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Freedom Behind A Veil

Posted: July 21, 2014

Young women in small towns and cities are opting to wear veils even without a religious mandate. Here is an exploration of this puzzling phenomenon.

In several cities of India that lie outside the metropolitan circuit, young women in their late teens or early twenties can be spotted in denims, kurtas, and a dupatta fashioned skillfully around their heads, covering their entire face except their eyes. What appears quite close to the Islamic niqab at first glance does not have any relation to the religion here, as it is often sported by women who are not Muslims.

While the rain peppered summer heat may be a reason for wearing veils, a number of women are favoring the attire to seek little freedoms under the cloak of anonymity. In one such city – Patna, where malls, multiplexes and international fast food chains are rapidly taking over the erstwhile dilapidated little shops, women from families that frown upon dating can be spotted strolling with young men, their fingers entwined.

They sit on public benches with their boyfriends, tentatively reaching out for a hug. In quiet corners of the public parks, some can be seen with their arms around another woman wearing a similar veil. With their faces hidden in order to avoid being recognized by members of their extended families and mohallawallahs,  joys and bonds of youthful romance are being actively sought.

Such self styled veils worn by young women are a symbol of the simmering contradiction between the lifestyle that youngsters seek and the restrictions placed upon them by conservative families. The open display of affection in public spaces stands in ironical contrast with the fear that forces them to cover their faces.

Unsurprisingly, the young boys seen with the veiled women are not living under any similar fears and walk around with blushing smiles on their faces.

In smaller towns and cities, it is easy to bump into scandalmongers who may have some acquaintance with the woman’s family. If found out by their families, the women fear that besides being shamed, the little liberties that they enjoy such as being allowed to zip around the city on their faithful Scooty will be curtailed. Unsurprisingly, the young boys seen with the veiled women are not living under any similar fears and walk around with blushing smiles on their faces.

The discomfort of these women is hard to miss as they glance around repeatedly to ensure that no one is giving them disapproving looks. The yearning for privacy is visible in the stealthy little hugs of such couples. Perhaps the young women would have met their romantic partners in the privacy and comfort of their homes if their families could understand and accept their very human curiosities and desires. But it is the streets where they feel safe and free enough to express themselves, while their own homes and families pose dangers.

While the fear of being discovered by their families forces them behind veils, it fails to stop them from exploring their romantic and sexual desires.

Even though many of these women are college students or have jobs, their education or financial independence is insufficient in instilling the courage to openly express their views on dating, sex, and relationships prior to marriage. While the fear of being discovered by their families forces them behind veils, it fails to stop them from exploring their romantic and sexual desires. The rationale behind the restrictions which families place on young women in an attempt to mold them according to social norms is as thin as the dupatta that hides their identity in public.

Social barriers to education and jobs have disintegrated significantly, but the personal lives of women continue to be regarded as the repository of the imagined honor of  families. Such sights are less common in metros and student populated neighborhoods in smaller cities where young couples are a lot more fearless and in command of their personal lives. In the absence of a well organized women’s movement in the country at the moment, it may take these women a long time to develop the assertive rebelliousness required to discard the hypocritical veils of propriety forced upon them.

Pic credit: anantns (Used under a CC credit)

What is Domestic Violence & How to report domestic Violence - घरेलु हिंसा से बचाव (in Hindi)



  1. Hi Ruhi,
    It is really good to see young women coming up with such hypocritical issues prevalent in society. I really appreciate you for your astute observation that the girl was very conscious whereas the boys are ‘bindaas’. Yep, it is very true, that many parents in their enthusiasm to maintain ‘sanskar’ put the onus of safeguarding the same on the women’s shoulders. So boys need not worry about ‘sanskar?
    It is high time parents stop treating children as male and female, and just instil in them BOTH, the sense of responsibility which comes along with freedom. Both the boy and the girl should be taught that, being trustworthy and faithful in relationship, be the criteria for continuing a long term relationship, and not sex. Also they should be taught that sex is not a factor for experimenting their love. It is just ONE aspect of the bonding. It is not a question of sex before or after marriage. We have observed that, unwanted pregnancies and children born out of it, are abandoned by both the boy and the girl, and the child may later become criminals. Hence irresponsible behaviour of 2 persons affects a third person and the rest in the society. Responsibility from both man and woman is imperative within the wed lock too. There are several families where a father has abandoned the children, whereas there are very few cases of mothers doing the same. The question our collective conscience should ask is, ‘is not the father equally responsible for the children?’ Why are the parents of sons missing to instil this value in them, when they are able to feed them repeatedly with the message that the son should take care of them in their old age.

    • Hi,
      Thank you for the insightful comment. Yes, it is indeed high time that we took upon the responsibility to educate young men and women about the nuances of relationships without moralizing, and enable them to grow into mature and responsible adults.

  2. There is another aspect to this. Are parents even willing to listen to their girl-children and respect their choice of partner. In spite of financial independence, a girl must give in to her parents’ wishes and accept a life-partner whom she hardly finds compatible. Or else, risk being branded a rebel.

    Moreover, even is she manages to rebel and ends up marrying the partner of her choice, she runs the risk of being cut off from her family and parents forever. Most would not like that to happen!

    • Hi,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, change is never easy, particularly in a restrictive cultural context like ours. Yet, with some courage and conviction, it can be made possible. I do like to believe that the present generation will be somewhat more liberal with their future children than their parents are with them. We are standing at crossroads where we have the power to change the future for better, or perpetuate the same old. Tough decisions and some struggles are inevitable.

    • Hi Rina,
      What you say is very true in the case of mature young women, where the parents are restrictive. But what about those girls who are not quite mature to understand the implications of a wrong choice? The parents actually had started earlier using the threat of disowning, to see if it would deter their girls in choosing a wrong person. Their concern is genuine, but the strategy is wrong. They can do a back ground search on the boy if he will really be able to be a good life partner for this girl. Instead of ostracising, they can prove the girl, that the boy is not having a genuine love if he does not have. If he is from a family whose value system is strong and he has true love for this girl, then they should give the green signal and support her; if at all she still has problems after her marriage, they should try to help her, instead of accusing her of her choice.
      On the other side, there are also boys’ parents, who deliberately try to create problems for the couple, if the son has married against their wishes. Boys’ parents always think that the boys are theirs and fail to separate themselves from the sons after the marriage, which does not allow him to have a healthy bonding with the wife.

      Parents of both boys and girls should teach them the responsibility in encouraging and maintaining a relationship and being faithful to the same. In many places it becomes a problem only when the men feel that the women ‘want’ marriage and they are not in need of the same. it may be vice versa in a few cases too.

      POINT IS: If a person is committed to some relationship, then they should stay committed to it. If faith and commitment is taught to all, then half the problem is solved.

  3. You know sometimes it is also to hide yourself from obscene looks of men. I tie it, because i feel safer.

  4. There are days when I wish I could cover my face too, just to avoid the stares. Haven’t yet got enough confidence to attempt it, but if I do, it might just be liberating!

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