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AROUND 10 am, Suman Lata sits down exhausted, holding a cup of tea, left over from what she prepared for her husband an hour ago. Settling back into her drawing-room couch, in Mirzapur village of Kurukshetra district, she lifts her ghoonghat and takes a quick sip. But she remains alert to the sound of any noise, and drops the veil back quickly as a family elder walks past.
Lata is a double Master’s, in Political Science and Hindi, and in situations such as this, she says, the thought leaves a sharp pang in her heart. Sipping her tea again, the 44 year-old, sighs, “Padh-likh ke kya fayda hua… jab zindagi ghoonghat ke peeche hi bitani hai (What was the use of studying… if your entire life was to be spent behind a veil).”
Recently, a photo caption in a Haryana government monthly magazine described ghoonghat as the state’s “identity”, saying, “Ghoongat ki aan baan, mhare Haryana ki pechchaan (Upholding the honour of the veil is the identity of my Haryana).” As angry reactions poured in, Haryana Minister Ram Bilas Sharma said, “The (veil) is part of Haryana’s culture.” Lata finds this incredible. “The government keeps saying Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Educate your daughters), but they must add another slogan, ‘Ghoonghat Hatao’. Otherwise, what is the use of making a daughter study? Who can be a bigger example than me?”
Her parents — father who was a havildar in the Army and mother a homemaker — always encouraged her to study, she says. When she got married at 25 and came to her in-laws’ house, her husband’s uncle tried to convince the family that she need not wear the ghoonghat, Lata says. It was his grandmother who protested. “Tayaji ne kaha tha hamari bahu padhi-likhi hai hum ghoonghat nahin dalvayenge, par inki daadi ne kaha nahin izzat ka sawal hai (Uncle said our daughter-in-law is educated and we won’t let her stay behind the veil, but my husband’s grandmother said it’s a question of honour),” Lata recalls, nearly 20 years later.
A few days after that, a newly married Lata stepped out of the house forgetting to cover her face. “Two elderly men saw me and commented, ‘Dekho sharam hi nahin hai isse to (Look, she has no shame)’.” The news spread, and reached her husband Rajesh Kumar. He told her it would be best if she wore the ghoonghat. “For my husband’s honour, I have ensured I follow all the customs since then.” Now it’s well drilled into her, Lata laughs, “If a ghoonghat falls, a family’s honour falls.” There are only some brief moments in the day, like this one, when she is not wearing the veil. She can show her face to her husband and children, and go veil-less at her parents’ house, but has to cover up if a male elder or an unknown male walks in. “I pull the ghoonghat right down to my waist then,” Lata says.
She manages everything from under that veil, including chores such as cleaning the house and looking after the family’s cows. The two cows, who stay in an enclosure at the rear of their three-room house, must be milked by 6 am, after which she must rush and prepare tiffins for her two children and husband, who leave by 9.40 am. Lata visits the cowshed at least three times in the day, including to chop and feed the animals the chaara (fodder) collected from the fields, to give them a wash, to collect the cowdung, and to milk them again. The cows give 15 litres a day. Around 7 litres is sold, while the family consumes the rest.
Till her mother-in-law was alive, she helped her look after the cows. “It’s hard labour,” Lata admits. Most times, she is alone in the cowshed and can take the ghoonghat rule casually. What Lata finds most troublesome is serving meals to the elders and mopping the house wearing the ghoonghat, or crossing the road. “It is difficult to manage. Kuchch dhang se kahan dikhta hai ghoonghat mein (Can one see clearly through a veil)?” she says, talking about how she often ends up stumbling. Many times, she takes the help of her children to cross a busy road.
While Rajesh Kumar, 45, used to be a farmer, a few months ago, he joined a cooperative bank as data entry operator, earning Rs 15,000 a month. Farming just didn’t yield enough to support a family of four, with grown-up children. Lata often thinks about what life could have been like if she could work too. “Par main kaam karti to bahut baaten banti yahan gaon mein (But the villagers would have talked). That is why I manage the fields. We have a few labourers, and I don’t have to go to the fields every day.”
As per Census 2011, the sex ratio in Mirzapur village, with a population of around 6,000 people, is 941. Female literacy is around 65 per cent, nearly 10 per cent below that for men. Lata says there are other women like her in the village who are graduates. Around lunch, her husband drops by, accompanied by the village sarpanch’s relative. Lata immediately pulls down her ghoonghat, touches his feet and fetches water. Rajesh says they alone can’t change something that has been around for generations. “The village is still traditional in its thinking. If we reject it, the village will reject us,” he argues, as the guest seconds him, “Bilkul sahi (Absolutely right).”
But Lata remains hopeful for daughter Neha, 18, who has just cleared her Class XII exams and wants to become a civil servant. Lata hopes she will do something with her education and not remain confined to home, like she is. Each day, after her son Harsh, 13, returns from school around 2.30 pm, Lata sits with them for an hour and talks to them about their studies, helps them out. Lata says this is the best part of her day.
Later in the evening, reading a Hindi newspaper, she says, “Why doesn’t the government hold awareness sessions on ghoonghat in villages? When it is the age of smart phones, why are women asked to remain at home, covered? The government appreciates the women wrestlers of the state, then why don’t they look at so many other women whose talent is hidden behind the ghoonghat?” As Harsh asserts, “I would never let my wife wear a veil”, Lata smiles. Getting up to go milk the cows again, she says, “I see everything in colour… sometimes green, sometimes pink.”
But Lata knows one Neha or Harsh aren’t enough. “Hum kisi ki soch nahin badal sakte. Soch to logon ko khud badalni padegi. Ya koi aisa kaam karo jisse soch badal jaaye logon ki (We can’t change the thinking of people. They need to change it on their own. Or one accomplishes something that changes it for them).”