Meenaba Zala, the first elected woman sarpanch of Rantej village in Mehsana district of north Gujarat, stood on the stage and a veil of sari covered her face. He was tasked with handing over a souvenir – a framed picture of Bahuchar Mata – to the state education minister Jitu Vaghani, after whom the taluka Becharaji was named.
Minaba came to the stage from a bunch of her village women, all in uniform veils, who sat on the floor on one side while the men of the village sat on plastic chairs. What happened next was unprecedented.
To the surprise of Minaba and several villagers at the incident, the minister insisted that he remove his veil before accepting the souvenir as part of his honour.
Vaghani said in front of villagers who gathered at the school for the annual Shala Praveshotsav (enrollment in school) and launch of Kanya Kelavani (Lana), “If elders allow, I request Minaba to come out of this ritual (tradition).” I will.” Number of Girls) – State Government’s initiative to ensure maximum enrollment of children, especially girls, in primary schools and to check the drop-out rate.
Soon there was a voice of protest when a man from the crowd said, “Saheb, aame darbar chhiye (Sir, we are Rajputs).”
“What does caste have to do with this? Darbar, Patel, Vania or Brahmin… Look how happy the women are and what blessings will they give you,” the minister replied promptly.
“Maan maryada (respect and modesty) is fine but when you are the sarpanch you have to come out of these traditions. Let the village decide. Look around, where has the world reached… By doing this (removing the veil) we do not lose our honor and dignity. Follow everything but at home. I don’t say this Riyaz is bad, but we have to change with the times and come out of it so that we can move on,” Vaghani insisted as all the other women in the crowd reveal their faces.
Eventually, a village elder present on the stage agreed to Vaghani. Following the signal, Minaba reluctantly pulled back a part of her sari and revealed her face. An extra chair was also arranged for him on the stage, albeit in a corner.
“The minister is right. We should keep our veil at home and need to come out of this (tradition). We are behind our curtains at home anyway but we need to move with the times,” Meenaba, who defeated four male candidates to be elected six months ago, later told Indian Express,
Meenaba, the mother of two 10-year-old sons and two and a half-year-old daughter, hails from Ahmedabad. “I really wanted to join the police force but could not because my brother was strict. So, I was forced to drop out of college in the first year of B.Com,” she said.
On the villagers’ protest on the minister’s suggestion, Meenaba said, “The elders are protesting because they lack education. But things are slowly changing. Now girls are getting educated. Just look at my brother… his daughter is now in the police force.”
More than 60 percent of the villages, which have 3,200 residents, are from the Jala community. As of 2011 India census, Rantej has a male population of about 1,650, while there are 1,552 females. Its literacy rate is 71.59 percent, which includes 80.99 percent literate males and 61.66 percent literate females.
Becharaji taluka is still burdened with patriarchy as most of the women in the villages still have access to their
Face with a long veil using your sarees.
Incidentally, during the enrollment drive at Rooppura Government Primary School in the same taluka, the village elders made a demand before Vaghani—to include classes 9 and 10 in the school. A member of the school management committee told the minister, “… because in our community, we don’t even allow girls to go out for education.”
“It becomes a problem for the family and the community when a girl has an affair. Therefore, girls are not allowed to travel to other villages or cities even for education. It is still practiced in this community. They have to go 8 kilometers away for higher education. The girls here do not study after class VIII. My daughter dropped out a year ago after class VIII.
As of 2011 India census, Ruppura has a total population of about 2,900, including 1,410 males and 1,453 females. Literacy rate is 49.67 percent of which 65.18 percent for males and 34.62 percent for females.