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 in 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.
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:
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.)
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