The Risky Lives of Women Sent Into Exile—For Menstruating

In Nepal, a traditional belief about the impurity of menstrual blood means women and girls are banished to makeshift huts.

Photographer Poulomi Basu’s mother, a widow, does not wear the colour red. In India, the country of Basu’s birth, red symbolizes both purity and sin and is also used to mark auspicious occasions. Traditional Hindu culture dictates widows dress only in saris made of white—the hue of morning and death—for the rest of their lives. Further, they are forbidden from attending celebratory events or remarrying.

In the 16 years since her father’s death, 33-year-old Basu has convinced her mother to replace her white saris with brighter cloth, yet she still won’t touch red or vibrant pinks. Basu has managed to turn the tide of an oppressive tradition in the life of one of the most important people in her world; her mother. “Start one by one,” says Basu of her approach to affecting change.

“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 colour, she says.

"The first time I went into a chaupadi I was scared of snakes," says Mangu Bika, 14, who shares a menstrual hut with Chandra Tiruva, 34. "Now I am more scared of men and of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. When we go to school, we all sit together and there is no discrimination against menstruating women."

The practice of Chapaudi, which includes subsisting on a basic diet of rice and lentils, makes it difficult for Tula to be in school and also fulfill her obligation to earn money for her family. She is considering quitting school, Basu says.

Ranga Joshi, 42, shares her hut with first-time observer Minu, 14. "Sometimes I get food, sometimes I have to stay hungry,” Joshi says. “My children are still small so they can’t really manage. My husband works in India six months of the year. When he is at home he brings food to me. Men don’t understand what menstruation is. How could they? It’s not happening in their bodies."

A chaupadi hut shared by Pabitra Pariyar, 14, and Dharma Nepali Pariyar, 25, in the Surkhet district of Nepal. “It’s for God," says Dharma. "God creates humans and will get mad if we do not obey the rules. Our brothers will also get mad.”

Uma, 14, did not tell anyone when her period first started for fear she would be sent into exile, Basu says. When she was no longer able to hide the bleeding, her family found out. As punishment she was sent to sleep atop bales of hay in the barn.

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.

Photographed in neighbouring 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, many women 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.

Storm clouds gather over the rural landscape of the Surkhet district in Nepal.

 "When people come and see us at the Chaupadi [hut], I feel ashamed," 16-year-old Thyra Khuri Bishwa Karma told Basu.

Devi Ram Dhamala, 59, is a traditional healer. "Traditional healers often use extreme verbal and physical abuse to heal young girls who are ill, during menstruation or otherwise, believing they are possessed by evil spirit," Basu says.

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, mothers-in-law, 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.

Shiv Pujan, 30, in a framed photograph, held by his wife Mamata, 17, in a village in the Saptari district of Nepal. Pujan was electrocuted and died while working in India. As a result of her husband's death, widows like Mamata are ostracized from society. "To lose her husband means the woman is suffering for sins committed in a past life," Basu says.

The landscape surrounding the village of Tatopani.

Mangu Bika, 14, shares a hut with Chandra Tiruva, 34, and Tiruva’s child, Madan, 2. "It is the traditional belief that our kul devtaa (house god) will be angered, so I was sent to chaupad,” Tiruva told Basu. “I don't like being here. My mother-in-law forces me. What can I do? She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother-in-law even makes my two-year-old child observe chaupadi just because he sleeps with me." 

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.

Next, she tells the story of a school teacher, one of the only women she met in in the villages who does not practice Chaupadi. When her best friend died after being raped in exile, her husband supported her decision to abandon the tradition. In the grand scheme of things, says Basu, this is an uplifting moment in the story of Chaupadi.

One of her favourite images shows Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, sharing a hut with Mangu Bika, 14. The women, observing Chaupadi at the same time, are sleeping closely together. It’s such a tender moment,” says Basu. “Even within their exile the child is reaching out for the mother’s breast. It’s a moment of peace and love within that space.”

Saraswati, 16, experienced post-partum bleeding after the birth of her baby. She and her newborn were sent into exile for 15 days, during which she fell ill with a high fever and swelling. She was eventually taken to the hospital.

Basu knows the feeling of having others make decisions for her and the anger and frustration it evokes. “I was not allowed to enter a kitchen when my period started and religious festivities were off limits every time I bled,” she recalls.

She is also familiar with the strength of a mother who will do all she can to help a daughter break a cycle of misery and injustice. After her father died, Basu’s conservative older brother became the head of the household. Basu decided to leave home, and with unexpected financial help and support from her mother, relocated to Bombay. This proved to be a major catalyst for the life free from traditional constraints she now leads. "Not many people have the choice I did," admits Basu. “If [my mother] had cried and broken down and said I couldn’t go, I wouldn’t have left.”
In the images she makes, Basu recognizes the emotional connection she draws between her own experiences and the mothers who instinctually protect their children in the face of extreme circumstances.

Regardless of the fact that Chaupadi was declared illegal by Nepal’s Supreme Court in 2005, the women Basu photographs have been trained to accept the tradition without complaint. Yet keeping quiet doesn’t mean they’ve accepted Chaupadi for their daughters. A few have clandestinely said to Basu, “Won’t you take my daughter? Take her to the city with you. Just take her and run.”

The road to revolution is not easy, Basu says.

During the annual Rishi Panchami festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, women preform the ritual washing away of sins committed during menstruation.

Header Image: "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," 12-year-old Anjali Kumari King told photographer Poulomi Basu. It is a popular belief in some areas of Nepal that if a girl is married before she begins menstruation, her immediate family will ascend to heaven. Child marriage and Chaupadi are linked, says Basu, as they both involve ideas around pre-and post-menstrual purity. PHOTOGRAPH BY POULOMI BASU

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