Tij has been called a festival of women, and indeed it is a time Nepali women let their hair down, dance their troubles away, visit their maternal homes and sing bittersweet songs of longing and separation. In times when violence against women, domestic violence and rape are seemingly on the rise, Tij has taken on an added role of social protest.
Yet, critics say Tij is also seen as a festival that has entrenched woman’s secondary status in Nepali society. The ritual fast they are required to undertake ostensibly for the longevity of their husbands is singled out for special condemnation. And lately, Tij feasts and parties have become somewhat decadent and commercialised.
Many, however, argue that the festival has nothing to do with men anyway, and women actually fast to emulate Shiva’s consort Parvati who fasted to rebel against gender discrimination even in heaven.
“The qualities that Parvati embodies is being revered, not the person. At Tij, women aspire to emulate those qualities, not necessarily Parvati the goddess,” explains Nitya Pandey, a PhD student and teacher of literature who observes the festival.
The way Tij was traditionally celebrated had a lot to do with women’s empowerment and freedom: they were free from housework and it was even a chance for them to pass disparaging comments about their husbands and marriage. Tij is a festival in which women infiltrate a patriarchal festival to subvert that very patriarchy.
Indira Acharya Mishra has analysed Tij songs for her doctoral thesis, and says women used to mostly sing about how they did not get to eat good food, and how their in-laws did not let them celebrate Tij. Today, women sing about how much fun they have on Tij, and how they look forward to visiting their parents.
“Traditional songs were sad and full of pathos, now they have become bolder and full of humour,” Mishra explains. “But the sense is the same: women use the songs to parody the patriarchy, and raise their voices for equality.”
What has also changed is that Tij has become more secular, and more commercial, while identity has added a new significance to the festival. “Tij is a tradition of Brahmin Chhetri women, so they want to celebrate it as part of their identity,” says Mishra. “But some aspects of it are also seen as being disempowering, and modern women have removed the more regressive aspects of it.”
Today, everyone is included in the merrymaking: schools celebrate Tij with children’s mothers, offices and organisations hold Tij parties, and women of all ages eat and drink.
“It is good to see women enjoying Tij as a celebration of womanhood, and I enjoy celebrating with them,” says Margaret Donahue, who has lived in Nepal for 40 years and has observed the transformation of Tij.
There will always be criticism of Tij, but women seem inclined to ignore it and have a blast, and use the festival to take a jab at patriarchy.
Tij this year falls on Wednesday, 12 September