If women bodies are the epitome of liberation for the fairer sex, in many villages and hamlets of Haryana, women are increasingly shunning ghunghat (veil) and leading an example.
Sushma Bhadu of Dhani Miyan Khan village in Fatehabad district not only fought to swagger among bête noires, but also took a pop at the centuries-old cultural tradition that dictates she be covered with a ghunghat in public places.
A state where khap panchayats have a final say on almost all issues and a district that is considered to be one of the most backward ones, the task required extraordinary courage.
“With the backing of my mother-in-law and husband, I went against the grain and lifted my ghunghat amid 2,000 people from 25 neighbouring villages on June 22, 2012,” Sushma said.
“Initially, I was a tad apprehensive of my wife's step as all women in the village followed the custom. But the day she discussed things with me openly, I decided to stand by her and trigger a social change. Now, when I see 98% of women here without a veil, I also spot a sense of equality in men's eyes for their partners,” said Sushma's 35-year-old husband Bhagwan Das.
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Elected sarpanch of three villages - Salam Khera, Chablamori and Dhani Miyan Khan - on June 12, 2010, this 30-year-old mother of three had been telling her husband since long that the piece of fabric had nothing to do with respect.
“Izzat to dil se hoti hai, muh chupaane se nahi (respect comes from the heart, not by hiding faces),” she said.
Nurtured in an atmosphere away from such “hollow traditions” at Chikanwas village of Hisar, she complained of failing to understand the logic behind covering one's face and exhorted women of her village to shun the practice. This included convincing her 70-year-old mother-in-law.
“Meri bahu ne bahut achcha kaam karyo. Main iske saath hun (My daughter-in-law has done a great job. I stand by her),” said Ram Kumari, Sushma's mother-in-law.
“All men who force their wives behind purdah should also wear the veil,” chipped in Sushma's supporter Sopat Singh, 35. Challenging the patriarchal set-up and urging women not to shy away from “showing their face to the world”, Sushma aims at eradicating female foeticide, dowry menace, illiteracy and alcoholism from her tiny hamlet.
And, the district is already showing signs of improvement in terms of literacy rate, which stands at 69.10% in the 2011 census against 58% in 2001. The sex ratio stands at 903 per 1,000 men in 2011 census as against 884 in 2001.
Defying the trend in the state, Dhani Miyan Khan has a zero dropout rate at the village's only school. A Class-7 dropout, Sushma got the school upgraded to Class 8 in August and makes sure that every child in the village attends school. She even chased Rs. 10-lakh grant to build a sewing training centre last year and 15 girls had availed of the benefits over the past six months. Taking a cue from Sushma, 30-year-old Kamla Devi, an anganwadi worker, not only gave up the ghunghat but also married off her two sons without taking dowry.
Shaking hands with women and folding them in front of men, the unveiled sarpanch has no objection to her daughters wearing western outfits, which she admits she is also fond of.
Kaithal joins in too
Following suit but unaware of the initiative taken by Sushma Bhadu in Fatehabad, Seema Devi, the sarpanch of Chausala village in Kaithal district, also cast aside the customary piece of cloth on October 5, 2012.
Crediting deputy commissioner Chander Shekhar as the sinew of her step, she realised that a ghunghat was a fetter to shackle a woman's body and mind. “Jo hum dekh nahi paayenge, wo kabhi samajh nahi paayenge (Things we won't see will never be clear to us),” she said.
To instill confidence in those still “wailing behind the veil”, she organises skits and traditional raagini.
“Initially, people of the area were shocked when my wife decided to step out of the ghunghat. Now, a majority of them support her. There are some women, particularly the elderly, who find comfort in the tradition. It has become a habit for them. But now they have a choice,” said Baldev Singh, Seema's husband.
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