Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Veil as Ghunghat & Purdah - a Hindu & Muslim dress


Ghoonghat or Ghunghat is a Hindi word which describes a type of veil or headscarf worn by Indian women to cover their head. The Sari grew in length with one end used to cover the bosom, the head and the face. This allowed women to work in the fields beside men or even ride a horse like men. Traditionally, in some parts of India, women are supposed to have a Ghoonghat in front of the family elders and men, except husbands and close family members. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghoonghat
Sushila Singh, a professor at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India, explains the Urdu language terms of purdah as well as hijab:  “Hijab may be understood as the dignity of woman.  Purdah is practiced to protect the dignity of woman” (Singh NP).  Although the behavioral rules of purdah are complex and depend upon the particular context and region, purdah is generally a cultural practice that confines women within the four walls of their homes.  If they must leave the house, they are required to observe purdah by wearing ‘burqua’ – a dress that covers Islamic women from head to toe.  Muslims practice this particular form of purdah, while Hindu women do not

In fact, purdah originated in the culture of Islam and is an alien phenomenon to Hindu women (Singh NP).  Singh explains, “In the mythic past of Hindu culture, all women figures as exemplified by different goddess statues are bare-headed and their faces are never veiled” (Singh NP).  However, with the Muslim invasions came the purdah system for Hindu women to practice.  Although this system was established for the protection of Hindu women just as it protects Islamic women, this purdah took a different form.  “Veiling one’s face, or “ghoonghat,” came into practice” (Singh NP). 

Through the ritual of “ghoonghat,” Hindu and Islamic women are forced to communicate with “outsiders” from behind a screen.  According to Singh, “other than the husband and children, all are outsiders – including the other family members” (Singh NP).


Unlike Muslim and Christian traditions veil has very recent history in Hindu culture and society.  
According  to  the  German  scholar  Albrecht Weber Indian literature is one of the oldest literatures in the world but the Vedic or pre-Vedic period has no record of veil or “ghunghat” (the word used for veil in Hindi). The  veil  appears  for  the  first  time  in  16th  century  literature  written  in  Hindi language. Weber’s  observation  supports  my  argument  that  veil  in  Indian subcontinent was introduced only after Muslim invasions. 

A famous incidence in history  of  Rajasthan  can  be  seen  as  an  evidence  of  how  veil  started in  Indian subcontinent. In fourteenth century one of the Muslim invaders Alahuddin Khilji visits a Rajput King Rana Ratansen of Chittor Garha. The female quarter of the palace, though  distant,  was  just  opposite  the  quarter  where  the  sultan  was installed.  A  small lake  divided  his  abode  and  the  Rani’s  palace.  By  chance  he sees the Rani Padmini’s uncovered face in the lake water and falls in love with her.  He  plans  to  win  her  and  returns  back  to  attacks  Chittor Garh  to  steal  the queen but what he gets are the ashes of this beautiful queen who decides to die then to submit to his lust. As a consequence the women in Rajasthan started to cover their face to avoid attracting specifically the Muslim invaders.

Strong  evidence  in  favor  can  be  seen  by  the  absence  of  veil  among women  in  Southern  India  where  there is  no  insistence  on  head  cover  or  other such practices neither in public nor in private places. In contrast, in most northern states, the women are forced to cover their faces both in public and in privacy of their houses. 

Veil transforms as an imposed identity  specifically for the married woman. In most families she is not only  supposed to  cover her face but is also prohibited to talk  even to  her  son in law  (who is  normally of  her own  children’s age). With time women have learned to use the veil as an instrument to enhance their beauty and what has been the means of silencing them seems became the aspect of attraction. A woman in veil generates much more curiosity than the one with uncover face as it sexualizes her more.

The  absence  of  Veil  in  Sanskrit,  Prakrat  or  Apbhransh  literature  shows that  the  use  of  veil  in  India  is  neither  religious  nor  cultural.  In  contrast  to  the Classic  Sanskrit  Literature  the  sixteenth  century  Hindi  Literature is full of portrayals that shed light on the use of veil in medieval period in India. The period is known for two mainstream literatures. The one called the RitiKal (which comes close to the courtly poetry in English) offers images of veil in more sensual way and the other known as Bhaktikal that presents veil in a philosophic way.

Contrary  to  the  sexualizing  of  veil/  gunghat  by  Ritikalin poets  the Bhaktikalin poet uses it in philosophic way and the veil emerges as the requisite mediating  object  between the  physical  and  spiritual  worlds.

The famous Sufi poet Malik Mohammed Joyce in his epic Padmavat use it in a metaphoric way. Following the Sufi tradition he does not see veil as an instrument for enhancing female beauty but as a barrier between the soul (which is always feminine contrary to the Sanskrit tradition where it is masculine) and the God; the ignorance and the knowledge. In 15th and 16th century Hindi literature such use of veil was quite common among most poets of Bhakti Movement.

Another very well known Bhakti poet, Kabir Dasa, writes his poems in a form known in Indian poetics as “dohas”. He follows Jayce and in his very famous doha “Ghunghat ke pat khol re tohe piya milenge” uses the veil/ghunghat as a symbol of ignorance. In this famous doha Kabir asks one to uncover/the veil of ignorance and assures that by doing so he/ she will meet his dear.

Concluding the debate I feel that the imposition of veil on Hindu woman (specifically on the women of North India) comes as a defense mechanism against the Muslim invaders but the society ended up adopting this and even forcing the women to wear a veil even when there are no invaders. Christian woman, except the nuns, are free from imposition. Whereas the situation of Muslim women is becoming more problematic as on one hand it is the natural desire to be free from this imposed identity but on other hand it is the question of one’s cultural identity. In current politicized atmosphere it is hard to say how many Muslim women will openly admit that veil is a religious, cultural and social imposition. 

The political enforcement by some European countries has got severe reaction. More Muslim women are trying to defy the law and are appearing in public with their headgear. The specific identity of a nun in Christianity is her dress that covers her head and body but she never became the target of such polemic discussion.


The same law makers in European country who are fighting against the use of veil by Muslim woman never raised their voice or tried to strip of a nun of this specific identity. The veil has been used by the women of Muslim origin for centuries in such a way that it has become their only identity which I feel even they are scared to strip off.

It is the use of psychology of fear that helps in the religious imposition of veil and makes her see unveiling as an act of disrespect. It seems that by politicizing the veil on the pretext of democracy  and equa  rights the Western law  makers are trying to remove this fear but on the contrary they are depriving a woman of her right and her freedom. She should be given the freedom to decide and chose her dress. Sudha Swarnakar: http://www.abraec.org/coniec/pdf2/6.pdf

5 comments:

Pious said...

"many Muslim women will openly admit that veil is a religious, cultural and social imposition..." This article is contradictory in itself as it just uses ample evidence to prove that the ghunghat is not a natural thing in India, but rather... a result of the muslim inviasion, concluding with a completely different conclusion, which is that muslim women are using the veil as a form of social identity. It's not the strongest article as it does not directly use evidence to cite the political and identical issues that come with the veil. Mostra tutto

Anonymous said...

Ghoonghat is not neccessary however woman who do observe it definately looks beautiful & enhances the rich culture of indian society

Larry said...

When I was a kid, most women wore veils in church (or the pallu of the sari). This practice gradually evaporated. But even today women
in Western countries agonize over it's use in church esp. for special events like weddings.

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