A village community leader in Hissar district in the northern state of Haryana. Photo: AFP/ Sajjad Hussain

Women in India’s Haryana state have been making great strides in sports, cinema, science and other fields for many years, but it took Manushi Chhillar’s Miss World win for the state’s most regressive caste groups to decide it was high time for a change.

For years, Haryana’s villagers have lived under two sets of laws – those of the government and another imposed by unelected but powerful men in community organizations known as khaps. These community groups comprise elderly men who set the rules for their villages, and after years of imposing controversial orders, they are now starting to give women their long-due freedom, dignity and respect.

Soon after 20-year-old Chhillar won the beauty pageant, the Chhillar-Chhikara community organization made up of 11 villages in Haryana and Delhi banned celebratory gunfire — a status symbol in the male-dominated society — and loud DJ music at weddings.

Now, one of Haryana’s biggest and most influential clan-based administration organizations has decided to do away with the veils married women used to cover their faces, a long-running symbol of women’s oppression.

Ironically, only eight months ago a Haryana government magazine described the ghoonghat, or veil, as the “identity” of the state. The March 2017 issue of Krishi Samvad, a supplement of the government’s monthly Haryana Samvad magazine, published a photograph of a veiled woman with the caption Ghoonghat ki aan-baan, mahra Haryana ki pehchan, or the pride of the veil is the identity of my Haryana. This triggered outrage from social organizations and the opposition, which said it reflected the “regressive” mindset of the BJP government.

A watershed moment

Ignoring this misplaced sense of pride, on Feb. 9 another community organization cast aside the veil and decided to shun the age-old tradition. This watershed move empowering women in the state was part of a six-point resolution, which also included bans on female foeticide, the celebratory firing of rifles at weddings, marriages during the day, the dowry and other things.

The resolution was a turning point as it was passed on the birthday of the organization’s ancestral leader Dada Ghasi Ram Malik and in the presence of dignitaries like Bihar governor Satyapal Singh Malik, Union steel minister Birender Singh and Haryana agriculture minister Om Prakash Dhankar.

Baljeet Singh Malik, the chief of the organization and the grandson of its founder Dada Ghasi Ram Malik, said the decision was long overdue on their part and aimed at bringing their society into the modern world, which meant women having an equal status with men. “The society that resists change gets lost in the past, however strong or large it may be. Our girls are becoming IAS/IPS officers, doctors, engineers, bagging medals in the Olympics. Would this have been possible if they had remained under the veil?” asked the 66-year-old.

He said committees had been formed to hold meetings with other community organizations and impress upon them the importance of this decision. “If people are okay with daughters not wearing veils in their paternal houses, then they shouldn’t have a problem with daughters-in-law not wearing veils either,” he said.

Wrestling with the changes

Santosh Dahiya, the women’s wing president of the Sarv Jatiye Sarv Khap Mahapanchayat, another community organization, said the veil was not traditionally part of Haryana’s culture. “The practice was started here only after foreign invasions to protect women from the invaders. Like in the south, there was no purdah system here,” she said.

Haryana woman Geeta Phogat, a freestyle wrestler who won India’s first gold medal in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, was happy that the winds of change have started blowing in her home state. “I come from a nondescript village in Haryana’s Charkhi Dadri district where the women, most of whom help the male members of their families in agricultural fields, have to sport a veil round the clock.

“Their life is already tough and the veil makes it worse,” said Phogat, the brand ambassador of the government’s Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao campaign, a government initiative which aims to generate awareness and improve the efficiency of welfare services intended for girls. Phogat said it would be an honor for her to support the local community organization in motivating women to shun the veil without any fear and contribute to the nation and the state’s progress.

Sunil Jaglan, who initiated the Selfie With Daughter campaign, welcomed the landmark decision. Jaglan said the veil would have been ditched centuries ago had it been forced on men, but women have been bearing its burden.

Praising the initiative, community leader Poonam Boora said women should have been freed from the veil ages ago. “My father-in-law Chaudhary Om Prakash Boora discarded the veil for his five daughters-in-law at a time when Haryana was not even formed as a separate state. He encouraged us so much that all five of us did our high studies and became successful in our own fields,” said Poonam, who has a PhD in Hindi.

She said that at community organization meeting in Boora she planned to propose women be liberated from the veil.

There could not be more welcome news for the women of Haryana.

(Sat Singh is a Rohtak-​​based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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