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  • Shedding the Ghunghat

    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.

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    11 Responses

    1. I don’t know. I’m made uncomfortable by the idea that what a woman wears is reflective of her feminism or lack thereof, and personally, don’t want to have anything to do with the kind of feminism that tells me what is or isn’t appropriate attire. That’s not so different at all from patriarchy’s ideas about how concealing or exposure of the female body is a sign of a person’s character. If covering the head is considered counter-movement, what about jewelry, the bindi, the nuptial chain — all of which were/are symbolic of women’s position, roles, etc? If the ghunghat because of its history must be regarded as a throwback to oppressive times, then with it would go many other ways in which women express our images and individual and cultural identities.

    2. I echo Sharanya’s thoughts on this one. I would hate anyone (based on ideology or anything else) telling me what to wear or not. I am therefore uncomfortable getting prescriptive about this when it comes to another person. Some things — and I believe appearance falls in this category — should be personal choices unless the person is harming themselves physically in some severe way (eating disorders etc). I think it’s problematic when these things are opened to public scrutiny (of any kind) because then where does one draw the lines? What remains personal? And when does an ideology become as restrictive as the system is trying to fight instead of freeing, as it should be.

    3. I agree with Sharanya. While many women adopt the ghunghat due to the pressure of patriarchal norms, I think feminists must be careful about making generalizations. I have a colleague who choses to wear a hijab (it hasn’t been forced on her) but has otherwise made independent decisions regarding marriage, motherhood and her profession. She’s just one of many women who veil themselves by choice and the reasons behind that choice are varied but could include being courageous and open about your identity in an increasingly Islamophobic world.

      I wholeheartedly support the Manvi women’s courageous decision in choosing to remove their ghungats. I would say that feminism is about making choices and every choice (provided it IS a choice) is valid.
      And yes, the sari, silver jewellery, bindis, even FabIndia kurtas can be symbolic markers of identity.

      Congratulations on having begun this blog by the way. I’ve just discovered it and am enjoying reading all your posts.

    4. It’s a matter of pride that we have a women for a president (with or without her ghunghat).. and i have this gut feeling that pratibha patil is actually much more gutsy than the men before her (during her tenure as the Governor of Rajasthan, she simply refused to sign the bill against religious conversion–she refused to be the state’s rubber-stamp)…

      At the same time, it’s also quite true that pratibha isn’t actually projecting an image of power… (and there’s no disputing the fact that images of power, or what is construed as power, is the result of stereotypes that have been fed into us). I find it quite difficult to hold it against her for dressing up the way she dresses. but, i have observed that a lot of my friends (specially women friends) don’t appreciate her mode of dressing..

      But I think it is upto people to decide whether they should discard what they think is opressive.

      Any step to break away from traditionally “imposed” (which i think is a keyword) codes of attire is key to emancipation (for both men and women alike). History is replete with such examples. The Shannar revolt in southern Tamil Nadu, had, as one of its key demands, the right for women of oppressed communities to cover their bosoms–something that was prevented by the caste diktats prevalent there. Kerala’s Dalit leader Ayyankali exhorted Pulayar women to stop wearing stone beads and necklaces that they were supposed to wear to indicate their low social position. And there are news reports in the early 20th century, of how the ears of Pulayar women were cut because they refused to wear these stone beads. Dr.Ambedkar, asked Mahar women not to follow the dress codes imposed upon them.

      Because the personal is too often the political, dress and appearance carry larger-than-life implications. And it is not something that actually affects women alone. Young, educated Dalit men wearing footwear while walking through caste-Hindu streets, or daring to sport a moustache, have lost their lives because they trampled upon caste codes.

      Responding to Sharanya, she has a valid point too. The Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu actually opposed the tying of the thaali (mangalsutra, nuptial chain), keeping the pottu (bindi), etc… and a friend of mine, an 60+ Sri Lankan Tamil woman told me… “They took away everything that was beautiful in a woman, but didn’t take her out of the kitchen.” That’s a way of looking at things too.

    5. I am afraid I am going to be the odd woman out in the comment space!
      Although I agree that how she dresses is an everyday woman’s personal choice, I dont think that applies in this case. For someone who occupies a position that is more symbolic than anything else, I think she owes it to her position to be more careful about what she chooses to symbolise.
      Perhaps, this wouldnt be an issue with someone who weilded more power (like for eg. Indira Gandhi) as one pays (or at least should) more attention to how they use their power than how they dress.

    6. I’ll confess my first reaction to this post was similar to sharanya’s and Anindita’s – people should have the right to wear what they want.

      Thinking about it, though, I think we need to distinguish between the personal choices of an individual and the choices made by the head of the country, especially someone like the President of India whose role is almost entirely symbolic. To the extent that we believe that the President is a genuine authority figure and her actions confer legitimacy on certain ideologies / practices / customs, we need to question and oppose the choices she makes. If what’s-her-name were a private individual she could wear whatever she pleased, but as a public official she has a responsibility to send the right socio-cultural messages.

      All this, of course, begs the question whether PP really is an authority figure, or whether she’s just a somewhat comic figurehead, irrelevant even by the normal standard of the Indian presidency, which is a very low standard indeed. Indhu says “The president’s office needs very much to convey solidarity with the struggles, aspirations and empowerment of all women if the title ‘first women [sic] president of the country’ is to not ring hollow.” Personally, I haven’t been able to think of this ‘first woman president of the country” business as anything but a farce. I mean, this is a woman who believes in astrology. I’d hate to think that anyone anywhere sees her as a role model. Which is why it’s hard for me to get too worked up about anything she does – who pays any attention to her anyway?

    7. @sharanya and anindita

      If Pratibha patil was not the president of India and she had a gunghat over her head this post wouldn’t have been necessary. when you occupy certain positions power it entails a lot of responsibility. And actions and expressions in public life mean something and ought to be subject to scrutiny and debated upon. feminism hasn’t taken women out of cultural contexts but questioned opressive cultural practices. I am uncomfortable too, in equating oppresive cultural symbols/symbolism to individual choice. who asks the questions is also important, patriarchy scrutinising someone is different from someone questioning patriarchy. there is question of power involved. Don’t think it is the same.
      @meena- I think you brought out the issue of location and choice very well. it would be easy to think that a dalit woman doesn’t wear chappals because she has chosen to walk barefoot. But is it? similarly Pratibha patil’s attire is not just about upbringing and personal choice.
      @SK- yes, that was the point I was making.
      @Falstaff- I agree, mostly to the first part of your comment. But the second half dismisses what you began in the first part. don’t quite agree that we disengage because she is a figurehead. If we take your argument to its logical conclusion, all politics is a farce. And you didn’t even have to comment!

    8. Indhu: Oh, I’m not suggesting we disengage. The fact that PP is a figurehead and the whole “first woman president” business is a joke only means that a) I’m unsurprised when she shows little sensitivity to gender issues and b) I’m not seriously expecting her to play a leading role in increasing awareness about gender issues. None of that is reason to disengage. It’s just reason to engage with her in exactly the same way one would engage with a male president – demanding just as much and expecting just as little.

    9. We may live in a nation where Bollywood stars hog more newsprint and airspace than little old PP, but at the end of the day, she still holds the highest office in the country, (symbolic though it may be), and by virtue of the post, is responsible for the messages she sends out, both vocal and sartorial. Personal choice ends where mass influence begins. We don’t necessarily have to give one up for the other, but it may be a good idea to remember that people are watching, and possibly imbibing, what she stands for.

    10. Talking of courage from the position of timidity gives un-authenticity to the message. Ghungat is and has always been symbolic of “Haya”, it’s an Arabic word which stands for modesty and bashfulness where the person behaves in a certain way to avoid arrogance and ostentation. Hayaa’ is not a state of fear; it is rather a feeling of strength. Ghungat is not a symbol of subjugation but a symbol of distinction. If a women stops behaving like a women, refuses to accept her femininity, she will become nonentity. She is simply not designed to go out of that shell.

      The best for an educated women is to be distinct with her femininity intact. Be bold but don’t let go the humility. Wear Ghungat or Hijab if it gives you the sense of security or comfort and yet be confident. Its about time that they should refuse to be an object of sensual gratification, being exposed bodily for the entertainment of the masses, stripping and being posted on hoardings around the town in the name of modernization. Talk about respecting and honouring yourself to be respected and honoured by others.

    11. I myself agree with the fact that the practice of purdah or “Ghoonghat” is a reminiscent of prehistoric orthodoxy where women were treated as commodities , suffocated in viels and not allowed to breathe in fresh air. My grandmother shrugged off the ghoonghat in 1948 to follow her teaching profession, but its sad that even in 2008 i.e. 60 years down the line today I am forced to cover myself in a “ghoonghat” inspite of being a Software Engineer. Why Veils are associated with feminism when today women are educated as much as men, earning as much as men and facing all challenges as much as men do…Isn’t it an act of humiliation? Oppression or saying “Your face is not worth showing to anyone” or your opinion doesn’t count as you adorn the age old veil?

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