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I wondered how many hands the dupatta touched along the way, travelling across the country, meaning different things, empowerment to some but not others.
Start a social enterprise
Have otherwise formally unemployed women in Rajasthan make dupattas.
Have women in Rajasthan make dupattas,
count the sweat that falls from their chins, and add it to the GDP.
Count sweat by the sound it makes when hitting the ground
and memorise the taal before the dupattas sweep it up.
Dupattas will sell well in Delhi, in Hyderabad,
not so much in Bangalore.
Wash, iron, pack, ship.
Nevermind the remaining dabs of ghee, spots of haldi,
and hints from where the needle pricked
the otherwise formally unemployed woman in Rajasthan.
Sell dupattas to women in Hyderabad.
They will use them to wipe sweaty brows knitted against the sun
They will tie them over their heads
and then against their noses.
Sell dupattas that’ll keep away heat strokes and air peppered with cement
Sell dupattas that hold off sun and dust on one end and hold in sweat on the other
Sell dupattas to women in Hyderabad who will tie them pressed against their lips.
Only it will know when she smiles.
Sell dupattas to women who need to swear softly at cars, with loud horns and horned men
Sell dupattas to women who need shielding from drooling tongues between dripping fangs
Sell armour to women
and call it a ‘dupatta’.
Have formerly unemployed women in Rajasthan make armour and sell it to women in Hyderabad.
Sell armour to women and call it “regressive”.
Sweat from the woman who cut the cloth,
sweat from the woman who sewed the button,
sweat from the woman who closed the seam,
And sweat from the woman who tied the knot.
Sweat whispers to sweat.
Makes a thangka of sweaty stories.
Turns a dupatta into a tectonic plate of sweaty fight.
Start a social enterprise and when you’ve made a thousand cut, sewn, bought, tied,
retied, kissed, yanked, stained, sweaty dupattas, we’ll call it mahila vikaas.
Sadhna is a mutual benefit trust in Rajasthan. It was founded to provide gainful employment to rural women with sartorial skills. Today, it is a self-sustaining social enterprise that employs 714 women artisans and supplies to the likes of FabIndia.
I had the opportunity to visit the Sadhna office in Udaipur. Sitting among piles of brightly-dyed kurtis, I watched as the artisans sort sizes and calculate accounts. They showed me their different stitches and the many pieces they’d each worked on. And spoke of the value chain in a matter-of-fact way, never once with the hint of charity that colours many other social initiatives.
At one point, the store manager said, “There is a huge market for dupattas in Hyderabad and Delhi. But we don’t sell them in Bangalore; no demand there.” I remember leaving the office feeling a mix of awe and relief. This was a collective of empowered women. Every product in the room symbolised to me the potential in the intersection of business and development.
Next, I went to Hyderabad, dizzy with excitement to begin this new journey of working as a fellow. On my first day in the city, the roads knocked the Mumbai right out of me. Men stare at women in public. This bit is universal.
In Mumbai, I would stare back. At some point, they would look away. Sometimes after too long, but eventually shame would take over as it should. But in Hyderabad, I found that staring came with less innocuous honks and shouts, sly grins and lewd gestures. Staring back was useless.
Soon enough, I started wearing a dupatta across my face. And I became one among other anonymous women on Hyderabad’s streets. I’ve kept the dupatta on my face. And I still turn my head away from prying eyes but so far, no more cars have circled around my bike to gesture obscenities.
Today, riding home from work with a dupatta around my face, I was reminded of the dupattas in the hands of Sadhna’s artisans. I wondered how many women’s hands a single dupatta must’ve touched. How it traveled from one end of the country to the other, meaning different things along the way — empowerment to some, not to others.
In the long-run, the only way to curb threats to women in public is to normalise women in public. By covering my face, I am complicit in a culture where the female body in public is the centre of an unusual sort of interest. And that’s a conscious decision I’m making.
I am trading the opportunity to be part of incremental change for the personal ease that comes from not having my face open for public scrutiny. Clearly, I have sold out long-term feminist progress. And yet, on some short-term level, covering up has come to take a feminist twist (at least in my head)
The male gaze does as it pleases, takes what it pleases. It lays claim on my body in public, staring, dissecting, turning me into a spectacle for as long as it wants. When I cover my face, it’s as if I reclaim my right not to be turned into a spectacle.
As if to say, “Watch as I exist here without giving you the satisfaction of owning me. And Watch me participate in public and not become landscape.”
I am aware this is quite a twisting of symbolism. This explanation could well just be my conscience trying to make peace with veiling myself. I could lay out every counter-argument to this interpretation myself. And yet, when I cover, I am emboldened. Not just less threatened, but actively emboldened. And I guess – in a short-term sense – this is my empowerment.
A version of this was earlier published here.
Picture credits: Still from Bollywood movie Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi
About the author: A.Ashni is an India Fellow, placed with Nayi Disha in Hyderabad, Telangana as a part of her fellowship. She was supporting the caregivers of individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDDs) by providing them with necessary information to navigate the disability puzzle. In leisure time, Ashni likes to involve herself with Dance and Poetry.
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