A Ritual of Exile: Blood Speaks

 by Poulomi Basu

Blood Speaks. Red. The color of love, marriage, purity and sin. Blood Speaks: A Ritual of Exile investigates the causes and consequences of normalized violence against women in Nepal. 

Perpetrated under the guise of Hindu tradition, the root cause of this violence is the belief in the impurity of a women’s menstrual blood. Hidden, under-reported and unresolved, these women are untouchable and, as a result, this violence takes the form of ‘exiles,” a way to keep menstruation shrouded in mystery and taboo, a weapon to shame women into subservience. In a world that is ravaged by war, the media is often full of images of those affected by conflict, but I have witnessed how, for many, the conflict begins at home.

Over the past two months alone there have been three reported exile related deaths, which are getting significant mainstream coverage for the first time since I exposed this injustice in 2013. This indicates that the time is now, not only to make significant impact on ending these brutal rituals, but also in putting menstrual hygiene and reproductive rights on the international agenda.

This multidisciplinary project, combining still photography, virtual reality films and, now, a book, is designed to reach multiple audiences across different platforms, print, virtual and physical installations. I want to turn my audience into activists and crack open the veil of silence and shame around women whose lives are shattered by such gender based violence.
Anjali Kumari Khang is 12 years old. " I am not happy. I do not want to get married. I hope my husband gets a job in a foreign city. Then I can come back to my mother's home and stay for as long as I want to." Child marriage is rampant in the north eastern district of Nepal. Girls are seen as a burden and an additional mouth to feed and are often married off at a very young age. However, it is also a popular belief that villagers often marry off their girls before their menstruation starts, as it is believed if they do so, then their immediate family will got to heaven. Einerwa Village, Saptari district, Nepal.

Women observing the ritual of washing away the sins committed during menstruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.

Dhana Devi Majhli, 29, makes her way into the forest, as she is not allowed to use the toilet in her own house whilst menstruating. She only goes into the woods once a day, in fear. "No one really comes to visit when I am in chau. if neighbors come it’s ok.”

A goth, a space of exile by the river. Ujjwali, 48, who was living her exile there told me, "The good men understand what the women are going through, that it is difficult for women when they have to stay out of the house but there are many men who are stupid and illiterate and they don’t want to understand. They beat their wives, call them bad names and obligate them to stay out of the house in the goth. The ones who are educated and understand want their wives to stay at home but its mostly women who make other women stay out." 

Ranga Joshi, 42, shares her goth with the first time observer Minu, 14 years old. Ranga tells me, "The first time, I had a fever, I was very uncomfortable. When I saw the blood flowing, I didn’t know what was happening, I wasn’t sure what it was, I thought I should leave the house and after thinking about it a while I ran away from the house and hid in the forest for seven days. After seven days I came home and I was so scared.  Sometimes I get food, sometimes I have to stay hungry. My children are still small so they can’t really manage without me. My husband works in India for six months of the year. When he is at home he brings food to me, otherwise the kids do It sometimes. Men don’t understand. Men don’t understand what menstruation is. How could they? Its not happening in their bodies, how could they understand it? And when my husband drinks he beats me up even if I am in the chau." 

Devi Ram Dhamala, traditional healer. 59 years old.  Traditional healers often use extreme verbal and physical abuse to heal young girls who are ill during menstruation or at other times, believing they are possessed by evil spirit. Surkhet district, Nepal

"My name is Tanka Thapa. I think I am 25 but you can say what you want. It has been about 10 years since I came to this chau in Basti. My husband lives in India. It has been almost 2 years since I saw him." Tanka sleeps in a hole in the wall during menstruation while observing her ritual. According to her "Chaupadi is a tradition that we are not allowed to sleep at home so we have been told. All the women  in the family have to stay in chau. It’s a little better now. Earlier I used to stay out in the open with no shelter." She appears very nervous and uncomfortable and expresses low self-esteem. She mentioned a few times in passing conversation that she is ashamed of herself and is dirty and ugly.  She asks me, "Why are you here? No one has ever come to talk to me or spend time with me.” Tanka's self esteem is totally crushed. Basti, Achham. 

Saraswati, 16, must live in a closed dark room with her three day old baby because she bled after childbirth. They will be there for 15 days. Not only is Saraswati not allowed to clean herself, she must cook her food in the same tiny dark room even if it means choking her newborn baby with smoke. After childbirth she developed serious health problems. Because of staying in the goth and rarely being allowed to step outside, her legs are now swollen to a point that she can barely walk. She suffers from serious stress disorder and often has breakdowns. She barely spoke a word to me.

Saraswati, 16, on a stretcher, after her breakdown. Due to illness developed during sustained periods of living in the exile after birth and psychological stress, she is incapable of walking and is running high fever and has fainted. She now has little hope of survival. 

Dhana Devi, 40, is a women's social worker in the village. Even though she is a social worker here is practicing chaupadi. It is still cold here in the mountains and she must light a fire in her small confined space. "The conditions are impossible. It is a smoke chamber here. You must not come in,” Dhana tells me. Dhana sadly remembers her past and tells me, "The first time I stayed in chaupadi, I was 14 years old. I didn’t know what was happening to me and the first two days I stayed in my fathers home. After two days I told my older sister what was happening to me she told me that I was ready for the chau and that there were gods living in our house and I would upset them if I stayed at home. She told me I had to go stay in the goat shed. When my mother found out, she told me I had to stay out for 9 days and only come back on day 10. I had no idea what was happening to me and I cried the whole time."