Negotiating with patriarchy, one veil at a time

Ghunghat: Deep rooted in patriarchal time-warp


March 1, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Negotiating with patriarchy, one veil at a time

75 pc of young Hindu women, between the age of 18-25, in Delhi wear ghunghat (MIG Photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

Wearing of veils by Muslim women has been a divisive issue in Europe with countries like France controversially banning veils in public establishments. The ban drew a sympathetic response in a section of India as well and some Indians want the Indian government to follow suit. But the traditional Hindu ghunghat has managed to stay hidden behind a veil of ‘respect’.

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Early last month, the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, home to 12.7 pc of global Muslim population, banned public schools from making religious attire compulsory, after the story of a Christian student being pressured to wear a headscarf in the class went viral.

Over a decade ago, in 2011, France had already barred Muslim women in a public institution from wearing any form of dress that covered their faces and heads. Two years ago, the Sri Lankan government brought an emergency law to ban any face garment in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday suicide attacks that killed 250 and injured hundreds in May 2019.

Conversations on banning the burqa (a long, loose garment worn by Muslim women, covering them from head to toes), hijab (a headscarf) and niqab (a face-covering veil), are gaining popularity in India. In May 2019, Shiv Sena, the then ally of BJP in Maharashtra, had expressed a desire for the BJP to introduce burqa and niqab ban, for ‘uplifting Muslim women’ and ‘security purposes’, following in the footsteps of Sri Lanka.

Conversations on banning the burqa, hijab and niqab are gaining popularity in India (MIG Photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

Over several days, Muslim women were stopped from travelling in the metro, in Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, because they refused to remove their veil. In September of the same year, SRK College in another city of UP, Firozabad, denied entry to some students because they were wearing burqa and hijab.

From security threats to ending suppression of Muslim women, some people and parties in India have talked of the need to ban the hijab but rarely has anyone ever talked about unveiling the ghunghat (a veil or headscarf worn to cover the head, and often face), a symbol of submission and patriarchy among millions of women, mainly Hindu, in India.

Burden of ‘respect’ over heads

In 2018, Social Attitude Research India (SARI), a study conducted by the Center for Advanced Study of India (CASI), of the University of Pennsylvania revealed that 75 pc of young Hindu women, between the age of 18-25, in the national capital, sport ghunghat. The study also found that as many as 98 pc women in rural Rajasthan, 90 pc in urban Rajasthan, 91 pc in rural Uttar Pradesh and 90 pc

in urban Uttar Pradesh wear ghunghat, exemplifying the tradition’s transgression over the rural-urban, rich-poor and educated-uneducated divide.

“However, like most things in the country, if it is not related to Muslims, it is not a problem at all. Especially if it’s Hindu custom, its demerit has to be ignored,” says a 34-year-old woman who works as an assistant professor in a New Delhi college.

She goes on to explain that as most Indians think of ghunghat as part of their culture and hence they defend it vehemently, often on “grounds that defy logic”. “From it is respectful towards elders, to it protects the woman’s face from sunlight, I have heard it all,” she says, adding that she is even mocked at her workplace, a college when she takes a stand against the veil and calls it regressive.

Her words echo true when a group of women, all aged between 55-60, outside a café in south Delhi’s Kalkaji, talk about why they encourage their daughters-in-law to practice this tradition. “It does no harm. It is also only compulsory when you are facing a strange man or elders in general. It is respectful and being respectful is good,” they say.

While they try to defend the age-old practice on the grounds of ‘respect’, they have no answers to why the men in their families do not have to ‘respect’ elders in the same way and cover their faces.

Unveiling the ghunghat

Just about 50 km south of Delhi, a trio of women has been battling the ghunghat, for more than three years now, in the heart of Haryana’s Faridabad district, a stronghold of patriarchy.

Nazma Khan, a 34-year-old resident of Faridabad, wants to abolish the practice of wearing ghunghat, the veil with which married women are expected to cover their face and hair in her state. The ghunghat, like burqa and hijab, she says, curtails a woman’s rights, relegating her to her home and thus 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 Khan, adding that women have been systematically left behind even as Haryana marches forward.

Khan, who has not worn the ghunghat or hijab for the past eight years, has been joined by a few more women from Faridabad’s Mirzapur village. Two sisters, Anju and Manju stand firmly against the ghunghat and have joined Khan’s activism recently.

By merely covering their head, these women feel they cannot show respect to their elders while continuing to work, study and move about freely.

The trio’s grassroots campaign is a work in progress. They have almost no organisational support, specific slogans or even 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.

The cost of standing up

However, their activism has come at a cost to all three of them, especially to Khan, being a Muslim woman taking a stand against orthodox Hindu traditions.

“It should not come as a surprise to anyone that I have to face so much bitterness everyday. When I, a Muslim woman, encourage Hindu women to get rid of their veils, I am often called a ‘polluted’ woman who wishes to pollute the Hindu traditions,” Khan adds.

While the two sisters, Anju and Manju, sympathise with Khan, they have their own battles. They say that even being educated becomes a taunt and tool of sarcastic comments whenever they stand up against the regressive veil culture. “For our activism, our family has been at the receiving end of a lot of village gossip and taunts. We are also called ‘too modern’ and ‘too educated’ by strangers and elders when we step out without covering our heads,” they say.

On a lighter note, they also add that people have stopped calling them to any religious ceremonies including weddings and go on to say that they will never find grooms who are okay with their brides not wearing veils at all. “But we will continue to do this,” they say.

They go on to explain that hijab and burqa have managed to gather voices opposing it in India in the name of suppression of women and various politicians and parties have called for a ban but the ghunghat has managed to escape everyone’s attention.

“The burden of respect on our heads has not stirred political parties, leaders and even the women who represent us in the parliament. It feels like a long fight for us but we will continue to fights as long as possible,” they add.



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