Rasheeda Bhagat

The India behind the ghunghat

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on October 02, 2012

It is clear that women in Rajasthan are donning the ghunghat at the behest of men. - Photo: Rasheeda Bhagat   -  Business Line

Even while making a valuable contribution to the family kitty, and without smoking or drinking away a chunk of this income, rural women continue to play second fiddle to men.

The more I see and interact with women in rural India, the deeper is my respect for them. These women have always played a big role in rural livelihoods, but invariably that role — back-breaking work in transplanting saplings, de-weeding or plucking leaves in tea estates — has not got them the recognition they deserve.

Till some unscrupulous elements from the world of politics and corporatedom planted a huge bubble in the microfinance movement, lakhs of women in rural India, through their involvement in self-help groups, were ushering in a quiet and confident change in their homes. Even now — after removing duplication and spurious operations from this segment — microfinance continues to open income avenues to rural women, saving them from the clutches of the village moneylenders.

Rajasthani women

But what is astonishing is that even while making a valuable contribution to the family kitty, and without smoking or drinking away a chunk of this income, rural women continue to play second fiddle to the men.

This was reinforced rather painfully last week, while visiting a group of villages in the Bharatpur belt of Rajasthan. While taking a look at the work done by the pharma major Lupin’s rural development initiative — Lupin Human Welfare and Research Foundation — in village after village, in Kisan Kendras and elsewhere, I met groups of women, only to find all of them covering their faces in ghunghat, that is traditional here.

This was irksome on two counts. First of all, covering your face with the pallu of your polyester sari — the beautiful traditional cotton saris have virtually disappeared from most parts of rural India — in the blistering summer of Rajasthan is punishment in itself. Though the worst of summer is behind them, in the absence of monsoon rains, the days continue to be rather hot here.

Secondly, it is clear that the women are donning the ghunghat at the behest of the men. Just as most Muslim women wear purdah not out of personal choice, but because their elders, mainly male, want them to do so.

In these villages, when the men were not around, the women removed their ghunghat without much fuss. But what was most irritating was to suffer lectures on Indian sanskriti by a couple of men plonked comfortably on chairs overlooking a group of women working strenuously to cut up dried tulasi stems into minute pieces, which then went into making malas.

Tulasi mala-making

The village I visited was Khediya Purohit, about 32 km from Bharatpur city, that can be approached by a terrible road. Here, a group of women, who also belong to a self-help group, had assembled and were making their malas with fine tulasi beads. All the 12 women had huge ghunghats drawn over their faces and, as I watched them chop the tulasi stems into tiny pieces on the machines specially made for this purpose, I was petrified they would cut, if not chop off, an entire finger.

A casual comment that they should pull up their ghunghats to see better, got smiles from the women. But Ramesh Chandra, a farmer and some kind of a village busybody, promptly broke into a long speech on how this was part of sadiyo ke reet-riwaz (centuries-old norms) and no woman could, or should, flout such rules. The women continued to giggle, as he next gave me a lecture on how “ Tulasi mei Bhagwan basey hei” (God resides in tulasi), etc.

Later, when the men were persuaded to leave the place — but not before a middle-aged woman suddenly sprang up to do a sprightly dance with her ghunghat on to prove that, forget working, they could also dance with their ghunghats – the women removed their ghunghats.

Almost all of them had come for this “important meeting” wearing cosmetics, including lipstick and nail polish! It was great to know that the income they were making from their microfinance ventures as well as tulasi malas had given them the freedom to indulge themselves thus!

Kamala, the group leader, said the income from this activity varied widely; two kg of tulasi stems cost them Rs 60 and this could be converted into malas worth nearly Rs 300. “Normally this is not our main activity… the machine costs about Rs 1,200 and is very tiny; so, we keep it in our homes. Whenever we have phursat (leisure) or extra time we take up this work,” she said. The entire consignment is gobbled up in the nearby temple city of Mathura, where there is always demand for tulasi malas.


From this activity, a woman can easily get an extra monthly income of Rs 3,000-4,000. But the crucial factor here is that this is only an additional income-generating activity for most of these women.

Casually they say that they take this up only during their “ fursat ke samay” (free time). But for rural women whose day begins, in many cases, at 5 a.m, if not 4, and who have to clean the house, cook the food, fetch the water as well as fodder for the cattle, look after the children, help in the fields, where “ fursat” comes from, no urban woman can even contemplate.

In another village I met one such superwoman. Sunita, who heads an SHG, says she can be “30, 35 or 38, what does it matter?”

She has five children, three of them girls with the eldest being 18; all of them cycle their way to the private school, which is 8 km away in Bharatpur.

The family has five cows which she milks — on a good day, she can get 50 litres of milk — and along with her husband wades daily through chest-deep water of the Chiksana canal, which supplies water to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary, to fetch fodder for the cows.

Her day begins at 4 a.m and ends at 10 or 11 p.m. She doesn’t allow her daughters to attend to housework and is not contemplating marriage even for her 18-year-old — pehley padh-likhkey kuch bun jawe, Madam (let her study and become something) —, manages her own bank account which now has Rs 27,000.

The best thing about Sunita is that she wears all her responsibilities lightly. Dressed impeccably in a bright orange sari, when the men leave, she removes her ghunghat to reveal a glowing complexion; she is wearing both lipstick and nail polish, her laughter is hearty and her sense of humour impeccable. But more about all that, elsewhere in these columns.

Responses to >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in, >rasheeda.bhagat@thehindu.co.in

Published on October 01, 2012

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