They spent a lifetime behind the veil with even education and well-paying jobs failing to free them from the shackles of the ghunghat.
But on April 30, a group of women near Faridabad lifted their veil for the first time in public – they called it Independence Day – with a little help from a senior government official.
Eight women from a prominent family in Ballabgarh’s Mirzapur village – 40 kilometres from Delhi -- took the men in the household and the sarpanch into confidence before approaching the Faridabad district commissioner Chander Shekhar, in whose presence they took off their veil.
“I am happy after getting freedom from ghunghat”, said Manju, a law graduate who teaches in a private university.
“Though we had no restriction at home but when we went out, we had to go by tradition and keep ghunghat on our faces-- After April 30, I move without this veil.”
The ghunghat is part of the traditional attire in many Hindu families that proponents say protects the honour of the women of the household against outsiders. In spite of concerted efforts by activists and women’s groups over the years, the practice festers with even highly-educated professionals unable to escape.
The 45-year-old Nirmala wasn’t as educated as her daughter-in-law Manju but similarly spent her entire life in public behind the veil.
“We had discussed this issue with our husbands that something has to be done to free us from this Ghunghat, the young brides go out for jobs and it creates hurdles in normal life,” said Nirmala.
Nirmala’s husband was the one who approached Shekhar when the official was about to leave the village on April 30 after conducting a night camp to solve local issues
“I was reluctant as we had got tired attending to number of complaints but the villager pleaded again and again to come over to his house and I agreed,” Shekhar said.
The official was sitting in the courtyard when the group of women approached him and told him they had a problem only he could solve.
“The ladies urged me to lift the ghunghat and it surprised me, I could not understand how to deal with this demand,” Shekhar said.
“I asked the sarpanch and other male members of the family what they had to say.“
All present – including the men from the 44-member joint family – agreed that the veil was a bad practice and the women took over their ghunghat for the first time in public.
“I was happy that sarpanch Mahipal Arya and family members agreed that the ghunghat has to be lifted as it deprives women of freedom,” the official said.
Some village women said the programme should have been organized in public for wider benefit. “See how difficult it is—I cover one kilometer to feed buffaloes, and I walk on foot with face covered,” she said.
Arya assured them that the veil-lifting event will be organized on a larger scale.
“The entire village is happy after this sudden development. This incident has generated a positive feeling,” said Arya.
Another group of women had done a similar ghunghat lifting programme recently but it had little impact. Officials are hoping the April 30 event will generate more buzz as it involved a prominent family.