In urban areas across India over the past few decades it has become quite common to see girls and young women going about on scooters. However, a recent trend involves their driving to their destinations with their head and face completely covered with cloth, in what would appear to be the veritable mask of a bank robber.
Initially I thought it was an attempt to escape the scorching sun and preserve the fairness of the skin, following that quintessential Indian desire. But on closer examination I realised that instead of preserving beauty, the full-cover head scarf served a more utilitarian purpose. The element here was fear. Fear, not of dust or heat but of the patriarchal society. Manifestations of this patriarchal mindset come in the shape of harassers and cat-callers on the loose. In the worst case scenario, a girl might even invite an acid attack.
Two years ago there was a case where acid was thrown in broad daylight at three girls returning from their tuitions on a busy street in Rohtak, Haryana. Investigations revealed that the target was a girl who had refused the advances of some roadside Romeo. She paid for it by losing sight in one eye and suffering disfigurement of the face. Severer than the physical injury were perhaps the mental scars. She left her school and went for plastic surgery.
Though she has regained some of her lost skin, she still struggles with loss of confidence and ingrained fear. The incident destroyed the life of that girl, and the fear waves travelled from that epicentre.
Since that incident — as also innumerable similar incidents across the country — this fear lies in the subconscious mind of every girl when she gets out of her home. It is necessary for her to cover her face for she never knows at which corner she might face an ordeal.
This fear is something almost similar to what girls face in areas under Taliban control. Thankfully there is a Malala to highlight the issues under Taliban rule, but sadly in India any such attempt to bring forward such issues is thwarted and nipped in the bud by patriarchal mindsets. A recent case of two girls videotaped in bus while fighting alleged harassers is a case in point. While they were praised all over the country for their bravery, in their own village they were ostracised. In fact, a khap panchayat warned them to mend their ways.
Acid attacks are one of the severest forms of patriarchal dominance, only a step behind honour killing. While honour killing aims at eliminating the “blot on the family”, acid attack is a form of patriarchal punishment given to women and aims to destroy her self-image and ultimately self-confidence.
Victims of acid attacks struggle throughout their lives to fight the judgmental condescending gazes of strangers as well as the known people. While the physical pain might eventually go away, the mental pain persists throughout life.
It is only natural that such attacks have had such a great impact on the psyche of the young women. For them, veiling the face becomes a categorical imperative before going out into the world since in any case they are considered the culprit even when men make lecherous advances on them.
Winds of change have been blowing across the country with flashy malls, modern educational infrastructure and good civic amenities springing up, predominantly in urban areas.
However, it is a pity that social and intellectual development has failed to accompany the economic development at least in some parts of the country. It is necessary to have strong laws, strictly implemented, to prevent acid attacks, and every kind of atrocity and harassment of women.
What is more important is a need to change the feudal mindset of the people. Until and unless society changes according to the changing times, the “scooter burqa” would continue to persist as a conspicuous reminder of how unsafe women feel while going out on the roads.