In India's main cities, approximately every six hours a woman will be abused to death by being burned, beaten or driven to suicide, according to a caption near one of the many photographs in "Beloved Daughters," an exhibit of photographs by Fazal Sheikh on display in the David Winton Bell Gallery in List Art Center March 27–May 30.
"Beloved Daughters" consists of two series of photographs taken in India.
The first part, "Moksha," is an exhibit of photographs of widows who have become the responsibility of their in-laws, said Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery. More often than not, the families cannot afford to take care of the widows, who often go to Vrindavan, a town where they are able to devote themselves to worship of the Hindu deity Krishna.
Moksha is a state above the ordinary world "of change and illusion which is the cause of disappointment and suffering," as written in a caption, and this is the state of being that women in Vrindavan try to achieve through devout chanting and meditation.
Hinduism puts strict rules upon remarriage, Conklin said, which makes life difficult for young widows who were married to men much older than them. Because of this, most women and girls have nowhere to live when their husbands die.
There are many pictures of women who have been "cast out by their families and condemned by strict marital laws which deny them legal, economic and, in extreme cases, human rights," according to a caption, with another adding that widowhood "remains one of the greatest stigmas in Indian society."
The lives of these women, worshipping in temples and surviving off charitable handouts or begging on the streets, are displayed in "Moksha."
The photographs are entirely black and white, and the majority show adult women in Vrindavan. Some are portraits of their faces, while others have women facing away from the camera or show them on the streets begging or in prayer. Mixed with the pictures of the widows are pictures of religious shrines and animals such as birds, monkeys, sheep and mice in the town.
Quotes from women in Vrindavan tell stories of violent abuse from husbands and in-laws because of an inability to produce a male child, as well as ostracism following the death of the husband. Their last resort is to move to Vrindavan and devote themselves to religious pursuits.
"At first I wanted to kill myself," the exhibit quotes one woman from Vrindavan, "but then I realized that Lord Krishna would look after me."
Some women's quotes express a sense of happiness with their current lives, while others are more focused on rewards in the afterlife.
"I pray that when I die (Krishna) will grant me less suffering than I have experienced in this life," an Indian widow's words in the exhibit read.
The second series, "Ladli," portrays "younger girls that have been cast out of their families," Conklin said. "It is a powerful series, really quite moving," she added.
"For most families in India, a girl child represents a burden," according to a caption, adding that "for generations midwives were paid extra to smother an unwanted child at birth."
For girls that do not suffer infanticide or abortion — more common now because of medical technologies allowing sex determination prior to birth — there is an ever-present threat of rape or sex trafficking, as described in multiple photograph captions. "Thousands of girls work behind barred windows, enslaved for years trying to earn their freedom," one caption said.
Another told the story of a girl, Kamla, who was sold to a brothel owner in Delhi. She was then tortured and forced to work in a locked room without ever being able to leave for two years, before she was able to escape.
The photographs are portraits of infants, children, young adults, women and the elderly, showing that no age group is excluded from the mistreatment. Many show women who are dirty, wounded and, in one particular part of the exhibit, murdered.
In 2005 there were over 6,000 dowry deaths, or murders committed because of arguments over dowries, according to a caption. There are photographs and stories of women who were drowned, burned and beheaded by their husbands, fathers and in-laws.
The goal of the exhibit is to "make people aware of these situations," Conklin said.
Fazal Sheikh is an artist and activist who "spends a lot of time with the people" he photographs and thus "gets images that are much more meaningful" than portraits of strangers could be, Conklin said, adding that he is a "documentary photographer."
Sheikh wrote in a photograph caption, "I returned to India to start from the beginning: to discover what women, the mother and her daughter, suffer from childbirth onward."
Sheikh has photographed refugees in locations such as Kenya and East Africa, Conklin said. He has been working with refugees since he graduated from Princeton, she said, adding that he is "very respected" in his field. In 2005 he was awarded a MacArthur
Fellowship as well as the Henri Cartier-Bresson International Award, Conklin said.
"Beloved Daughters" is a travelling exhibition organized by Princeton, she said. Bringing it to Brown began as the idea of Brown parent Peter McGill, and was then taken to the Bell Gallery committee for consideration, she added.
The gallery's goal in making this photographer's work available to students parallels that of Fazal Sheikh — to make people aware of life for women in India, Conklin said, adding that it also coincides with Brown's Year of India program to educate the community about Indian cultures.