Purdah, in the sense of seclusion, means restrictions on women's movements outside the home. Thus, a woman could be unveiled and yet observe purdah by remaining in seclusion within the home. Purdah has further connotations for living arrangements within the home in the sense of separate living spaces for men and women — a feature that is often manifest in the architecture of family residences. As Cora Vreede-De Stuers has pointed out, in its most extended sense purdah refers to approved norms of modest and circumspect feminine behaviour, as for instance in downcast eyes, the bowing of the head, the complete silence a woman observes in the presence of a man, or by the hasty gesture of veiling her head with a corner of her sari or dupatta if she is caught unawares. The degree and kind (the actual veiling or seclusion) of purdah observed by women has varied across time and place and from family to family and is also related to class status. Purdah in the form of seclusion is almost exclusively a characteristic feature of upper-class status, but one that is frequently emulated by lower-class aspirants to it.
The practice of purdah derives from a concern to control female sexuality and to shield women from being the objects of the sexual desire of men other than their husbands. Secondly, in its association with circumspect feminine behaviour (which in turn was associated with female subordination), it is critical for preserving hierarchy within the patriarchal family. Thus, women observe purdah usually with male and often with senior female members of their husbands' families. Purdah is observed much more loosely and sometimes not at all by women when they are with their natal families.
The belief that the custom of purdah was introduced into the Indian subcontinent through Muslim conquests of northern India in about ad 1200 is of limited validity. The purdah, as veiling, was possibly influenced by Islamic custom, and the practice of covering the head and face is more prevalent in those parts of India believed to be more heavily influenced by Islam than others. But, in the sense of seclusion and the segregation of men and women, purdah predates the Islamic invasions of India. In the nineteenth century, the custom of purdah, specially in the sense of the seclusion of upper-class women, was increasingly viewed by British colonial rulers of India as an indication of the degraded condition of Indian women and, even more broadly, as a symptom of the overall primitiveness of Indian society. Indian social reformers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries attempted to eradicate purdah as part of a program to ‘improve’ the social conditions of women. The long-term results of this, as well as other factors, led to a reduction (but not elimination) in the observance of purdah in South Asia throughout the twentieth century. However, efforts to create Islamic theocratic states in certain parts of South Asia in recent times led to government directives ordering women to wear ‘Islamic dress’ — that is to observe purdah by covering their bodies with a garment (now called chador) and to cover their heads as well.
Mumtaz, K. and Shaheed, F. (ed.) (1987). Women of Pakistan. Zed Books, London and New Jersey.
Papanek, H. and Minault, G. (ed.) (1982). Separate worlds. Studies of purdah in South Asia. South Asia Books, Columbia, Missouri.
Vreede-De Stuers, C. (1968). Purdah: a study of Muslim women's life in Northern India. Humanities Press, New York.
See also Hinduism and the body; Islam and the body; veil.
The word "purdah" comes from the Hindu word meaning curtain or veil. Purdah is a complex set of rules, followed in some Muslim and Hindu societies, which restrict a woman's movements both in the outside world and within her own home. Meant to separate the family as a unit from those outside the family, purdah requires a woman to isolate herself from those who are not in her immediate family by veiling her body and face or sitting behind screens or curtains. The custom of purdah originated among the Assyrians and the Persians, peoples who inhabited ancient Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Iraq, around 1000 b.c.e. The term purdah is also sometimes used to describe the heavy veiling that women wear under the rules of purdah.
As early as the 2000s b.c.e., ancient Babylonian men had strict rules about the movements of women, requiring them to cover their bodies and faces and to be accompanied by a male chaperone when in public. A few centuries later, Assyrian and Persian men refined these rules further, insisting that women remain inside their homes most of the time, concealed from view behind curtains. When the Arab people conquered the Persians during the seventh century b.c.e., they adopted many of the Persian customs including the seclusion of women. They blended this custom with their Muslim religion, and many Muslim societies began to practice some form of purdah. The influence spread across India as well, and many people of the Hindu religion also began to practice purdah.
In the twenty-first century strict purdah is mainly practiced in rural areas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and some other countries that practice the Muslim or Hindu religions. The rules of purdah usually apply only to women after they are married, and they vary somewhat between Muslim and Hindu peoples. For the Hindus, purdah is a tool for defining the family, as well as showing modesty. Young married women mainly associate with members of their own family. They rarely travel, seldom go out in public, and are always completely veiled when they do. Even at home, they only show their faces to members of the family they grew up in and to their husbands, covering their faces or remaining behind a screen even around their in-laws. Though they may talk to women and children outside their immediate families through the veil, they usually do not speak to any men outside their own birth families. As these women grow older, the rules of purdah relax and many go unveiled inside their homes.
In Muslim families the rules of purdah are less strict and do not apply to family members of the wife or husband. Muslim purdah is meant mainly to ensure modesty of dress and behavior and to separate women from men who are not related by blood or marriage.
Many women have rebelled against the restrictions of purdah, saying that the confining rules limit their access to education and information about the world. Those who support the practice say that purdah is meant to improve women's position and increase respect for them by freeing them from concern about their appearance and from men's reactions to their bodies. However, as many people in Muslim and Hindu societies have become more educated and many Muslim women have become more ambitious and independent, the practice of purdah has begun to disappear.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Black, J. Anderson, and Madge Garland. Updated and revised by Frances Kennett. A History of Fashion. New York: William Morrow, 1980.
Brooks, Geraldine. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg, 1999.
Murtaza, Mutahhari. The Islamic Modest Dress. Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1992.
[See also Volume 1, Mesopotamia: Veils ; Volume 1, India: Burka ]
Purdah, from the Persian word for curtain, pardah, refers to the custom of veiling and secluding women in Islamic societies. The Arabic term is hijab. The custom derives from references in the Qur˒an to speaking with women from behind a curtain (33:53) and to hadith enjoining modest behavior for Muslims of both sexes. Purdah is observed in a variety of ways, all of them involving some form of sexual segregation. In its most extreme form, women are confined to their homes; alternatively, it involves male social interaction and schooling with other males and similarly segregated social activities and schooling for females. Usually, purdah involves various forms of modest dress in order to keep women from being seen by unrelated males. These range from all-enveloping garments to scarves that cover the hair.
While the custom is associated with the religion of Islam, purdah is also a form of cultural and political symbolism. During the period of rapid modernization in the early twentieth century, many middle-class, urban Muslim women gave up the veil. In more recent times, movements of cultural pride and religious reassertion have prompted many Muslim women to don it again. Purdah observation varies according to region, culture, and class. In Iran, the chador became the emblem of the Islamic revolution, symbolic of the rejection of the West and of westernization. In Afghanistan, the allenveloping burqa was required by the Taliban government, though it also provided symbolic protection for women in politically unstable situations. In Pakistan and India, Muslim women wear a variety of veil forms: the chaddar—a large shawl that hides the feminine form, the burqa—a coatlike garment with an adjustable head piece, the dupatta—a sheer stole that adorns the shoulders, but can be put over the hair when necessary.
Controversy exists over the meaning of renewed purdah observance in recent times. It can be seen as the oppressive imposition of social segregation upon women, or as a matter of choice, in which the use of the veil expresses a woman's faith and cultural identity. Indicative of this latter phenomenon is the fact that wearing a head scarf is becoming more common as Muslims migrate to non-Muslim countries.
Papanek, Hanna. "Purdah: Separate Worlds and Symbolic Shelter." Comparative Studies in Society and History 15, no. 3 (1973): 289–325.
Shirazi, Faegheh. The Veil Unveiled: Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.
Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology inContemporary Egypt. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.