purdah

This article is about the practice of preventing men from seeing women. For other uses, see Purdah (disambiguation).


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Ladies of Caubul (1848 lithograph, by James Rattray) showing the lifting of purdah in zenana areas. Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library
Purdah or Pardaa (Persian/Urdu: پردہ, Hindi: पर्दा literally meaning "curtain") is the practice of preventing men from seeing women. This takes two forms: physical segregation of the sexes, and the requirement for women to cover their bodies and conceal their form. Purdah exists in various forms in the Islamic world and among Hindu women in parts of India.

Physical segregation within a building can be done with walls, curtains, and screens. A woman's withdrawal into purdah restricts her personal, social and economic activities outside her home. The usual purdah garment worn is a burqa, which may or may not include a yashmak, a veil to conceal the face. The eyes may or may not be exposed.

Purdah was, and is again, rigorously observed under the Taliban in Afghanistan, where women had to observe complete purdah at all times when they were in public. Only close male family members and other women were allowed to see them out of purdah. In other societies, purdah is often only practised during certain times of religious significance.

In historically Islamic Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, purdah is a custom with cultural rather than religious basis. Even in the United Arab Emirates, where women can wear skirts and similar modest garments, Arab women often observe purdah. It is important to differentiate between purdah and hijab. Hijab is an Islamic tradition that is based on physical and psychological morality, while purdah does not necessarily conform to Islamic teachings.

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Photograph of a silver zenana carriage for Hindu women. From the collection of the Gaekwad of Baroda, Gujerat. 1895, Oriental and India Office Collection, British Library

Examples of Purdah in the early 20th Century

Purdah was criticised from within its community, for example in the 1905 story entitled The Sultana's Dream, by Bengali feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain.

The following reminiscence from C.M. Naim, Professor Emeritus of Urdu and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago describes the evolution of purdah during the first third of the 20th century among Muslim women in the region of Lucknow, United Provinces, British India:[1]
The word ‘Hijab’ is relatively new for me. It was not a part of my vocabulary as I was growing up. I learned it much later, when I began to read literary and religious Urdu texts. That is how I also learned other such culturally potent words as Ishq (Passion) and Siyasat (Politics), and Tasavvuf (Mysticism). The relevant word that I learned growing up was purdah. And I learned the word and its many meanings in the observed practice of the various female members of my middle-class family in Bara Banki, a small town in north India. For Ammi, my grandmother, purdah meant almost never venturing out of the house. On the rare occasions when she did, it was always an elaborate ritual. Visiting a family in the neighbourhood -- only on the occasion of some tragedy, as I remember -- she used a doli. The little stool slung from a pole that two men carried would be brought to our back door -- the door to the zanana or the ladies’ section -- and the two carriers would step away behind the curtain wall. Ammi would wrap herself in a white sheet and squat on the flat stool, and a heavy custom-made cover would be thrown over her and the doli. The two bearers would then come back and carry the doli away on their shoulders. When Ammi traveled in my father’s car, she covered herself the same way, while the back seat of the car where she sat was made completely invisible by pieces of cloth hung across the windows. Years earlier, she had traveled all the way to Mecca with her daughter and son-in-law to perform the Hajj. I don’t know how she covered herself during the journey itself, but in the holy city she must have done what all Muslim women are required to do: perform the many rituals together with men while keeping their hair and bodies covered but faces fully exposed. She acted in Mecca the way it was required of her by Islam, her religion, while in Bara Banki she did what was demanded by her culture -- the culture of the sharif or genteel people of Avadh. Apa, my mother, belonged to the next generation. She used a burqa. Hers was a two piece ‘modern’ outfit, as opposed to the one-piece -- derisively called ‘the shuttlecock’ by my sisters -- that was preferred by the older or more conservatively spirited in the family. I also remember that the older generation’s burqas were usually white, while the new burqas were always black. Apa’s burqa’ consisted of a skirt and a separate top throw -- one that covered her from the head to the thighs. The two pieces allowed for easier movement of both arms and legs. The top had a separate veil hanging over the face, which Apa could throw back in the company of women, e.g. while traveling in the ladies compartment on a train, or hold partly aside to look at things more closely when she went shopping. Apa wore a burqa all her life, except of course when she went to Mecca for Hajj. There she wore the same sheets of ihram that Ammi had to wear earlier. Like all women pilgrims then and now, she too exposed her face to everyone’s sight but not her hair. ... I should not neglect to mention that in those days -- I’m talking about the Forties -- it was considered improper even for Hindu ladies of certain classes to be seen in public with their hair and faces uncovered, particularly the married women. They never wore a burqa -- that was for Muslims alone. Instead, they used a shawl, a plain white sheet, or the palloo of their saris to cover what was not for strangers to see. They too lived in houses that had separate women’s quarters. Their daughters traveled to school daily in a covered wagon that was pushed by two men, just like their Muslim counterparts. (The school was exclusively for girls and had a very high wall surrounding it.)

Criticism of Purdah

Social criticism of purdah is complicated by the context of the overall status of women in a society. For example, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a social reformer and the chief architect of the Constitution of India, who was born as an untouchable Hindu and later converted to Buddhism, imputed many evils existing among the Muslims of British India to the system of purdah. In his 1946 book, Pakistan, or The Partition of India:[2] Ambedkar implied that physical conditions such as anaemia were caused by purdah and that purdah adversely affected the sexual mores of Muslim society. It should be pointed out that although the practice of purdah is greatly reduced in the countries of the former British India—modern-day Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan—anaemia is still overwhelmingly prevalent among women of all religious communities in these countries[3][4] and sexual violence towards women remains a major social problem among all religious communities.[5][6][7]

As a consequence of the purdah system, a segregation of the Muslim women is brought about. The ladies are not expected to visit the outer rooms, verandahs, or gardens; their quarters are in the back-yard. All of them, young and old, are confined in the same room. No male servant can work in their presence. A woman is allowed to see only her sons, brothers, father, uncles, and husband, or any other near relation who may be admitted to a position of trust. She cannot go even to the mosque to pray, and must wear burka (veil) whenever she has to go out. These burka women walking in the streets is one of the most hideous sights one can witness in India. Such seclusion cannot but have its deteriorating effects upon the physical constitution of Muslim women. They are usually victims to anaemia, tuberculosis, and pyorrhoea. Their bodies are deformed, with their backs bent, bones protruded, hands and feet crooked. Ribs, joints and nearly all their bones ache. Heart palpitation is very often present in them. The result of this pelvic deformity is untimely death at the time of delivery. Purdah deprives Muslim women of mental and moral nourishment. Being deprived of healthy social life, the process of moral degeneration must and does set in. Being completely secluded from the outer world, they engage their minds in petty family quarrels, with the result that they become narrow and restricted in their outlook. ... The physical and intellectual effects of purdah are nothing as compared with its effects on morals. The origin of purdah lies of course in the deep-rooted suspicion of sexual appetites in both sexes and the purpose is to check them by segregating the sexes. But far from achieving the purpose, purdah has adversely affected the morals of Muslim men. Owing to purdah, a Muslim has no contact with any woman outside those who belong to his own household. Even with them his contact extends only to occasional conversation. For a male there is no company of, and no commingling with, the females, except those who are children or aged. This isolation of the males from females is sure to produce bad effects on the morals of men. It requires no psychoanalyst to say that a social system which cuts off all contact between the two sexes produces an unhealthy tendency towards sexual excesses and unnatural and other morbid habits and ways.

Notes

1. ^ Naim, C.M. 2004. "The Hijab and I." Outlook Magazine
2. ^ Ambedkar, B.R. 1946. Pakistan, or the Partition of India, 3rd edition, Thacker and Co. Bombay. Chapter 10.
3. ^ UNICEF India. 2006. Nutrition: The Picture in India. Retrieved 25 October 2006.
4. ^ Chatterjee, Meera, and Julian Lambert. 2006. Women and Nutrition: Reflections from India and Pakistan. United Nations.
5. ^ United Nations. 2001. ''Women in India. How free? How equal?, pp. 8-9.
6. ^ Violence against women in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch
7. ^ Violence Against Women: Bangladesh Context

See also

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Purdah may refer to:
  • The practice of preventing men from seeing women.
  • Isolation generally (in colloquial English)
  • Curtain (in the Persian language, Urdu and Hindi)

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burqa (also transliterated burkha, burka or burqua) is an enveloping outer garment worn by women in some Islamic traditions for the purpose of cloaking the entire body.
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Yashmak, yashmac or yasmak (from Turkish yaşmak, literally "to cover, hide" [1]) is a Turkish type of veil or niqab worn by many Muslim women to cover their faces in public.
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Hijab or ħijāb (حجاب) is the Arabic term for "cover" (noun), based on the root حجب meaning "to veil, to cover (verb), to screen, to shelter"
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"Sultana's Dream" is a classic work of South Asian Muslim literature, written in 1905 by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Bengali Muslim feminist, writer and social reformer. The word sultana here means a female sultan, i.e. a Muslim ruler.
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Roquia Sakhawat Hussain, Bangla: (বেগম রোকেয়া), (1880 – December 9, 1932) was a prolific writer, feminist and a social worker in undivided Bengal in the early 20th century.
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C. M. Naim (Choudhary Mohammad Naim, b. 3 June 1936) is an American writer, scholar, critic, translator and academician of Indian origin. Naim's area of research is Urdu language and literature, as well as South Asian studies.
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