Festivals of sisterhood

Photo: Bikram Rai

When Deepak Gautam’s wife was pregnant with their second child, his older daughter came to him with a worried look. “I want a sister, but someone told me to wish for a brother. Otherwise I will have no one to celebrate Bhai Tika with,” said the then 7-year old.

Bhai Tika is the last day of Tihar when sisters and brothers bless each other, and this year, it falls on 9 November. Gautam reassured his daughter she could celebrate the festival, no matter what. When his wife Usha gave birth to a second daughter, the family started a new tradition: their daughters, now 10 and 3, put tika on each other.

“Our daughters do not need to miss tika just because they do not have a brother,” says the couple, “they can give each other gifts, pray for each other’s happiness. We even decided to rename Bhai Tika as Tihar Tika.”

Bhai Tika is an opportunity for reunions and celebration of sibling affection. There is a growing sense that like other festivals, it prioritises men and the rituals entrench a gender hierarchy.

“Women pray for the longevity and prosperity of brothers, but brothers do not wish for the same for their sisters, so the sisters are given less importance,” explains the girls' mother Usha Acharya. The hierarchy is even more evident in the festival of raksha bandhan, marked in southern Nepal and India in spring. That festival also celebrates siblings, but places men in the role of protectors of their sisters.

“Seeing men as protectors and women as objects that need protection promotes aggressive masculinity in society,” says Pallavi Payal, 27, who has always celebrated raksha bandhan with her sister.

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In other festivals like jitiya celebrated in the Madhesi community, women fast for the longevity of their sons, but not daughters. Says Indian feminist scholar Kamala Bhasin: “Patriarchal traditions like these harm not just women but also men. Little six-year-old brothers are sent to guard their teenage sisters. It places burdens upon men that they cannot possibly carry. It is worse for women, of course, because it entrenches their secondary status in society.”

Women are barred from rituals if they are menstruating, which reinforces their ‘impure’ status. Many women then blame themselves for ‘spoiling the festival for everyone’.

Nirmala Bhetuwal, 40, of Jhapa checks the calendar before Dasain, wondering if she will have to spend it in a corner. She has been taking hormone pills to delay her periods during major festivals at great cost to her health. Her husband has no idea she has to put herself through this.

“Thank god these medicines exist, otherwise, the festivals would be soured for everyone,” says Bhetuwal.

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Dasain and Tihar also come with added chores for women already over-burdened with day-to-day work.

Saraswati Niraula, 48, of Tehrathum has not visited her parents during Dasain for ten years because she is too busy making festival arrangements for her husband’s family. She says: “My Dasain starts a month ahead, I walk seven hours to get the white clay to decorate my house. Then I beat rice for sel-rotis, and prepare for the Dasain feasts.”

Dasain this year falls on 16-20 October, and men spend time in family reunions, card games, eating and drinking, while the women are usually busy cooking and cleaning up. Nepali women have traditionally accepted these unwritten rules as ‘their work’.

Gender rights activist Meera Dhungana says discrimination prevails because of the sense of duty instilled in women by society: “The women’s economic, social and educational status, which are still low, are at the root of discriminatory festivals."

Activists say that Nepal’s festivals must now change with the times, and many men have also begun to ask these questions and advocate for change.

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Men Engage Alliance, a group formed in North America in 2004, found its way to Nepal in 2007 and since then, has continued to raise its voice against the culture of masculinity.

“While we worship women as goddesses during Dasain, they are barred from many Devi temples. Yet, the burden of organising the rituals lies disproportionately on women,” says Kapil Kafle, former South Asia coordinator of the alliance. “It benefits men if they share the labour. If a man portrays himself as an intimidating head of household, he may escape the work, but will not be loved. Men who help out at home gain the affection of family members.”

As more young women are educated and their socio-economic status improves, things have begun to change. They now participate in rituals that were forbidden earlier, including last rites of parents. Families now make time for women to also enjoy festivals.

“Men rarely visited their in-laws during Dasain in the past, but it is now the norm,” says Usha Acharya.

Pallavi Payal also believes things are changing for the better. Women now fast not just for their sons, but also daughters during jitiya. And her inclusive raksha bandhan and bhai-bahini tika is not so rare anymore.

Says Payal: “People used to accuse us of distorting culture and tradition, but our parents insist that we should celebrate our sisterhood as well.”

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