Up went the veil to reveal her expressive eyes. Then it went down again, hiding her face from view. It was as if she disappeared, even as I could still hear her speaking. Up, open. Down, closed. Up, seen. Down, unseen.
I was sitting in a sea of vibrant energy and colors with women of all ages dressed in bright orange, yellow and green saris. They all had their hair covered. Some of them pulled their veil over their face to hide themselves from view. Some remained veiled the entire time. Others peered out from under the veil and then pulled it down again. Up and down. I was intrigued. Why do they keep doing this? I wondered.
I was in the Mewat region of rural Rajasthan, a couple of hours outside of Jaipur, on a Leaders' Quest. I was traveling with an eclectic group of leaders from business and civil society around the globe. We had come here to address tough questions about leadership and reflect on our personal contribution to positive change in the world. In Dhumoli village we were visiting a community where women traditionally have few rights and girls have been barred from school and married off early. We were brought here by an organzation called IBTADA (Urdu for "beginning") which works with communities to reduce poverty and social exclusion, particularly of women. IBTADA operates over 100 Taleemshaalas (local schools for girls) and over a thousand women's self-help groups to encourage savings, introduce new livelihood options and foster social change.
After a warm and joyful welcome from the village women, we sat together in a big circle. We learned about life in Dhumoli, where goat herding is the main occupation. One woman told how she had became trained as the community vet. Initially she had had difficulty remembering the names of the medications, until she came up with an ingenious method of associating the name of a medicine with a spice she uses for cooking. We learned that these women traditionally were restricted to the home of their husband. Today they are active and deeply connected in their villages. They have access to resources, training and microloans which enable them to participate more fully in community life, raise concerns and make decisions about their lives.
These women are participating in the creation of a new set of social norms against a backdrop of generation upon generation of marginalization. They are learning to see themselves in a new way, discovering what they love to do, and participating in and being seen by their families and community. They are lifting their veils to show who they really are.
As I watched the women's veils go up and down as we sat together, I recognized the continued influence of the very norms they are challenging. In their culture, a woman must remain veiled if her husband or in-laws are in the vicinity. They should not see her face. As we talked, the women were tracking all the comings and goings of the people around us and pulled down their veils when necessary. I was intrigued by this behavior, even long after we parted from the women at the end of a fun-filled day in community.
As I continued to sit with the image of the veil, I came to see my own experience as a woman reflected back through these women in Dhumoli village. I recognized times when, both personally and professionally, I have felt pushed to the margins of a community, and where I have sensed that part of my being is "not wanted here." I remember times when I have made myself vulnerable and brought up issues I care deeply about, only to have them publicly trampled upon. Then I have allowed myself to be veiled and hidden from view. As a result, I have been only a fraction of who I really am. When I have become conscious of where this was happening, I have stepped out from under the veil and set my spirit free.
In the Mewat region of Rajasthan, the marginalization of women in traditional communities is right in front of our eyes. In the west, it is much, much harder to see, even though we know that women are under-represented in many parts of our society. At times, women's presence and voices are sometimes not welcome. Other times, especially in corporate life, we are not showing up fully because we are presenting an image of ourselves that is not congruent with who we really are.
The women of Dhumoli village reminded me that something else is possible. Even in the most challenging of circumstances, we can – individually and collectively - access our voice and our vision for how we contribute to change in the world. When we are alive with purpose, individuals, families and whole communities thrive. Spending the day with these women helped me reconfirm my commitment to working with women who are ready to push back their veil to discover themselves more fully and step into a future of their own making. Together let us take courage and inspiration from the women of Dhumoli.