Breaking the Cycle

A Nepali photographer’s attempt to engage with taboo aspects of womanhood

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12 November 2018
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“I KNEW I HAD BECOME NACCHUNEY—too impure to touch—this is how Bunu Dhungana, a Nepal-based photographer, recalled the first time she saw bloodstains on her underwear at the age of 13. She remembered informing her mother, and that they both cried. After their conversation, Dhungana was confined to a dark room for seven days.

Dhungana’s photographic work, “Confrontations,” using herself as the subject, reflects on her experiences of growing up in a traditional Nepali-Hindu community between the ages of six and 36. Using her body as the trope for discourse, her work comments on society’s role in shaping the reality of women, and the effect it has on their psyche and sense of self. “For as long as I remember, I was always reminded that I was a girl and I had to behave in a certain manner,” she said. “The way I should sit, laugh, talk … there is this way of being. The dos and don’ts are clearly laid out. There is an idea of how a woman should be. And I hated it.”

The oppressive expectations of society drove Dhungana to leave Nepal for India in 2001, and she recalled being persistently questioned about her plans for marriage or children as she grew older. Under the pretext of enrolling in an education programme, she hoped to access a more emancipated environment in Delhi. However, it soon dawned on her that societal norms are transnational phenomena, and though moving cities may have granted her more agency than she had in her immediate community, she said freedoms elsewhere are also “questionable.” “Confrontations” started taking shape in May 2017, after she attended a photography workshop where she chose to work on the topic of single women.

The work is a reckoning of sorts—a confrontation of the stigma and restrictions she faced all those years, first as a girl in her parents’ house and later as an unmarried woman in Nepali society. It reflects on incidents in Dhungana’s life that have had a lasting impact on her. These range from memories of being excluded from festivities and sections of her house when she was menstruating during her adolescent years, to the domestic violence she faced in a relationship at the age of 17. It also draws on her abuse by an older man at the age of six, and the decision to confide in her parents 29 years later (a choice prompted by the creation of this work). Dhungana uses her personal experiences as a reference, and she also states that the work is “as much psychological, as it is sociological.” The images are as much about her internal state as they are a mirror to the viewer, and so to society.

The series hinges on self-portraits, where Dhungana deploys the traditional symbols of marriage and femininity—sindoor in her hair, a tika on her forehead, a rato dhago, or red thread, wrapped around her head—to underscore the suffocating expectations of a patriarchal society. Dhungana’s use of the colour red, as a recurring visual marker, signifies the violence of abuse and taboos surrounding menstruation, and evokes the looming institution of marriage. According to her, the colour symbolises the “auspiciousness, sexuality, fertility, and life” of women in Nepal. “It is as if ‘womanhood’ somehow is defined by this colour. To explore red made sense culturally, socially and politically.”

Bunu Dhungana is a photographer interested in questioning the notions of gender and patriarchy. Her photographic work is informed by her background in sociology.

Keywords: menstruation femininity marriage Nepal patriarchy metoo movement womanhood Nepali hindu community stigma taboo metoo movement india metoo newar community gender