Masked Maidens (India Week #033)

Masks are elaborate and everyone has one. It takes a while to get to know people. This doesn't make them mysterious, it makes them like everyone else. ~Donna Lynn Hope

Masked Maidens on a Scooter
Masked Maidens on a Scooter
I don't recall seeing them on my initial visit almost 7 years ago. Thinking my aging mind had simply forgotten or been overwhelmed by the complete culture shock one undergoes on a first trip to India, I reviewed all my pictures captured during my three India experiences spanning 2006 and 2007. The albums were devoid of them. My initial recollection of them was during a visit in 2012 when they seemed to be everywhere.

Face Scarf
Face Scarf
I first noticed the masked maidens cruising along as drivers of scooters or passengers on motorcycles. They go about with their heads and faces fully covered by cloth wraps. Fully covered save for the eyes and even the eyes are frequently hidden behind sunglasses. How is one to see a soul when the eyes are hidden?

Now, they seemed to be everywhere. I fjnd them walking about anywhere I travel in Pune. I drive past them as they wait for the next rickety red bus to creak to a stop, squeeze in more passengers, and wheeze away belching smoke with people hanging out of the doors. I watch them pass by while I sit at Cafe Coffee Day musing my blogs, while I snap pictures at the wonderful array of people going about their daily lives.

Scarves on a Motorcycle
Scarves on a Motorcycle
The masked maidens come in singles, pairs, triples, and more. I thought the head wrappings were religious coverings, hijabs, niqabs worn out of religious duty. And indeed some are but those are in the minority. Most of the women that wear these head coverings do it for principles unrelated to religion.

Why Masks?

It is my understanding that women don the masks to filter out pollution, protect their face from the sun, to keep overly inquisitive boys at bay or to…well…I don't know why else they would fee a need to hide from the world. A quick Google search and I found out the police banned them in 2008 as a way to combat terrorism. It seems the US isn't the only country to tred on idividual liberties under the guise of 'anti-terrorism'. I don't know if the law is still in effect as it has been my observation that people in Pune tend to ignore traffic laws.

Religious Face Covering
Religious Face Covering
I understand the pollution part. There are many two stroke engines here (polluters even when in the best condition), busses that by their stench seem to have no pollution control, trucks that belch out grey plumes with every pressing of the accelerator. The worst are the ubiquitous auto rickshaws many which should have been condemned ages ago. Some of these three wheeled vehicles seem to be ever surrounded by blue-grey clouds of nastiness.

I do wonder why men seem not to care about pollution to the degree women seem to. I have only seen a handful of men wearing a covering over their nose and mouth.

Nor does the desire to protect their skin from the harsh sun surprise me. Harsh sun means dark skin. In India, fair skin is prized over dark skin almost to an obsession. There are thousands of skin whitening product advertised and stocked on store shelves. A woman having dark skin has a more difficult time finding a spouse as compared to light skinned Indian women.

Wrapping The Scarf
Wrapping The Scarf

Being that this is a very conservative culture, I am also not surprised that women will wear the mask to keep boys at bay. Pune is a university town. Many of the women need to focus on their studies rather than being pursued by amorous boys. Plus, with most marriages being arranged, having a love interest adds unnecessary complications to life and the potential for heart break.

Partially Unwrapped
Partially Unwrapped
I find the whole mystery of who lies behind the mask intriguing. Every time I see a masked maiden, I wonder who they are, what they look like, why they feel the need to travel incognito. If I was a boy pursuing a girl, I image unwrapping the head scarf to reveal the woman beneath would be like finding the prize inside a cereal box or opening a Christmas present. There would always be the undercurrent of excitement with every new face revealed.

Our Masks

Scooter Maiden
Scooter Maiden
We all wear masks of some sort. For the masked maidens it is a physical covering preventing us from seeing the faces. For the rest of us, the mask is the part of our person we show to the outside world. If it's a stranger we wear the full mask. If the encounter is with a friend, the mask will show more of our true nature. For intimate friends the mask should be nonexistent but, I fear, it's still there for many carry shame throughout their lives and are afraid to be fully know.

Some of us wear permanent masks, masks that have been worn for so long we have grown unaware of the illusion we present to the world such that they now live a delusional life. I have had people ask me questions about conflicts they are in with another person. When I explain to them where they may be contributing to the issue and may need to change some aspect of their actions, I watch a dumbfounded look spread over their face.

Scooter Maiden
Scooter Maiden
It's usually not the answer they were expecting. They were looking for me to take their side, to validate their premise that the other is at fault and they are the victim. They seem to never be able to see the issue residing within themselves. Their masks are so ingrained in their character they can't imagine they could ever be the source of the conflict in the world around them. It's very sad. Their masks are wrapped on so tight they have lost the ability to grow.

Showing ourselves can be scary. I wish it was as easy for us to remove our masks as it is to remove the head wraps.

Additional Pictures

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About David A Olson

I often find my mind wandering to various subjects, subjects that make me stop and think. The blog, Musings of a Middle Aged Man, is a catalog of those thoughts I muse upon as I search for significance in life. I am the father of 3 children and the grandfather to 1 grandson. I spend my days working for a very large multinational corporation where I am a Manager of Engineers. I view myself as a Servant Leader, have a passion for leadership, particularly, in helping people develop their individual leadership skills and abilities. In October 2012, I went to India on business. After a week of being there, I still had not talked to or texted my 7 year old grandson. He asked his mom, "Is Papa dead? He hasn't texted me all week." To facilitate communication now that he and I no longer live together, I started a blog for us to communicate. It's titled, "Correspondence Between Luke and His Papi". In April 2013, I moved to Pune, India on a two year delegation. It's an adventure that's been 1.5 years in the making...Follow the adventure on my blog, "The Adventures of an American Living Abroad"

11 Responses to Masked Maidens (India Week #033)

  1. Reblogged this on Musings of a Middle Aged Man.

  2. Soumyajit says:

    Love your observation David! :)

  3. Spot on! There are tons of people in India also who wonder why women cover their faces this way while driving a two-wheeler. Pollution, dust and sun are the main reasons but then, isn't a helmet a better option? Apparently not, because women here like to have long hair and a helmet would mean a sweaty scalp and a terrible hairdo. :P All of that wouldn't matter much if the local authorities make wearing a helmet compulsory. But who cares about safety!

    • I have a two wheeler back in the US and always wear a helmet. I will be purchasing a two wheeler in India next month. You can bet I will be wearing a helmet whenever I ride on the crazy rides of Pune.

  4. I first came across these in Vietnam (slightly different way of doing it but same principal). They work well - I now own one! They keep off not only the damage of the sun but the heat, too. (When you're on a motorbike you get enough airflow to make that work.)

    It's true about conflicts, though - there are usually two sides, and we tend to see only our own.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting.

      When I get my two wheeler, I will be opting for a full face helmet. Traffic in India is too crazy for me to take a no helmet risk. :)

      I would be interesting in seeing the style in Vietnam. I haven't been there yet

  5. I too noticed this! It is rare to see a woman who doesn't cover her face in Nagpur!
    I was told the same, to protect their skin from pollution and the sun.

    I guess it maybe a trend now as well!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting.

      One of my colleagues informed me that the head scarf is also a way to travel incognito so girls parents or relatives don't see them riding on motorcycles with boys. That sure is different than boy/girl interactions in the US.

  6. soumya kumare says:

    very good photo tag more photos

  7. soumya kumare says:

    very good photo tag more photos plese