“There is a special place in hell for women who don't support each other”
– Former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright
As a woman , I think about how many times in my long career I have encountered or been the recipient of thinly disguised misogynistic behavior and often blatant sexism, discrimination, gas lighting, weaponized words, all aimed to diminish me. Then I think about how many other countless women have had similar experiences. The inappropriate conversations, judgments and debilitating obstacles we encounter and suffer through - just to be seen, heard, or simply respected.
The global frustration by women is evident and continues to be at the forefront of politics, including the conversation about gender inequality in India. Discriminatory practices still affect the lives and mental health of so many women, where being banished to your home by your husband or father is not uncommon. Studies show that almost a quarter of a million young girls are killed each year in India simply because of their gender, one-third of the women are illiterate and spousal rape is not illegal.
SPANDITA MALIK, an artist from India who recently graduated from Parsons School of Design with an MFA in Photography has created some of the most powerful portraits of women I have ever seen. In her new series, titled, Nā́rī ( Sanskrit for woman, wife, female or an object regarded as feminine – also meaning sacrifice), Malik takes portraits of women in India and prints them on fabric from their various regions. She then asks them to embroider on their own portraits, giving them no guidelines as to what they can or cannot embroider.
Malik’s portraits of women living in India, who are not allowed to leave their homes or in some cases do not feel safe even leaving their houses, are extraordinary. In one work, the woman not only conceals her entire face with embroidery, she then adds another layer by creating a veil, making her completely unrecognizable. In another work, the sitter shields her identity by holding up a newspaper in front of her face. Where the women have decided not to obscure their identities, one can clearly see their fatigue, strength, and pride.
These women, whose livelihoods yield 8-10 dollars a month with their embroidery, share their stories with Spandita, some include abuse or future suitors selected by their father who they hope won't abuse them.
The creative input the women impart onto their own portraits is magnificently imaginative, taking control of their images, using historical and traditional Indian patterns, creatively enlarging their room by expanding the carpet and the sky in embroidery or adorning themselves with gold thread and pearls. They dictate how they wish to be seen and together with Malik, tell their own stories.
It pains me to think of women so isolated and repressed and it's impossible to imagine the level of inequity and discrimination.
I hope Spandita Malik’s thoughtful collaborations with these heroic women, who endure more injustices in one day than I ever will in my lifetime, can empower not only these women, but women who see Malik's art works - and by sharing her portraits, they can be stunning visual and spiritual reminders that you are not invisible, you are not alone - we hear you - and more importantly, WE SEE YOU .
SH: In your most recent series…. Nā́rī you are collaborating with Indian women who embroider on their own portraits, can you discuss this collaboration and their contribution to your vision?
SM: In Sanskrit, nā́rī means a woman, wife, female, or an object regarded as feminine, but can also mean sacrifice. During my travels in India, I asked the women about their lives and asked what it meant to them to be a woman in India, and they answered: “you know how it is”. This response sums the project in its entirety, as well as my search for the true meaning of nā́rī, why it meant sacrifice and why we understand this.
In this series, Nā́rī , I ask the women to embroider their own portrait that I printed on the fabric of the region they are from. I gave no guidelines as to what they can or cannot embroider. They took charge of their portraits and their representation. When I take a portrait as a photographer, I have the power to represent the subject through my idea of what their life is. When I asked the women to embroider their portraits, they took some power from me and represented their portrait through their idea of themselves, therefore, sharing the power. When asked to use the tool of their creative identity of embroidery onto the photograph taken of them, they became an artistic collaborator in the representation of their own portrait. The idea of the artist as the main producer is subverted and shared by giving each woman her own creative entity within her own craft. The collaboration engages a solution of representation in portrait photography by giving the subject control of their own image. They take control of their representation and collaborate to make the final objects that embed in it their story, this journey, and our connection.
SH: How has being an Indian woman influenced the artwork you make? Most of your artwork has to do with women’s issues, can you talk about your ideas and thoughts?
SM: The major gang rape cases in 2012 and 2018 and the political aftermath of both in India have greatly influenced my work. These rape cases and the lack of political outrage for women’s rights, made this matter less abstract and closer to home. These incidences not only forced me to believe that in India, a woman is less than human but also urged me to shed light on the stories of the women in India.
I decided to travel back to India and document the stories of women there, whoever wanted to share. I searched for NGOs and self-help groups for women and found women who come to the centers and learned embroidery as a means to gain financial freedom. I traveled to Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Jaipur in Rajasthan, and Chamkaur Sahib in Punjab. As I was documenting stories of the women in the centers, I heard about women who were not allowed to come to the self-help centers and therefore worked from home, sending the finished embroidered work to be sold at the centers.
SH: How does your work deal with both politics and women’s rights?
SM: My current work is about the stories of the women who aren’t allowed to leave their house by their husbands or their fathers. In some cases, the women themselves do not feel safe leaving the house at all. Some of these women shared the stories of their livelihood with me, how they make 8-10 dollars a month and some shared stories about their domestic abuse with me. One of them told me that her family was looking for a suitable groom for her and she only wished that her future husband is a kind-hearted man who isn't an alcoholic or a drug addict and would not hit her.
The work is about the normalization of these social and mental barriers where these women find a creative outlet through their embroidery. They come together and share their lives with other women in the neighborhood, teach each other embroidery and seek refuge with each other. The deep-rooted patriarchal barriers have made these women decide to have the same constraints on their daughters as they had growing up.
When I met with these women and requested them to share their stories, I took a portrait of them in the rooms that they reside and work in. These rooms are sometimes the only space they see all day. In the portraits, I represented them through my idea of being caged in that room but also with the idea that every object in that room then becomes evidence of them and their life.
SH: Talk to me about your experience of being a woman in India?
SM: As a woman growing up in India, I didn't quite feel the misogynistic structures of society as much as I did once I moved out of the country. During my teenage years, and as a young woman, I would knowingly or unknowingly always take precautions while walking through public spaces, be it in the choice of clothes I wore in certain areas or the way I would behave. Most of the city’s public spaces were dominated by men, and while I wasn't thinking about it then, it felt unsafe. Stares and lewd comments followed irrespective of the precautions I would take. This behavior was so ingrained in me that I never stopped to question it. It was normal life. The society has a deep-rooted patriarchal structure that has normalized these injustices and camouflaged this feeling of being unsafe with ‘because I’m a girl, I should be the one to blame’ if anything ever goes wrong.
SH: When you received the portraits back from India after the women had embroidered on them, were you surprised by their contributions to their own self-images?
SM: When I received the portraits back, I was very surprised by their interpretation and their decisions in their representation. Some of them decide to hide their faces with embroidery, while others embellish the walls of their rooms in gold. The woman who hides her face in the portrait, Fozia, used net-like fabric as a veil on her face and embroidered her face underneath the veil, completely taking out her identity from the image. While Lakhbir Kaur, the room her portrait is taken in has no electricity because her house is in a remote village, decides to make a pattern of a motif in black and grey thread in Phulkari (silk thread embroidery) on her already very low lit portrait. Nuzrat Praween’s portrait was taken sitting in the chair she works in every day, by her command. When she sent the piece back, I realized that she washed and ironed her portrait after embroidering it because she didn't want to send me something dirty. The great thing that I now realize is that this became a true collaboration. It's not only the language and decisions in her embroidery on her own portrait that she is communicating, she is also making decisions and communicating to me about the relationship that we had established.
SH: Can you ever exhibit this work in India? Would it be well received?
SM: I would be extremely grateful to have this work exhibited in India. I want the viewers in India to think and reflect on the stories of these women and understand the decisions they make in their portraits.
I hope that the work would be well received. The current political situation in India, like in many countries is unpredictable, and I would feel concerned for the safety of the women if the work is shown and hope the situation will improve in the future.
SH: What do you hope the conversation about your artwork will be and do you hope to affect change with your artistic voice?
SM: I hope that the series, ‘Nā́rī’ , brings attention to the women’s rights in India and the social constraints on them. I want to not only reflect light on the work these women do but also share their stories. These women are trying to achieve a sort of freedom and trying to break away from the social norms through their creative outlet. I want the work to enable the women to creatively express themselves through their embroideries, away from the work they do for gaining financial freedom. I want the women to think about our conversation together and reflect on the barriers they impose on their daughters in the future.
I hope that my artistic voice can spread awareness and change the way women are treated in our culture. The work is not only about equality but safety. Women should feel safe to step outside of the house and also, inside.
SH: What have you learned from the women you photograph?
SM: When I met with these women in the villages, I was immediately welcomed into their houses. They were as much of a stranger to me as I was to them, but there was this ease in trusting the other. That is when I understood womanhood. I lived with these women and got to know more about their children, their lives, their dreams, and their aspirations. They taught me embroidery and were concerned for my safety like I was their own. They even cautioned me to carry a knife with me whenever I would leave the house.
When I traveled to the private spaces of the women I met, I understood some of their labor. I understood that the women don't consider what they make to be art, but rather a means to earn financial freedom. When I lived with them, I understood their economic status. I understood that they believe that, despite their economic status, if they ever managed to educate their children, their situation would improve one day. When I listened to their stories, I understood what being a woman means to them. I understood that for them, it is a way of life and a sacrifice to undergo these injustices for a better future for their children. When we collaborated through our art and created a connection, I understood the true meaning of ‘Nā́rī’.