My Sunday Guardian column, from early 2013:
A few weeks ago, a teacher called Snehlata Gupta wrote a piece on Kafila describing an incident that took place in her classroom of a co-ed school in Delhi. One of her students, a 17-year-old boy, came up to her outside the classroom with a problem. "In a quiet, hushed, almost embarrassed tone he said he felt I should wear a dupatta in class", an appalled Gupta writes "because it embarrassed him to see me without one." Gupta managed to control her rage. She told the boy, that he could shut his eyes or stay out of class—and henceforth refused "even more determinedly" to wear a dupatta to class. "Maybe a rather childish reaction but it made me feel good", she writes.
The wearing of a dupatta is perhaps the most carefully calibrated act of everyday dressing in contemporary North India. Also called chunni, chunari, or odhni, the dupatta is understood to be a necessary accessory to the salwar-kameez, churidar-kurta, or ghaghra-choli. So much so that the coordinated salwar-kameez sets that are probably the most ubiquitous women's wear in urban North India – 'suits', in Delhi lingo – come with matching dupattas. The dupatta quietly inserts itself into one's idea of the outfit—if you wear a 'suit', you automatically wear the dupatta that came with it. It's not wearing a dupatta that is then marked out as an act of choice.
Even when a dupatta is worn, though, there's always the complicated question of how. The dupatta is, of course, a remnant of the veil—as revealed most clearly in the word odhni: 'that which covers'. In more orthodox households, women still drape their dupattas (or sari pallus) to cover their heads and faces before men other than their husbands. But while the practice of purdah is probably growing less common (with the complicated exception of the newly burqa-wearing Muslim woman), the dupatta doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon.
Published in the Sunday Guardian, here.