THIS REPUBLIC DAY, newspapers and TV channels said with much elation that the first Indian woman President was taking the Republic Day salute. But the image of the president in ghungat (veil over the head) itself was disturbing. (Ironically, Prathibha Patil kicked up a controversy during the run-up to the presidential election by commenting against the veiling of women.) Some may argue that wearing a ghunghat is a personal choice. But I feel that it cannot be because of what a ghungat represents and because it has a history of oppression and denial for women.
The ghungat is a vestige of the purdah system where women are secluded and hidden away from the outside world, reinforcing the construct of women as property. This system has denied education and exposure to women and curtailed much of their freedom and expression. It denies women mobility and visibility, two very crucial aspects of freedom and self expression. Women are not allowed to do anything that would blemish their characters and bring dishonour to the family including getting an education. Even while liberating women from the oppressive purdah or veil has been the project of many reformist movements and the women’s movement, the stereotype of a women confined to the domestic sphere has been hard to shatter. It continues. There is an expectation that women in public will be demure and respectable because they are in the public sphere only incidentally while their primary role and responsibility is in the domestic arena.
India’s woman president appears in a ghungat while poor rural women’s collectives in Manvi, a remote taluk in Raichur district, recount proudly that one of their first political acts was to take off their ghungats and walk with their heads held high. They explained that they had to do this first to be seen and understood as assertive women and shed the image of women as submissive and subordinate who had no say in matters of public good. Though there was a lot of backlash and ridicule from family and community, they were finally taken seriously by the villagers and panchayats on public matters. How do we understand this contradiction in 21st century India given the relative power of the president and powerlessness of women in a remote village?
Another question which comes up is why are women in politics are subject to so much scrutiny. Is it practical or even fair to expect all women in politics to be feminist? Why don’t we subject male politicians to the same scrutiny or expectations? I think we should subject all political offices and the state to a feminist scrutiny. There is a price women have paid through their struggles and sacrifices, genuinely believing that oppression and exploitation will end and social justice will prevail. The president’s office needs very much to convey solidarity with the struggles, aspirations and empowerment of all women if the title ‘first women president of the country’ is to not ring hollow.