A Ritual of Exile

National Geographic reports on the work of photographer Poulomi Basu.

“As I grew up, I realized how customs and traditions are used as forces to bring women to subservience and control them,” and this includes the use of color, she says.

With her series, “A Ritual of Exile,” Basu studies red as related to the blood of menstruation. Her long-term goal is to help end the entrenched Hindu practice of Chaupadi, which pushes menstruating women into isolation and into a normalized cycle of violence perpetuated by custom, tradition, and religion.

It’s interesting how often “custom, tradition, and religion” are all about subordinating women and girls. It’s interesting what a central goal that is.

Photographed in neighboring Nepal, the work reveals the extreme situations women in rural regions endure for one week each month over the 35-45 years of their menstrual cycle. Viewed as unclean, untouchable, and having the power to bestow calamity upon people, livestock, and the land when bleeding, women are banished from their homes. Some stay in nearby sheds, while others must travel 10-15 minutes away from home on foot through thick forests to small secluded huts. While banished the women face, and frequently die from, brutally hot temperatures, asphyxiation from fires lit to keep warm during winter, the venom of cobra snakes, and rape.

All this because women are the ones who gestate children.

Basu began her ongoing project in 2013, visiting Nepal an average of two weeks per year. Access is difficult, often depending on gatekeepers like husbands, mother-in-laws, school teachers, and the temporarily ostracized women. Often walking six to eight hours over mountainous terrain to reach the villages where Chaupadi takes place, Basu has had time to reflect. “I could not believe how much pain was within that beauty and that landscape we associate with freedom and adventure and escape,” she explains. For Basu, the heightened and turbulent countryside of Nepal—whether it’s a brilliant sky filled with stars or the clouds of a brewing storm—has come to symbolize the pain women are experiencing there.

“My work is very quiet because a lot of [it] is about the silent struggles and silent protests” that come with oppression of women in a patriarchal society, Basu notes.

The story of Lakshmi, a woman in her mid-30s with three children comes to Basu’s mind. Her husband left five years ago and has never returned. Still, Lakshmi dutifully goes into exile while bleeding. Her movements are enforced by her mother-in-law. Lakshmi is obligated to bring her children with her into the remote wilderness.

I hope Lakshmi won’t be forcing her daughters or daughters-in-law to go into exile while bleeding in the future.

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