By Bandana Upadhya
I was in Nepal recently during a festival called Teej, popularly termed a ‘women-only’ festival. Teej appears to go on for weeks in Nepal though it is primarily a fasting festival that lasts 24 hours, during which women –rightly or wrongly – make a 24 hour sacrifice of hunger and thirst in return for a specific blessing from Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. The unmarried asks to be blessed with a “good” husband; while the married woman selflessly wishes that her husband is granted a long and healthy life. There might be other reasons for Teej, but these are the most commonly shared ones.
When I was a little girl, I was struck and quietly outraged by the unfairness of Teej: that my mother was refusing water and food all day so that my father could live for a long time while no one was doing the same for her. I started to become worried that she might die soon, as a result. So at the age of 10, I decided to carry out my first Teej. In my version of Teej, I secretly wished that my mother would have an equal chance at a long and healthy life. I made further modifications to the fasting conditions. With all my good intentions, I still could not give up liquid, not even for a day, not even for my mother. It caused me too much discomfort and my developing brain reasoned that I could not wish well for someone while being in a state of discomfort; what would be the point of that, I thought. So I drank water, tea and juice during Teej. As a married Nepali woman, I have continued to fast, allowing myself the liberty to modify the ‘how’s’ and the ‘why’s’ of Teej as its suits me.
I am using the example of Teej to present to you my ideas that gender equality for women means to have the choice and freedom to do as we please, without feeling guilty for our choices or embarrassed for our freedom. Such ideas have been a part of my thoughts and behaviours for so long; I had forgotten that it may be viewed as radical and unacceptable in Nepal, especially for a married woman. I observed that in Nepal, married women have to follow an outdated rule book on how to dress, how to speak and how to behave. If you are not aware of the rules, fear not, because every citizen will make it their responsibility to remind you. So imagine what happens when I come along, claiming to be married however not looking or acting the part. It leads to shock, horror and disapproval. I am not exaggerating. I will give you an example.
The tailor dropped his jaws and his measuring tape as he asserted “Haina, biya bhayi sakyo tapai ko? (wait, are you married?!)”? I casually replied yes, while frantically trying to work out why this was important i.e. was he going to refuse my request to make my blouse as tight as possible? He then took his time to take a better look at me – his eyes moved up and down, and side to side. This in itself might have been offensive had I not been desensitised – after one week in Nepal – to being stared at and commented on. Eventually he revealed, “tara khai, potey chaina, chura chaina, ka huncha”. He was basically informing me (and the small audience that had started to gather – also normal) that I can’t be married as I am not wearing any red bangles or colourful beaded necklaces. I initially thought he was joking and started laughing, but he did not seem amused.
My next thought was that perhaps I had not been fully informed of the inclusion criteria for his tailoring service. I decided to take the risk and let him know that I chose not to wear any because it was too hot (it was 35+ degrees outside!). I want to say I heard gasps after that, but I may be making that up. There was definitely a feeling of disapproval in the air though. My aunt urgently stepped in to explain that I lived overseas. My mother was nodding behind her, adding about my failure to listen to her advice. The tailor and his audience seemed more satisfied by the updated information. He claimed that it all made sense to him now, and changed his facial expression to communicate pity towards my ignorance. His disappointment was then transferred over to my family (both present and absent) for not educating me about the importance of the marital attire. Members of the audience were nodding in agreement, and even adding their own anecdotes about local women not wearing those things anymore and how terrible this was. Meanwhile I tried to stand as still possible, to make sure I did not mess up the measurements or punch this man on the face.
The obsession over my inappropriate dress code continued. For the rest of my stay – as a minimum requirement – I was made to wear a pair of gold and red glass bangles every single day. This was to be my official proof of marriage. Out of respect and obligation to my family I reluctantly followed their instructions. My grandmother, with sympathy perhaps, added that I can take them off when I am in the house, but I should never leave the house without them, because others will “talk (negatively) about it.” I don’t think she understood me when I tried to explain how that makes it worse. The minimum requirement was extended to include a beaded necklace (‘potay’ or ‘mangalsutra’) or sometimes ‘sindoor’ (red powder worn by married women along the parting of her hair) during religious events, which occurred at a frequency of every other day.
During my stay, I also received comments from family members about how I looked the same as I did before marriage, especially in reference to my figure. At first I thought this was a compliment and said thank you or grinned in return. My reaction however did not seem to complement theirs. One day I decided to ask my older cousin about this. He explained that people expected me to look more ‘made-up’, wear ‘everything red’ and look more ‘plump’ – apparently I was too thin for a married woman. So basically, I replied, a recently married woman needs to look as identifiable and unattainable as possible. It seems society likes you to be easily differentiated from the unmarried ones (for selection purposes) and wants your body to be a large enough vessel to fit a child that is (soon) to follow. My interpretations may be based on my angry feelings, but I cannot help but feel this way. Men have no such rules in Nepal. They can look and behave the same before and after marriage. No need for identifiable uniforms.
Then again, I wear an engagement ring and a wedding band, every day, without even thinking about it. It is my understanding that in the West wedding rings are worn to indicate marital status (of the wearer) as well as ownership – that they are officially unavailable, or taken. Therefore in theory, that is no different to my family insisting that I wear symbols that are more recognisable and common in Nepal. I seem to have no problems wearing the rings to (consciously or not) express my commitment to one person, inform others I am married and allow them to make all kinds of assumptions about me. I was not prepared to do the same in Nepal and this made me feel hypocritical. I am sure that if I told someone in England I was married but was not wearing my rings, their eyes would hover over my ring finger, making various judgements. I may even be interrogated about it.
I want to go back to my point earlier about having a choice. Now that I am back in the UK and have reunited with greater freedom to make my own choices, I am able to view my bangles with a different perspective. I can choose to see them and wear them as a fashion accessory or as a symbol of my status as a Hindu bride, or I can put them away in the cupboard and forget about them. However, I still do not have complete freedom over my choices because I will probably continue to wear my rings, in accordance to the norms of the western culture. It seems that I have rejected the influence of one culture in favour of another. Rebelling against two cultures at the same time is too difficult.
Furthermore, if I was to be very honest, I probably like the rings because of the diamonds. Wearing diamonds (like make-up and high heels) is supposed to make me feel good about myself and it seems to be working. As women, perhaps one way or another, we are controlled, if not by our adopted culture dictating our thoughts and actions, then most certainly by the fashion and beauty industry. With no more fight left, I might as well purchase a diamond-coated bangle to feel good about myself.