Face to face Society

Lifting the veil

The ghunghat, like the burqa, is seen as curtailing a woman’s rights, relegating her to the domestic sphere and repressing her economic and social freedom.  

Along with the 2.5 lakh people it ferries daily, Delhi Metro’s Violet Line starting from the Central Secretariat injects one other thing right into the heart of Haryana’s Faridabad district: Modernity. Urbanisation in satellite towns and rural areas around the National Capital Region (NCR) is on steroids and the side effects are evident. But while the gleaming steel and concrete structures reflect single-track ideas of economic development and progress, socio-cultural systems remain rooted in a patriarchal time warp.

So it is that Nazma Khan, the 30-year-old sarpanch of Dhauj in Faridabad, finds herself fighting a rather strange battle. She wants to abolish the practice of wearing ghunghat, the veil with which married women are expected to cover their face and hair. The ghunghat, like the burqa, is seen as curtailing a woman’s rights, relegating her to the domestic sphere and repressing her economic and social freedom. Behind a ghunghat, a woman becomes a faceless, nameless abider of stringent notions of respect, duty and honour.

“Respect is in the eye of the beholder, not in a piece of cloth,” says Nazma, and talks of how women have been systematically left behind even as Haryana marches forward.

The State’s sex ratio (879 females per 1,000 males) is among the worst in India, the female literacy rate (66 per cent) is far below the national average and female workforce participation is appalling (only 3 per cent of women in urban areas work, 7 per cent in rural areas).

While Nazma has not worn the ghunghat for eight years now, she is now taking up cudgels for two women from Faridabad’s Mirzapur village.

‘In our culture, we associate the ‘ghunghat’ with respect. This respect is won by curtailing a woman’s freedom.’

We are chatting on a porch at the Village Office in Mirzapur, soaking in the calculated warmth of one of the last sunny days of winter. Mirzapur sarpanch Mahipal Singh and some others join us. Nazma sits with two sisters, Anju and Manju. All of them have their heads partially covered with dupattas. The women say this is a culturally-influenced sartorial choice that is less restrictive and distinct from the full-fledged ghunghat. The way the hijab is different from a niqab. By merely covering their head, the women feel they can show respect to their elders while continuing to work, study and move about freely.

“Isn’t it strange and absurd that we are talking about the ghunghat in the 21st century?” asks 30-year-old Anju. “And yet, here we are.”

Anju and Manju tell a vivid story of how their association with the no-ghunghat movement began. The sisters were married into the same joint family in Mirzapur village and completed most of their education after marriage. Anju has three M.A.s, but she has never worked. Her place in the house is firmly cemented. On the other hand, 28-year-old Manju has found adventures beyond her village, an accomplishment that’s so rare that she’s the only woman in the 52-member joint family, nicknamed Mini-Mirzapur, who has a job.

The story starts with a night camp. The purpose of the camp, initiated by Chander Shekhar, Deputy Commissioner and District Magistrate, Faridabaddistrict, is to address local socio-economic issues and bring together various departments under one roof for a night. This April, after the camp dispersed, Shekhar was invited to Anju’s house. On a whim, Anju, from behind her ghunghat, plucked up the courage to demand that the bureaucrat help her with a simple problem. “I asked him to convince all the elders to allow us to stop wearing the ghunghat,” she recalls. The IAS officer became arbitrator, and the elders saw merit in the simple request. That day, Anju picked up the phone and called Manju at work and told her, “Today, you can come back home freely and unveiled.”

The request became a campaign when Shekhar encouraged the sisters to join hands with others and speak at night camps in other villages. Soon, they were addressing ghunghat-clad mothers at PTA meetings and children at school functions. “It’s remarkable what lifting the veil has done to these women,” he says. “It is, after all, a matter of confidence, and the ghunghat was repressing their capabilities, their voice and confidence.”

Earlier, Anju would have to wear the ghunghat when she left her house at dawn for work. Once her bus crossed an imaginary line separating the world and the space of her in-laws (which meant all of Mirzapur) she’d lift the veil. Since April, the sisters have acquired a Scooty and zip down the village lanes as and when they please. I ask Anju why she married into the family if she knew she would have to wear the ghunghat. “Ten years ago, when I married, apart from the family being good and so on, one of my key priorities was: will there be electricity in their house,” she says. Her reply lays bare the complex factors that often influence marriage decisions in rural and small-town India.

The two sisters underestimated the power of the ghunghat to subdue them. “In our culture, we associate the ghunghat with respect,” says Anju. “This respect is won by curtailing a woman’s freedom.” Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has pointed out the local status attached to the veil, which is for “good respectable women from strong families who are not forced to make a living selling on the street.”

The family otherwise supports them. When Manju began working at a college, for instance, it was her mother-in-law who stepped in to help with the domestic work. Her husband too chips in, she says.

The family’s support is important to highlight because, for these women, “permission” from the elders is still seen as the most appropriate way to gain freedoms, as they constantly bargain with patriarchy. The freedom from ghunghat or the right to work is not achieved by outright rebellion, but by constant negotiation. In return, the process appears to win them conscientious acceptance from within the patriarchal system and with enduring results.

The sisters have now co-opted Nazma into the battle. The trio’s grassroots campaign is a work in progress. There are no trappings of a campaign: no organisational support, slogans, propaganda material or social media presence. Yet, they have quickly emerged among a handful of young women influencers in this part of Haryana, speaking at over 20 camps in different parts of the district on shunning the ghunghat. For their activism, their family has been at the receiving end of a lot of village gossip and taunts.

The women do not speak of the ghunghat in isolation. Their campaign’s message is malleable, associating itself freely with other issues such as female foeticide, educating women, participation of women in the labour force, dowry and even open defecation. All 116 panchayats in Faridabad pledged to be ‘open defecation free’ in August last year, and 47 of these villages, all headed by women, also pledged to make their villages ghunghat-free. While all the villages have received the first aim, the second is still a work in progress. Chander Shekhar is quick to point out that the impact of such activism is difficult to measure, but there appears to be definite acceptance among the younger people and many elders across villages about doing away with the ghunghat.

By stepping in to solve a simple socio-cultural issue, Chander Shekhar has unleashed political change as well. “Earlier, women would be elected as sarpanch but the men of the house would work on their behalf. The women stayed home, behind their ghunghat,” says Nazma, citing her late mother-in-law’s case. Aware of this, Shekhar first ensured that a lot more women were elected: 47 of the 116 panchayats are headed by women, crossing the 33 per cent norm. “In the first meeting, as usual it was the men who came. Sir (Shekhar) asked all male representatives to leave and demanded that the women sarpanch get to work,” recalls Nazma.

As she says, “I have been handling all the issues of the village. Travelling locally and to the capital. Many people do not like it. But do you think I could do all this if I wore the ghunghat?”


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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 5:11:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/Lifting-the-veil/article17003878.ece

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