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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)

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