One recurring theme in our discussions this year with Nepali local people is the oppression of women and the huge loads they carry in terms of work, child rearing, caring for extended families – and their lack of autonomy. Family violence, and the impact of alcohol are also big factors negatively impacting the lives of Nepali women. We have heard countless stories of the sorry lives women lead once they marry; culturally they are expected to leave their birth family home to live with their new in-laws. The demands placed on women by these new relationships can be immense and very unhappy ones for women – and the negativity can last as long as the relationship itself.
There is not a tradition or culture here for women to express themselves, complain publicly, leave, demand or to instigate change. There is too much at stake for them to do that. With little support available outside the family for single mothers, the cost of leaving the family is insurmountable for most.
I was asked by *READ Information and Resource Centre Manager, Deepa Supbedi, to run a two session arts program to help develop stronger relationships between rural women in Badakhel (a most beautiful region just outside Kathmandu) and encourage the expression of some of the unspoken issues that affect their daily lives. Most of the women here work in agriculture, as well as run the family and take all responsibility for child rearing.
The few short days I had with the women were not really sufficient to introduce sensitive subjects, then create about them, effectively. But it was possible to start the process, to strengthen relationships between these rural women and to lay some ground work for opening the space to consider and discuss these issues amongst themselves. One way I do this is to tell them about my work with survivors of sexual abuse and family violence. Another way is to be honest with them when they ask if I have children. In the past I just said no I don’t have children, but I decided to tell them it was my choice: I hope a subtle message about a woman’s right to choose.
I have found over the years of working in community that it is only possible to plan ahead so much. I need to meet people and quickly get a sense of what they already know, and what they would like to do. I soon learnt from this large group that most had no idea how to draw or paint; they are mostly illiterate or barely literate. A lack of education, I have observed, means that there are very different ways of seeing, thinking and being from people who have had even a modest education and therefore we have to start from a very different place from where I would start with people who already had a foundation in conceptual thinking and more.
That can be really exciting. Women are very keen to learn – and a bit nervous too – and the changes they go through in a very short time are totally amazing to witness. I have a beautiful Nepali picture of an artwork depicting village life painted in a traditional way.
It is a great introduction to showing the group about depicting their own selves and lives in art. But we start small – with a face.
Putting a 3-d image onto a 2-d surface is not easy – we see women go through the same processes as a child does when they first move from scribbling to depicting a face. I see their perceptions of a drawn face are very different from mine – although I can’t quite put my finger on how. But the face drawing does not come easily. I showed them how to do a simple front-on view as well as a profile view.
Things really started to come to life when I showed them how to depict the headscarf, shawl and sari – all of a sudden drawing made sense; bindi’s were added and the women were away.
After the end of the first day we kept most of their drawings and Anna Wilson (an Australian volunteer who generously temporarily joined Artists in Community International) and I created four collages of them to put up at the library. These proved to be a great starting point for the second day of the project. They looked terrific and gave us some really good material to use in creating a big painting about the women’s lives.
I invited each participant to name at least one of the images that appealed to her – a small step in encouraging women to have an opinion and use their voice. We settled on three styles of image.
Next, the border. I showed them some ideas and suggested we use just shades of green to keep it harmonious. We soon had a lovely border of flowers and patterns – the ice had been broken for the session and everyone was ready to tackle the painting.
We divided the group up so that some women did the big paintings of the women whilst others did a series of small images depicting things that they do such as tending animals, cooking, etc. As is often the way I approach painting/drawing with beginners, colours were limited. We really wanted to create an art work of which everyone would feel proud.
The work that came out of the session was totally wonderful. A big painting – a couple of metres long, and a selection of gorgeous images of their lives which will be sewn on the painting. We simply ran out of time, but it was hard to stop. No-one was more surprised than I was so see what had been achieved by these women in just two sessions. The sense of pride and wonder was palpable.
Anna and I left the project with Deepa to wander down the rough rural road back to the bus stop feeling amazed and delighted by the two days. The women invited me to come back next time and work with them – which I intend to do – then, now that the relationship has began, I will tackle some of the sensitive issues of their lives with them.
Many thanks to Anna Wilson for her sensitive, intuitive and practical support, Deepa Subedi and volunteer Poonam. It takes many people to make a project work well. Thank you!
* READ run 62 communities across rural Nepal – providing a model service of library, community centre, education and women’s empowerment groups.