The Ghoonghat Chronicles – Part 1

The Ghoonghat Chronicles – Part 1

The practice of ghoonghat is the practice of a bride covering her head in the presence of elders, most especially elder men in her husband’s family. This means covering her head in front of her husband’s father, his elder brothers, his elder male cousins, and uncles.

Women Observing Ghoonghat
A group of veiled Indian women. Photo by Nevil Zaverl via Flickr.com.

It varies from region to region, how much the woman has to cover. In fact, as this tradition applies in my husband’s family, I have been told to cover my head a dozen different ways by a dozen different people. Mostly, I will use my pallu (the loose end of a saree) or a scarf and cover my head, pulling the fabric over my forehead to cover my eyes. However, there are many ways of observing ghoonghat.

Women also tend to cover their heads (up to the hair line) for elder women when they are in the presence of their husband as well. This is a form of modesty.

Indian Woman
Photo by Bold Content via Flickr.com.

This is an old tradition that still hangs around today, not every family follows this tradition. In fact, many families do not.

Here is an exerpt from my journal the third day of living in my husband’s home, just after our marriage:

You Are Ashamed

“Starting not from the time I entered his home, but from the time I settled into the hotel, I was made to cover my head. It started with a dupatta (a headscarf) which is all I had at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it felt strange. I felt awkward. I didn’t know how to wrap the scarf properly. I didn’t look good, and looking back, I did it completely wrong.

But as with all things, no one bothered to explain it properly. Even if I asked. Lastly, the person for whom I was covering my head had done a great injustice to us, once. Therefore, I did not feel as if I should have covered my head, a symbol of respect, for him. Under these circumstances, I felt as if I was being shamed.

“Hide your eyes, hide your face. From this moment forward, you should be ashamed of yourself.”

At least, that’s what it felt like…”

A few points I would like to make on this exerpt, now:

  • Whether or not I felt it was necessary to respect someone who had disrespected us, didn’t matter. In India, respect is given to elders and those with power whether or not they have earned respect.
  • That uncle came to redeem himself.
  • My husband’s family had no expectations and they made that clear. It was my choice to wear a saree or not, my choice to cover my head or not. I chose to. Regardless of how much I struggle with it, it is a choice I made.
  • You can usually see through the thin material of the pallu or scarf, but if you have a thick border (as I have, a few times) heaven help you.

In any case, I do continue to struggle with covering my head and trying to feel comfortable with it. I see how my didi (elder sister – my husband’s elder brother’s wife) covers her head like it’s second nature, and I would love to be that comfortable with it. I just can’t feel comfortable and close to people I have to hide my face from. That being said, I don’t talk too much to my father-in-law, not at all to my brother-in-law, but I do talk to my didi, my mother-in-law, and sisters-in-law as much as possible.

The featured image is by Nevil Zaverl via Flickr.com, featuring a bride observing ghoonghat flashing a big smile.

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14 thoughts on “The Ghoonghat Chronicles – Part 1

  1. I can understand the link to shame at first. North Americans have been taught their entire lives to look up, look people in the eyes, have self-respect, know that you are worthy and equal. To look away, look down, or act shy or submissive to others comes across as meek, low self-esteem, less than, and unworthy. Often if you portray yourself in this manner, people respond to you in this manner. Women here have come a long way to be equal, and like with any overcome hurdle, we are trained to not look back or allow backsliding. Head held high, shoulders straight, eyes level, move forward – we deserve this, we’ve earned it.

    This was a super interesting read. Thank you.

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  2. Very interesting! I wouldn’t be able to go through that. Kudos to you!
    I feel like that would put a barrier between me and whoever I have to cover in front of. And I would avoid them at all times.

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  3. Hi!!I have been reading your blog for a while but I think that’s my first comment. Well..I am also married to an Indian ( I am from Brazil) who is from a very traditional family and all women are supposed to cover their heads in front of elder people. However, we do not cover our faces. But, my mother-in-law used to do it in front of her father-in-law. There was a great expectation for me to behave as per Indian standards for an Indian bahu, mas they know I struggle with the dupatta (which never stops on my head) and also with all those accessories, make up and stuff people do to show off to their relatives. But I think I have gained their respected just because though I cannot handle very well many things, I always tried. Now I leave in Mumbai which is completely different from the life in UP. But, I really miss sometimes that simplicity that rich culture and traditions many people try to deny here in this chaotic city. Anyway…I could see my family in your testimony about your family. And I think you are on the right path. I am sure they are all pride of their bahu! Take care and all the best in your new life with your hubby.
    Juliana

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  4. One big advantage to covering your head in India is that you avoid getting sun on your head and sand in your face! I would cover my head and face and wear sunglasses to avoid the sun when riding on bikes and especially when I was working outdoors. I keep this practice even now in the UK on a sunny day. Often I get funny comments from my work mates but I am the one laughing at the end of the day when they have sunburn and I don’t!
    Another advantage is that head scarves and veils can look really pretty.
    The last point is that it does not have to be an act of shame or submission – it can be a powerful act that you as a women will not bestow your beauty upon men unless you choose to – your face is for you to cover or uncover as you wish. They are lucky that you should respect their culture and do ghoonghat and that is a nice thing but look into the roots of the practice and then look again at your own reading of it.
    The veil is meant to limit a young beautiful woman’s contact with elder males? This says to me that the power of a young woman’s beauty is too much for them to take! I have a muslim friend who found her veil added to her love life – she loved how she would only reveal herself to her husband and this strengthened their bond. It may seem alien to us in the west who have never had to or wanted to, but contrary to popular opinion a veil can make you feel empowered, beautiful and sexy and you can happily apply a goddess/feminist reading to the practice. After all it was Queen Padmini whose breathtaking beauty caused the Mughal ruler Alahuddin Khilji to start a war to win her love (consequently she killed herself rather than submit to him). After this the women of Rajasthan started to cover their faces. It seems to me the moral of the story is that men can’t help themselves and do silly and terrible things when exposed to the beauty of women and women, ever-wise have historically remedied this by covering their beauty and somehow this has been twisted into an act of submission rather than an act of power. The message of Ghoonghat is what needs to be addressed not the act itself.

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    1. I can agree that it can be beautiful and holds a certain power. I guess I just feel I shouldn’t have to cover myself for my family. In my family, we have to cover nearly to the nose. Since I have poor eyesight, it is sometimes difficult to navigate outside of the home as well.
      It does add intimacy, surprisingly, but only when my head is covered to the hairline do I look and feel attractive. I guess it is personal.
      I do want to be comfortable wearing it, and I thought I was getting better at it – turns out, it may take more time.

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