Lifting the Veil:  Women’s Rights in India

            Imagine being forbidden to walk through your own backyard unless you were masked and chaperoned by a male family member.  Having to hide behind high walls, curtains, and screens erected within your own home when certain guests arrived.  Draping squares of thick, wool fabric all over your body while having to endure tormenting heat.  Abiding by these draconian strictures – purdah – signifies a woman’s acceptance of a legal code that values her testimony at half the worth of a man’s and an inheritance system that allots her half the legacy of her brother.  She also must agree to a future domestic life in which she is beaten if she disobeys her husband, is forced to share his attentions with three more wives, can be divorced at whim and denied custody of her children.  Or imagine being a Hindu woman observing purdah in India, where men always announce their presence with a warning cough before entering a room in order for the woman to crouch on the floor, drawing her sari over her head.

            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).  Therefore, Dr. Aziz, the Islamic doctor of Forster’s A Passage to India, pays Cyril Fielding the highest praise an Indian man can give when he allows his British friend to see the photograph of his deceased wife.  Fielding, extremely flattered by Aziz’ compliment, admires the picture of “a woman in a sari, facing the world” (Forster 125).  Aziz explains this great confidence he has bestowed upon his friend, “All men are my brothers, and as soon as one behaves as such he may see my wife” (Forster 125).  Through defying the laws of purdah, Dr. Aziz honors his English friend by allowing an “outsider” to view his wife.

The rituals of purdah vary with differing religions, cultures, and locations.  Coralynn Davis, the Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at Bucknell University, is an expert on the cultural group known as the Maithils.  According to Davis, the Maithils still strongly observe purdah.  In the early years after marriage, Maithil women from high-class families are generally confined to their homes.  However, when they do venture outside, they must cover their heads and faces with their saris.  Most importantly, these young brides, similar to the Hindu bride of Varanasi pictured here, do not speak with or have contact with male strangers or men from their husband’s family or community who are considered superior to their husbands (Davis NP). 

Hindu Bride in Varanasi, India

Davis explains how “researchers often interpret the reason for this practice to be that it assures husbands and their families that the children born to these women are in fact the children of her husband” (Davis NP).  However, Maithil people consider this practice in relation to family honor.  “Families in which the in-married wives strictly practice purdah are said to be good families and therefore be in good standing in their communities” (Davis NP).  Consequently, Indian women must endure these customs and practices of purdah in order to preserve the tradition of family honor within their culture. 

The tradition of purdah is a paradox of a double standard.  Although remarriage for Islamic widows is prohibited, Islamic widowers may relieve long periods of sexual abstinence by visiting prostitutes in nearby towns.  Dr. Aziz of Forster’s A Passage to India expresses his yearning to “spend an evening with some girls, singing and all that, the vague jollity that would culminate in voluptuousness” (Forster 109).   Leigh Minturn proves this point in her account Sita’s Daughters: Coming Out of Purdah when she writes “the dichotomy between virtuous and immoral women is reflected in the behavior of Indian men towards any woman not observing traditional customs.  Because women are expected to be cloistered and veiled, and to travel only in the company of a male relative, men have no norms of restraint for women who do not observe these customs…Young men in their 20s behave like junior high school boys in showing off and teasing passing girls” (Minturn 78).  Therefore, women who do not veil themselves from head to toe are often pursued and hassled by young Indian men.  This harassment makes independent movement difficult for women, and is sufficient grounds for many families to keep their daughters from traveling without men, from shopping or attending a movie, or even keeping them out of high school or coeducational college (Minturn 78). 

However, it is the seclusion of women that makes them mysterious, and therefore more appealing, to men.  “Women generally know as much about men’s activities as they care to, and can peer out of windows in the walls at anything of interest in the street, but men cannot observe the women’s activities” (Minturn 78).  One man expressed this danger fostered by the seclusion of women by observing: “Purdah makes women more attractive.  Men have illicit relations through curiosity” (Minturn 78).  Therefore, purdah restrictions produce the paradox of all double standards for sexual activity: On one hand, women are harassed and vilified for not conforming to restrictive norms and, on the other hand, regarded as more attractive and more vulnerable to seduction by the seclusion that claims to protect them.  Geraldine Brooks develops this concept in Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women by explaining how “in both cases, women are expected to sacrifice their comfort and freedom to service the requirements of male sexuality: either to repress or to stimulate the male sex urge” (Brooks 24).

Also, family and tradition is such an important aspect of Indian culture in both the Islamic and Hindu religions that women are treated as receptacles to bear children.  Although Indians “recognize the pleasurable nature of sexual activity, they regard reproduction as the primary function of intercourse…One elderly woman attributed her reproductive success in having three sons and no daughters to the strict observance of sexual abstinence on inauspicious days when couples were not supposed to have intercourse” (Minturn 77).  Because the Indian culture considers males superior to females, bearing no daughters and only sons is deemed a reproductive “success.” 

In addition, sex is regarded as a necessary obligation for a woman to perform in order to complete her role in the family.  In Forster’s novel A Passage to India, Dr. Aziz, his distant aunt Hamidullah Begum, and Mahmoud Ali discuss a woman of imperial descent who had lived and would die unwed.  “The tragedy seemed a slur on the whole community; better polygamy almost, than that a woman should die without the joys God has intended her to receive.  Wedlock, motherhood…for what else is she born?” (Forster 11).  The woman’s position as child-bearer in the religion of Islam and Hinduism is arguably the most important role for a woman in American culture as well.  Even in modern society, women who never marry and bear no children are also frowned upon. 

Women are viewed not only as receptacles in which to bear children, but also as vehicles for men’s sexual desires.  In A Passage to India, Dr. Aziz reflects upon the death of his purdah-observing wife, who “had died soon after he had fallen in love with her; he had not loved her at first.  Touched by Western feeling, he disliked union with a woman who he had never seen; moreover, when he did see her, she disappointed him, and he begat his first child in mere animality” (Forster 57).  Although Aziz was not initially physically, mentally, or emotionally attracted to his wife, he engaged in sexual intercourse with her for the sake of their religious tradition and purpose.  The phrase “mere animality” suggests the formality and perfunctory of two mating animals as opposed to two humans making love.  Therefore, Aziz’ wife originally served as his sexual tool; he did not come to love and respect her until much later in their relationship. 

            Such examples of the oppression of women in both the religion of Islam and of Hinduism, demonstrate the image of male dominance and female subservience.  Americans, especially feminists, have exaggerated the inferiority of women in particular Middle Eastern religions.  Feminists feel that their fight towards gender equality is universal and should include women all over the world; yet during this search for parity, Americans have stereotyped both Islam and Hinduism as oppressive to women.  Although both these religions may very well be discriminatory towards females, American culture also holds many values and beliefs derogatory towards women.  So before America can claim that the customs of Hindus and Muslims treat women irrationally, America must first examine its own traditions.  The severe strictures of purdah in Islam and Hinduism parallel the often-disparaging treatment of women in America.

For instance, the double standard of purdah reminds me of a common double standard that women are held to in American society today: the “Whore-Virgin Complex.”  This theory is based on the impossible sexual desire of many American men: a woman who can implement even his most erotic desires, but also a woman who is respectable and not promiscuous; or, as the name suggests, a woman who is a “whore” and a “virgin” simultaneously.  Women are held to such double standards all over the world.  Therefore, religions such as Hinduism and Islam are not the only cultures guilty of the oppression of women.  Other societies, including American culture, need to stop viewing women as receptacles to bear children and meet men’s sexual desires, for only then will women be equal. 

            India today is an extremely complex place for women of all ages.  According to Coralynn Davis, Indian women must experience a range of expectations regarding appropriate behavior, appropriate dress, and appropriate roles as daughters, wives, mothers, mothers-in-law, daughters-in-law, etc.  Some of these women hold professional positions, some are involved in creating social change, and some are entrepreneurs.  Indian women “have won many rights over the past one hundred years.  Laws have changed, however, more quickly than people’s actual behavior.  Some women are not aware of their rights and even if aware, do not have the resources or support to assert those rights” (Davis NP).  Indian women, like American women, have achieved equality through the legal system, but are still striving to force society’s acceptance of these laws.  Changing a law is much easier than changing a people, and so Indian women and American women alike must participate in the universal struggle for women’s rights. 

 

Bibliography

Brooks, Geraldine.  Nine Parts of Desire:  The Hidden World of Islamic Women.  New York:            

    Doubleday, 1995. 

Davis, Coralynn.  E-mail interview.  29 Sep. 2001.

Forster, E.M.  A Passage to India.  New York:  Harcourt, 1924.

Minturn, Leigh.  Sita's Daughters:  Coming Out of Purdah.  New York:  Oxford, 1993.

Singh, Sushila.  E-mail interview.  2 Nov. 2001.