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Veiled women ;

The Precarious Lives of Barren Women in Rural India

Feminist Perspectives - ’Disciplined and Resistant Bodies’
Kanchan Panday (she/her)

PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

28 August 2023

“She was not allowed to show her face”, my mother told me. Last week, over a phone call, my mother spoke about the trip to her maternal village in the heart of northern India.

It was among a series of conversations where my mother made me aware of the world she lived in and experienced when I lived in a relatively safe space of what we call “University”—a humble abode of higher education.

Villages in India are bundles of hays woven into traditions. However, their nature varies when one moves through its vast topography. More often than not, they restrict certain people’s choices and their ability to choose. Defiance is not an option for many, even less for women in deeply patriarchal societies. Among the upper-caste Hindu households in northern Indian villages, women have been systematically subjugated through the purdah practice (veiling), which varies in different regions in its name and the extent of cover women should be practising. Similar practices are also followed in several conservative urban households. Purdah dictates that women cover their heads and/or faces in front of elderly male family members in the private space and from all males in the public space.

Returning to my conversation with my mother, she told me that the woman she encountered 

could not even show her face in the presence of women because she was baanjh (barren).– Pushpa Devi, the author's mother

While I was acutely aware of the practice in several villages in India, there is barely any discussion about such discrimination in the public sphere. Moreover, my mother’s testimony reminded me of how, as a young child, I witnessed my aunt, who could not conceive a child, discriminated against through this practice.

The stigma around infertility as an illness has resulted in mushrooms of fertility clinics surrounding big and small cities in northern India, which sell hope of parenthood. Notwithstanding the biological causes, the social construction of infertility has stripped women of agency to participate with ‘full capacity’ in women’s gatherings, in auspicious ceremonies such as wedding rituals or Hindu practices of celebrating a woman’s pregnancy.

Most societies essentialise and naturalise motherhood for women. Similarly, in Southern India, Riessman’s studies also show indignant attitudes of family and community towards the (voluntary and involuntary) childless women. The very notion that if a woman cannot reproduce, she is deemed incomplete and defective—thereby also causing bad omen to the fertile women. The naturalisation of motherhood for women is also reflected in gendered notions of territorialisation. We often find both poetry and prose referring to those women who cannot give birth as barren lands or dry rivers. Social celebrations, from small festivals to local fares and ceremonial practices, often become a test and display of a woman’s motherhood.

How does the practice of purdah impact a female body—and, in turn, its role in society? Shaming such women who cannot give birth further makes it unthinkable for other women not to have a child. Having a child becomes both a duty and a measure of female honour. It teaches women that their worth depends on whether they can reproduce, or even more if they can reproduce a male heir. In Bourdieu’s words, it becomes a habitus, an unconscious, a habit-like practice where women are taught what their roles in societies are, what they can do about them (which is to give birth to children), and how they have to further sustain society (through percolation of patriarchal practices to future generations). As a result, many societies have come to idealise the mother and demonise those who cannot reproduce. In doing so, it imposes social and familial surveillance over a woman’s body.

Barren ‘women’ are thought to carry negative energy, which societies consider detrimental to pregnant women or women of reproductive age. Such beliefs are as prevalent in the south as in the northern part of the country. Their nazar (glance) is believed to cause harm to the child and the expecting mother. Therefore, it burdens women to reproduce to attain respectability in public spaces. In such social norms, women’s bodies are in the prison of motherhood, where fertility is the precondition of respect and dignity for a woman.

The scholarship dealing with infertility shows that women often lose their conviction of themselves as a woman as a result of their inability to conceive a child. In several cultures, children (mostly young girls) are ingrained with the belief that one becomes a complete woman only when a woman attains motherhood. Hence, when infertility falls upon a married couple, women are naturally believed to be defective and therefore are considered not equal to other women. Male infertility is a larger question of honour of the family, thus rarely questioned in the circumstances. The ontological element of what constitutes a woman makes an infertile woman deviant—from the ‘right’ path progressing from the dutiful daughter to a dutiful wife, meek woman, idealised bahu (daughter-in-law), or lest becoming deviant from religion and God.

These social practices drive women to identify (non-medical) cures for infertility, from conducting Havans, special poojas or jhadphoonk (ritual ceremonies). These ceremonies are primarily religious and include fasting, Hindu priest-assisted worship, and fire rituals. Such practices further propel the fear of abandonment by the male spouse among women, increased verbal and physical abuse, depression, and isolation.

However, these women resist by disregarding social instructions (strategic avoidance) to defy the community obligations and occupy a more dignified position while affirming their sense of self. The acts of caring, specifically mothering for the younger siblings or the nieces and nephews, also count as fulfilling their duty—a move of personal gratification of motherhood. While some resist through acts of strategic avoidance and caring to continue inhabiting the same social structures, others prefer to leave in the hope of finding anonymity.

About the author

Kanchan Panday (She/Her) is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her work examines why memory can/can’t generate a power shift in international politics.

She is an unofficial poet, sweet tooth, and cinema buff.

She can be contacted at or on Instagram with the name @_evepoet and on Twitter Id @Kanchi_16.

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