The government of Haryana recently issued an advertisement in a government-owned magazine, the Krishi Samvad, depicting the practice of ghunghat – women covering their faces with a veil . The caption alongside a photograph of a veiled woman read, “Ghoongat ki aan–baan, mhara Haryana ki pechchan. Pride of the veil is the identity of my Haryana.
A wide cross-section of people, especially women, have criticized the ad — commoners , opposition politicians as well as the intelligentsia. In what can best be termed a feeble defence, a member of the Haryana cabinet, Anil Vij, said, “What you are seeing in a government magazine should only be seen as what is Haryana’s tradition. Nowhere are we saying that we want to force veil on women. We are in favour of women’s empowerment and we have done a lot in this regard. We are not forcing anyone to wear ghungat. It is not like burqa and only those women who want to do ghungat, it is as per their wish,” he said.
The matter is not as simple as the minister may like us to believe. It is about the signals and soft messages the government is communicating to its people. Every picture that is part of a government advertisement runs through several stages of due diligence. The message conveyed in the advertisement is both verbal and non-verbal .
It is an established psychoanalytical fact that the pictures, images and contextual iconography is what conveys the message . The text accentuates the nuance or the punch line. In the present instance, even if the image was selected to depict a tradition of Haryana as is being signaled by the minister, the text is more alarming. It spells out loud and clear that the veil or ghunghat is not just a choice of dress for women but is a matter of pride, honor and identity of the state – aan , baan and pehchaan of Haryana .
Certainly it doesn’t seem to be oh-just-another-picture-of a rural- woman. It is indeed a deliberate message being sent out by the government in power . More worrisome is the contempt with which popular reactions are brushed aside.
It makes one believe that the state shall inflict on its people what it believes is right and notwithstanding the democratic values we are committed to, it doesn’t really matter what people think of its actions. The state shall decide and people shall follow, seems to be the diktat.
In the 21st century, modern, liberal global world, women of Haryana have made their place in every sphere of life — right from administration, space , sports , cinema, politics to beauty pageants. However, with all its successes, Haryana is afflicted with serious issues concerning gender equality and gender sensitivity. It is the duty of the government of the day to project, promote and communicate the right messages and encourage its people on to the path of social mobility and development.
The ghunghat is by no means a message for development. It represents the patriarchal stratification of society. It conveys to women that they are vulnerable, subservient and under constant threat to personal honor and dignity. The face is the mirror of the mind and the fact that their faces are to remain covered is the extreme suppression of individual identity and complete denial of mental space.
If a government is endorsing the ghunghat, it also implies that the state machinery is not confident of the security apparatus it has in place to protect its women from physical and social assault. This doesn’t augur well for the governance in the state .
Haryana is among the bottom five states in terms of sex ratio. For a state that has one of the country’s worst sex ratios—879 females for every 1,000 males ( 2011 census ), endorsing this regressive practice further adds to the biases against women.
Back in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the ‘Beti Padhao’ campaign in Haryana’s Panipat district. In March this year, the government claimed that the skewed sex ratio in the state had improved after the implementation of the scheme, It was claimed that the state’s sex ratio had increased to 950 female births per thousand males, but huge discrepancies were found when the actual data was recorded later.
Recently, it was touching to see how girls in several rural Haryana schools were demanding that their schools be upgraded to the senior secondary level. Hunger strikes and ‘dharnas’ were employed, a reflection of their awareness and assertiveness. A wind of refreshing change is, indeed, blowing in the right direction.
Is the government listening ? What is the message the government is giving to these youngsters ? Why should a government magazine choose such a regressive picture to define the pride of Haryana ?
Perhaps the ghunghat had a role to play in the past to protect women from external aggressors. But that situation no longer exist . There is no justification for continuing this practice.
In the past 70 years India has witnessed tremendous progress in all walks of life. Access to education has altered the worldview and intellectual horizons of our people. Equal jobs opportunities have taken women out of their traditional roles of homemakers and allowed them to hone their skills to be financially secure and independent .
Indian women have demonstrated high resilience and inner strength in handling hitherto male dominated jobs on one hand and managing their biological and sociological roles as mothers, daughters, wives and sisters with equal élan and confidence. Her choices have improved. The ability to exercise this freedom is the new normal. Among these many choices, is the choice of dress. What gives her comfort, poise and dignity is her personal choice, whether a pair of jeans or the shalwar-kameez.
The most common – and most laughable – excuse is that women have to dress right so as to avoid unwanted male attention which may even lead to rape. But there can be nothing more reprehensible than such a statement or allegation. It’s as if women are the upholders of the moral universe and “naughty boys will be boys.” These statements constitute repulsiveness of the highest kind.
Now several right-wing Hindu rightwing political organisations keep exhorting their audiences to “Get Back to the Vedas.” But the irony is that Vedic India was very broad minded in dealing with women. Women like Gargi and Maitreyi could study, perform most rituals and there was no concept of veil or ghunghat .
Our epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat, have stories of women who went hunting with their husbands, rode horses and fought wars as a call of duty . The women were protagonists with a mind of their own and took fiercely independent decisions. In more recent times we had the Rani of Jhansi , Ahilyabai Holkar , Begum Hazrat Mahal etc who displayed their qualities in warfare and statecraft . Meera is another dimension of an independent mind and carved her own space in the Hindu narrative.
During the freedom struggle, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sarojini Naidu , Amjadi Begum , Sucheta Kripalani, Savitribai Phule, Durga Bai Deshmukh and so many others played exemplary roles in fighting the British . In independent India, Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister took the nation to new heights domestically and internationally. Her statecraft and administrative acumen remain unmatched.
This history and heritage of India belongs equally to each and every one of its more than 125 million people. India draws its strengths from this invaluable cultural capital. For a state government to subscribe to a primitive practice like ghunghat and then to defend the thought process is not acceptable. It is a deliberate effort to take India back to primitive mindset. Are we going backward into our future ?