‘Women no longer need to wear the veil,’ says Haryana khap leader
Every year this Haryana Khap leader convenes a gathering across thousand of villages to spread the message that women deserve their freedom and liberty.Updated: Jan 15, 2019 10:57 IST
I grew up surrounded by women who always had their faces covered in a ghunghat (veil). The ones who didn’t were looked down upon by the villagers. “She has no shame or dignity,” elders would say about these women. Their family members were ridiculed . “Look, your daughter-in-law steps out of the house without any purdah. Please put your house in order,” people would say.
The scales were tilted in favour of men. Women’s education wasn’t deemed important, and they had to spend their lives within the confines of their homes. The veil, too, gained acceptability.
The ghunghat has for long been a part of Haryana’s cultural landscape. Covering one’s face is seen as a mark of respect for elders, and women who follow the practice are thought to be dutiful and responsible. With time, society has changed and so have the notions of honour and respect. Today, women are breaking these shackles. Doesn’t it then make sense for us to ensure that more women get the courage to step out of the confines of their homes? How can we possibly expect women to break the glass ceiling if they remain bound in tradition? The answers to these questions lie in empowering women.
Khap panchayats have a social standing in Haryana and are important pillars of its society. Over the years, some of them have been associated with a few decisions that have received public flak. As the leader of the largest khap in Haryana, I realised that we had to convey a progressive message to people and make them aware of the changes that the country is witnessing. I understood that holistic development couldn’t take place by confining our women behind the veil. I decided to start a conversation around this issue.
Every year, on February 19, I convene a gathering of the roughly 1,440 villages that fall under my khap across Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The purpose of this annual gathering is to propose and implement measures that can eradicate many social evils. In previous years, we have raised our voice against practices like female foeticide and dowry. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign is also an important focus area for our khap. While adopting these new ideas, I also felt the need to do away with some archaic notions that were holding back women. After all, it would be hypocritical if we spoke about educating girls on the one hand, and encouraged stifling practices like the veil on the other.
This year, I declared that women no longer needed to cover their faces with the veil. Spurn the veil, I told the gathering. The decision was unprecedented, but I knew that it had to be taken. I sought the approval of those who had gathered for the meeting and they nodded in agreement. “We should implement the decision in all villages,” I declared, and requested people to create awareness about the decision in their respective villages. I told them that women deserved liberty and freedom to make their own choices, and it was important for the khap to stamp its approval on the changes that society was witnessing.
Through the medium of my khap, I decided to drive conversations around the social shackles that had, over the years, gained currency as acceptable practices. Committees were formed and dispatched to different villages to drive home the importance of the decision.
Over the past few months, women in at least 700-800 villages have spurned the veil. Women have approached me on the sidelines of social gatherings to thank me for the decision. Women in my family also celebrated this decision. My wife, until a few years back, used to cover her face with a veil while visiting the village. She no longer wears the veil, and neither does my daughter-in-law. I never insisted that my daughter-in-law cover her face with a veil. She is an educated woman, and makes her own choices. I believe that all girls should be educated and empowered so that they can grow up to become women who can take charge.
It is a change demanded by both time and necessity. Earlier, women would draw the veil reflexively, without anyone telling them. They would face shame and stigma for not doing so. They did not even dare enter the village chaupal, a space traditionally used by men for informal gatherings.
That has changed now. Now people appreciate women who have shed these inhibitions. “Look, how smart his or her daughter is,” they now say.
The veil is no longer a compulsion. It’s not binding on anyone. At the same time, I am mindful of the fact that one cannot force women out of the veil. Many older women or women who are not educated continue to wear the veil as a mark of respect for their elders. We can’t expect them to give up on an age-old practice.
Men should learn to accept women without veils. Those still resisting this should wear the veil to get a sense of the challenges faced by women.
I want to ask you all, why do we adopt different yardsticks for our daughter and daughter-in-law? The answer to all these questions lies in making sure that we walk the talk, and step forward to make the change. Society has progressed over the years, and one cannot continue to treat women as second-class citizens.
We should condemn hate crime and those who oppose inter-caste marriage. There is no honour in killing. No one deserves to be killed for one’s personal choices. Our khap encourages inter-caste marriage. Women are fewer in number in Haryana due to which men are left with no option but to bring brides from outside. Our Constitution doesn’t differentiate between men and women. They have equal rights.
Today, women have conquered different bastions. They are doctors, engineers, IAS, and IFS officers. Be it wrestling, kabbadi, Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games, women are breaking barriers everywhere. Women from Haryana are making their mark. Look at wrestler Sakshi Malik. Haryana’s daughter Kalpana Chawla even made it to space. Would this have been possible if they had remained behind the veil? Women need to be given equal opportunities. We, as a society, need to open our eyes and recognise the talent of women. No society can progress if its women don’t march ahead. Shunning the veil takes us a step closer to empowering women.
As told to Sadia Akhtar
(Baljit Singh Malik features in the documentary ‘SON RISE’ – a film by National Award winning filmmaker Vibha Bakshi)