The disappearing urban woman

I’ve been noticing them for some time now — mysteriously masked young girls, often on scooters, sometimes on foot. They fasten scarves around their heads and faces, only anonymous eyes looking out. Others go further, combining the scarf with full-bodied clothes, elbow-length gloves and socks, leaving not an inch of skin visible. They are on the roads in cities as different as Pune, Bhubaneswar, Bhopal, Jodhpur. 

This latest turn in street fashion could be inspired by the burqa even though the get-up is not connected with religion; our shrouded girls cut across communities and seem mostly anxious to protect their skin from the elements. But the use of the hijab and burqa is growing too. I can speak at least for north Kerala, which I visited recently to find an apparently new trend: crowds of women and even little girls encased in layers of black nylon, a fabric and a colour entirely unsuited to that clammy weather.

I’m not about to sit in judgement on fashion choices — or religious ones. But this compulsive masking disturbs me because it’s rendering women, already strangely missing from our public spaces, even more invisible. If you live in a middle-class enclave, are surrounded by both men and women at work, shop in malls that have female staff, and take public transport with other women, you’d be forgiven for believing that women are everywhere. But step out of this bubble, take a walk down an ordinary street in any of our cities, especially the so-called ‘second-tier’ ones, and you’ll immediately wonder: Where are the women? Why are there so few behind shop counters, driving buses and rickshaws, running police stations or post offices, serving in restaurants, or just loitering in parks and lounging around tea stalls the way men are free to do across this country?

To fight this very fundamental prejudice, women need to claim public spaces, not shrink from them. The tendency of young girls to step out incognito suggests a covertness, a deep unease with the idea of their bodies being exposed to view, or with themselves as people with public personas. There’s obviously no harm in trying to block out sunshine or pollution, but given our particular social environment, this dress code reinforces some very serious biases — that the Indian woman must be shielded, protected and kept hidden from the eyes of men. If we’re looking to resist male aggression towards women, concealing ourselves thus won’t help. We can’t be both taking back the night and moving about like ghosts by day. A headscarf or a cloak need not be regressive, but that’s only if its wearer is not hampered by her clothes but able to move with confidence despite them. 

Anjum Hasan’s new novel The Cosmopolitans (Penguin Random House India) is out on August 17

You may also want to read: Get started on narrative non-fic

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