Ghoonghat – a choice or a sign of oppression

According to a Pew survey, 61% of Indian Women cover their heads. And these includes the ghoonghat worn by the women of some areas of North India. Since the Hijab controversy of Karnataka is going on, let us explore the logistics of another head covering – the ghoonghat.

A ghoonghat is a head covering or headscarf, worn primarily in the Indian subcontinent, by some married Hindu, Jain, and Sikh women to cover their heads, and often their faces.

According to history this practice likely originated after the fall of the Mauryan empire. Back then it was only royal married women who wore the ghoonghat or Avagunthana. There has been mention of these in Ramayana. However, the widespread use of ghoonghat came with the invasion of the Mughals and the British in India. It is also believed that the face-veiling came along with the invasion of Mughals as a counterpart of the purdah system by Muslims.

Today, facial veiling by Hindu women is now mostly limited to the Hindi Belt region of India, particularly Haryana, Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and some parts of Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan. And many women have quitted from this tradition, yet many others still cover their heads, and some still cover their entire face with the end of their saree or with a headscarf.

Even today, this system exists in the belief that hiding their face will protect the honor of a woman. This veil system has nothing to do with religion and has more to do with the culture and traditions of a group of people. And hence this system can be questioned by us with a much less risk factor than that of hijab. Of course, we can still argue that ghoonghat is also a personal choice by a woman. However, mostly in these areas, the women are given no choice but to abide by the social norm and cultural law. In this type of situation, we cannot exactly say that it is their choice.

Ghoonghat is often romanticized in popular media and music. In popular Hindi serials, women are often seen promoting the head covering ghoonghat. This can be considered as depicting the reality of a situation, however since this tradition is not once questioned in any of the serials, it could also be referred to as promoting the system without an opinion of their own.

Ghoonghat is indeed a sign of oppression towards women, especially the face-covering type. The reason for this is logicless and absurd, like the honor of the woman would be at risk if another man who is not her husband sees her face. This is similar to that of the reason behind the purdah system of Muslim women and hence we can trace the origin of head covering ghoonghat.

The honor of a woman should not be attached to people seeing her face or hair. In fact, the ‘honor’ of a woman should not be such a matter of life and death for any culture. Women should have the freedom to wear whatever they want. And since there is no religious significance to ghoonghat there is no significant reason for a woman to choose to wear the ghoonghat if she is given the freedom to not wear one. And if respecting culture means stripping women of their agency and further enabling patriarchy, then we are not on board with it.




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