Chunri Ke Peechhe — On Defensive Modesty

A. Ashni
4 min readMar 19, 2020

Originally published by India Fellow, Dec ‘20.

Start a social enterprise.
Have otherwise formally unemployed women in Rajasthan make dupattas.
Have women in Rajasthan make dupattas, count the sweat that falls from their chins. Add it to the joint account and GDP.
Count sweat by the sound it makes when hitting the ground and memorise the taal before the dupattas sweep it up.
The dupattas.
Press, pack, ship.
Dupattas will sell well in Delhi, in Hyderabad, not so much in Bangalore.
So sell dupattas to women in Hyderabad.
They will tie them around their heads, over knitted brows, against their noses, tied tight at the back.
Sell dupattas that’ll keep away heat strokes and air peppered with cement.
Sell dupattas that hold off sun and dust on one end and hold in sweat on the other.
Women will tie them pressed against their lips. Only it will know when she smiles.
Sell dupattas that hold off son and lust on one end and rage on the other.
Sell dupattas to women who need to swear softly at cars, with loud horns and horned men.
Sell dupattas to women who need shielding from drooling tongues between dripping fangs.
Sell armour to women and call it a ‘dupatta’.
Have women in Rajasthan make armour and sell it to women in Hyderabad.
Sell armour to women and call it “regressive”.
Sweat from the woman who cut the cloth, sweat from the woman who sewed the button, sweat from the woman who closed the seam, and sweat from the woman who tied the knot.
Sweat whispers to sweat.
Makes a thangka of sweaty stories.
Turns a dupatta into a tectonic plate of sweaty fight.
Start a social enterprise and when you’ve made a thousand cut, sewn, bought, tied, retied, kissed, yanked, stained, sweaty dupattas, we’ll call it mahila vikaas.



Sadhna is a mutual benefit trust in Rajasthan that was founded to provide gainful employment to rural women. It supports a self-sustaining social enterprise of the same name that employs 700+ artisans.

During our India Fellow induction training, I had the opportunity to visit the Sadhna office in Udaipur. Sitting among piles of brightly dyed kurtis, I watched as the workers sorted sizes and calculated accounts. They talked us through the pieces they were working on, explaining the different stitches and cutting techniques. They spoke matter-of-factly of the ‘value chain’ (as opposed to a supply chain), never once with the hint of charity that colours many other social initiatives.

At one point, the store manager said, “We don’t sell in Bangalore; no demand there. But a huge one in Delhi. Even Hyderabad. ”

I didn’t know it at the time but in just a few weeks, this seemingly benign fact would take on a different meaning in my life.

I remember leaving the office feeling a mix of awe and relief. This was a collective of empowered women. Every product in the room symbolized to me (at the time) the tirelessness of the feminist fight.


For my placement, I flew from Udaipur to Hyderabad, dizzy with excitement to begin this new journey. On my first day in the city, the roads knocked the Mumbai right out of me.

Men stare at women in public. This is universal. But in Mumbai, I would stare back. At some point, they would look away. Sometimes after too long, but eventually, shame would take over as it should. In Hyderabad, I found that staring came with less innocuous honks and shouts, sly grins, and lewd gestures.

I was powerless.

Soon enough, I started veiling with a dupatta. I have become one among other anonymous women on Hyderabad’s streets. No more cars have circled around my bike to gesture obscenities.

Today, riding home from work with a dupatta around my face, I was reminded of the dupattas in the hands of Sadhna’s artisans. I wondered how many women’s hands a single dupatta must’ve touched. How it traveled from one end of the country to the other, meaning different things along the way — empowerment to some, defeat to others.

Is she safe?

Does This Defensive Modesty Make Me A Bad Feminist?


In the long run, the only way to curb threats to women in public is to normalize women in public. By covering my face, I am complicit in a culture where the female body in public is the center of an unusual sort of interest. (Read Why Loiter? by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, & Shilpa Ranade).

And that’s a conscious decision I’m making. I am trading the opportunity to be part of incremental change for the personal ease that comes from not having my face open for public scrutiny. I have sold out long-term feminist progress.

And yet, in the short run, covering up has come to take on a feminist twist in my life.

The male gaze does as it pleases, takes what it pleases. It lays claim on my body in public; staring, dissecting, turning me into a spectacle for as long as it wants. When I cover my face, I reclaim my right not to be turned into a spectacle. As if to say, “Watch as I exist here, of no satisfaction to you. Watch me participate in public without becoming a spectacle.”

I am aware this is quite a twisting of symbolism. This explanation could well just be my conscience trying to make peace with my choice. I could lay out every counter-argument to this interpretation myself.

And yet, when I cover, I am emboldened. Not just less threatened but actively emboldened. And I guess — in the short run— this is my empowerment.