Authorities in a deeply conservative Indian state were accused Wednesday of reinforcing entrenched gender discrimination after describing veiled women as the “pride” of the region.
The advertisement sponsored by the government of northern Haryana state featured the image of a woman, her face shrouded by a traditional scarf, with a tagline saying “the veil is Haryana’s pride”.
Women are often kept behind closed doors and treated as second-class citizens in largely-rural Haryana, where male-dominated councils issue diktats aimed at upholding conservative traditions — in some cases, banning girls from wearing jeans or using mobile phones.
The state, which borders the capital New Delhi, has the lowest ratio of female to male births in the country, with the selective abortion of girls resulting in 877 women for every 1000 men, according to the last official census in 2011.
But women in Haryana have increasingly been challenging gender stereotypes, pursuing successful careers in traditionally male sports like boxing and wrestling.
Geeta Phogat, India’s first female wrestler to win gold at the Commonwealth Games, lashed out at the government’s portrayal of women in her home state.
“My sisters and I have climbed out of exactly this kind of backward thinking — where women are expected to be covered in veils, where they can’t step out of the house, where they can’t go to school… this mindset is wrong,” Phogat told NDTV news network.
“If anything, Haryana’s women are its pride. There is nothing they can’t do and that is a matter of pride.”
Haryana is governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Since storming to power in 2014, Modi has sought to position himself as a champion of women’s rights, emphasising education for girls and an end to female foeticide.
India’s main opposition Congress party said this latest scandal exposed the BJP’s “parochial approach and objectification of women”.
“This is symbolical of the regressive mindset of the BJP government and they need to shed this now,” said Randeep Surjewala, a Congress party spokesman.
Anil Vij, a Haryana cabinet minister, told reporters he would look into why the caption was printed in the first place, given the veil is not mandatory in the state.
“We do not think ‘yes, women should be veiled’ — no, we do not agree with that at all,” Vij said.
“But in some parts, the practice is prevalent and we cannot start objecting to that.”
In 2015, Modi launched the “Save your daughters, Educate your daughters” campaign in Haryana, urging parents and doctors to stop sex selective abortions.
A campaign on Twitter in which he asked parents to post photos with their daughters went viral.
Sexual violence, however, continues to plague Haryana, where rape and honour killings are sometimes meted out against women as punishment by village councils.