your skin that indicates your level of education.

    All:
    I am sickened by reading these comments and wish you could speak the issues you care for – not badly to each other, reducing your credibility.

    Culture – you represent clearly without trying to disgrace anyone else.

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  31. all you dumbfucks!! at the most what you can do is just talk and talk and talk.. and talk. if you guys do really care about changes needed in culture and politics then don’t jus throw opinions.. practice it and try making a difference.
    Im sorry I jus couldn’t take it anymore.

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  32. TO EVERYONE:

    Straight outta line, I don’t need your meaningless reasons……………………………………………………………..

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