Nepalese photographer Uma Bista dedicates her work to addressing issues of gender inequality in South Asia, and raising awareness about the difficulties that women face in their daily lives under the systemic enforcement of patriarchal values and traditions. Having graduated from the International Photography Programme run by Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she now works in Kathmandu as a deputy photo editor at Annapurna Post, a Nepalese daily newspaper.
In her most recent project, Our Songs from the Forest, exhibited this spring at the Chhaya Center, a tourism and cultural centre in the Kathmandu neighbourhood of Thamel, Uma photographs the communities living in the hills of Achham, one of Nepal’s most remote districts. The series focuses on the experiences of young women on the threshold of maturity in a society that, while changing rapidly to adapt to modern ideas, still preserves long-held traditions that perpetuate the subjugation of women. As Uma says: “These young women are learning how to navigate severely oppressive cultural practices alongside new aspirations of equality. Little by little, they are beginning to ask questions and push boundaries.”
Uma describes the cultural context in which Our Songs from the Forest takes place: “Without a doubt, life in Achham is not easy, and the patriarchy unabashedly cruel. Women are considered impure while they menstruate, and are banished to a rudimentary shed – the infamous ‘chhau-goth’ – for seven whole days of every month. For these seven days, young women are deemed untouchable. It is believed that the gods are angered if women break the rules of ‘chhaupadi’. The women are then held responsible for all possible ills that might befall the family – especially the menfolk – including accidents, illnesses, deaths, poor harvests, failures in school exams; anything that may bring hardship, sorrow or shame to the family.” Although the practice has been deemed illegal, there remains a societal taboo around menstruation that prohibits women from taking part in everyday activities and places sanctions on the natural function of their bodies.
Our Songs from the Forest poses the question: “How to push for freedom from the everyday chhaupadi?” In her photographs, Uma captures the women’s characters away from the cultural regulations that place boundaries on their self-expression. For these young women, the relative freedom they find in the forests around Oligaun offers some relief from the oppression they consistently face in their communities: “In the forest, the skies are open. In the forest, they feel no fear. In the forest, they sing and laugh as loudly as they wish.” At a physical distance from the patriarchal structures that impose upon their self-governance, these women have the space to explore their own autonomy. They climb trees barefoot, toss layers of clothing aside into the undergrowth, sit companionably side by side, and weave their bodies among the foliage.
Uma’s series remains sensitive, however, to the ever-present weight of societal expectation that the women carry with them into the forest. As she says: “Fear runs deep: fear of angering the gods, fear of being labelled immoral, fear of being ostracised by the community, fear of change.” In one photograph, a strip of material tied like a bandage around the middle finger of one woman’s hand, pictured among lush green leaves, is a reminder of the tie that binds and constrains the young woman, even in her temporary forest refuge. In another, a close-up shot of skin beaded with blood is suggestive of the fixation on policing women’s bodies entailed by the practice of chhaupadi. So, too, the expressions on many of the women’s faces, solemn and introspective, imply that the oppression they endure, though faced with quiet resistance, is not so easily escaped or forgotten.
With Our Songs from the Forest, Uma urges awareness of these issues in the hope that bringing them to the forefront of discussions around women’s rights in Nepal will prompt change and allow the women in these communities to lay claim to their autonomy: “May their fearless songs forever resonate louder.”