Women's History Resource Site

King's College History Department


In the lands of India the actual translation of the word purdah is screen or veil. Purdah is the practice that includes the seclusion of women from public observation by wearing concealing clothing from head to toe and by the use of high walls, curtains, and screens erected within the home. Purdah is practiced by Muslims and by various Hindus, especially in India. The limits imposed by this practice vary according to different countries and class levels. Generally, those women in the upper and middle class are more likely to practice all aspects of purdah because they can afford to not work outside the home.

Purdah probably developed in Persia and later spread to Middle Eastern lands.  Purdah flourished in ancient Babylon. No woman could go outside unless masked and chaperoned by a male from the family. Even parts of the household were separated as a practice of segregation. The ancient Assyrian women also had to remain inside behind curtains where darkness and little breeze prevailed. In the 7th century A.D., during the Arab conquest of what is now Iran, the Muslims probably adapted the idea of purdah to their religion. The Prophet Muhammad reintroduced the custom as part of the Islamic tenets of faith. As time went by the laws associated with purdah became more severe. During the British domination in India, the observance of purdah was very strictly adhered to and widespread among the Muslims.

Some critics see purdah as an evil influence that has only suffocated the rights of women and perpetuated male chauvinism. They point towards the Muslims in India who have shut off women from the outside world in order to make them ignorant of the practicalities of life. To them it has deprived the woman of economic independence and forces these females to produce chauvinistic boys and submissive girls. In order to keep females submissive, women know only what their fathers, husbands, and sons want them to know. Critics see women who practice purdah as having no voice or free will.

Others, mostly believers in Islam, see purdah as a very positive and respectful practice that actually liberates women. It is viewed as liberating because it brings about an aura of respect. Women are looked at as individuals who are judged not by their physical beauty but by their inner beauty and mind. By covering themselves, women are not looked at as sex objects that can be dominated. For the Muslims, purdah is an act of faith that entails the acts of honor, respect, and dignity. Islam exalts the status of women by commanding that women should enjoy equal rights with men and remain on the same footing as them. When a woman covers herself she places herself on a higher level and allows men to see and respect her for her intellect, faith, and personality. The physical person is to play no role in social interaction.

The role of purdah in any culture has become more controversial since the rise of the women's movement. Purdah has almost disappeared in the Hindu practice and is practiced to greater and lesser degrees in many of the Islamic countries. Either way the practice of purdah is looked at, whether in a negative or positive light, it stills remains an integral part of everyday life for some peoples and marks a part of their culture.

Annotated Bibliography

Abraham, Vinu. "Unveiling the Purdah." March 01, 1998. http://www.the-week.com/98mar01/life7.htm (November 13, 1998).

This website posts weekly articles on life in India. This article focuses on the current trend of Indian women to wear purdah gowns for non-religious reasons. Women are beginning to wear them because of their low cost, and in order to avoid the pestering of men in public places. Discussed is the progressive view that this new fad conceals a religious chauvinism that spells danger for Muslim womanhood. This site provides useful information on social issues in current India and shows some of the positives and negatives of purdah.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1992.

The author of this book presents the discourse on the conditions of the lives of women in Middle Eastern history plus the recent findings on the history of these same women. This discourse includes the reasons for purdah and its place in the modern world. The book is divided into three parts, the pre-Islamic Middle East, founding discourses, and new discourses. The section that details the discourse on the wearing of the veil identifies the differences between Middle Eastern cultures and Western views on their culture. It criticizes the view of the West as liberator and Islam as the oppressor. This book is very useful in looking at the reasons for purdah through the female Islamic view.

Anonymous. "Purdah-Seclusion-in Pakistan." Women's International Network News, 20 (Spring 1994): 33.

This article focus is on the practice of purdah in Pakistan, which discriminates against women and violates their human rights. Purdah is a means to segregate women from society. The article describes purdah as jail and shows the negatives of the practice. It provides the viewpoint of one Pakistan woman who is against the idea of purdah.

Anonymous. "The Issue of Muslim Veiling Is Sexism: France." Women's International Network News, 16 ( Winter 1990): 69.

This article comes from an incident that brought about a national debate on the veiling of women. In the suburbs of Paris two Muslim students were ordered by the principal to remove the veils that they wore because of their practice of strict Muslim laws. Some saw the veil as a humiliating dress for women. Although it was decided that the women were allowed to wear their veils it brought about a great debate in the West. This shows what can happen when two cultures clash.

Anonymous. "Purdah-The Seclusion of Women." January 15, 1998. http://foundation.novartis.com/purdah.htm (November 13, 1996).

This short article sympathizes with the poverty stricken Muslim women in Bangladesh who are forced to earn a living within the restrictions imposed by their religious culture. The view of purdah is that women should not leave the home to work. The article contends that practicing purdah earns high social and religious prestige but only the more affluent can afford to strictly practice it. Those in society who are poor therefore do not earn the same respect. The article shows the great difference in female and male wages because of the purdah practice.

Chopra, Sehmina. "Learning About Islam: Liberation by the Veil." March 03, 1998.
http://www.al-islam.org/about/contributions/liberationbytheveil.html (November 13, 1998).

The author of this article takes a supportive role for the practice of purdah. She takes the view of the veil as being a liberating experience. She uses quotes from the holy Koran in presenting her point. The author does deny the previous use of the veil so as to oppressive women. However, she points out true reason for the veil as a source of identity and faith.

Levy, Reuben. The Social Structure of Islam. Cambridge: The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press, 1965.

This author takes a traditional look at the Muslim religion. The main purpose of it is to look at the effects of the religious system of Islam on the daily life practices and structure of those who believe in it. The section devoted to the how the religion of Islam effects women's' role in society discusses purdah briefly. The book is useful in chronicling the treatment of women in Islamic countries and how it has changed from the past into the mid 20th century.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite. New York, N.Y.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1987.

The author of this book, as a female Muslim, offers up the idea that the denial of women's rights in Islamic society does not come from the Koran, sayings of Muhammad, or tradition but from those who see these rights conflicting with the interests of the male elite. She denounces those who see the fight for women's rights in Islamic society as a move towards Westernization. The idea of purdah is looked at through the context of the society. The book stresses that purdah does not promote the idea that women have not had important roles in the development of Muslim society. Although her writing is somewhat biased because of her strong feelings the book offers the importance of Islamic women and their influence.

Mustikhan, Ahmar. "Women's woes under Islam." The World and I, February 1998, 54-59.

This article begins by detailing a number of the strict Muslim laws that only apply to women. Its purpose is to present both sides of the debate on the limitation of rights for these women. It provides the liberal view, justification for women's fewer rights, and the controversy over theology. The liberal side does like the idea that some women wear purdah clothing in the workplace while the conservative side does not see the practice of purdah as restrictive towards women. The article provides a thorough look at the many implications of purdah for women who practice it.

Nanji, Azim, ed. The Muslim Almanac. New York, N.Y.: Gale Research Inc., 1996.

This book is a reference work on the peoples, culture, faith, and history of the Muslim. The general audience is almost anyone and it contains a brief description of everything you would ever want to know about the Muslims. Purdah is described as a system of gender segregation. The subject of purdah is looked at in a very objective manner, showing that it is part of the Muslim culture and tradition. Overall, this book is a good source for a brief look at purdah along with how it plays an important role in the culture of many people.

Paul, B.K. "Female Activity Space in Rural Bangladesh." Geographical Review, January 1992, 1-12.

The author of this article analyzes female space in the context of purdah, the patriarchal family structure, and the organization of rural settlements in Bangladesh. Discussed is the idea that purdah is used as an instrument that enables men to dominate over the family structure and causes a division of labor by gender that leaves women extremely dependent upon their husbands. The article also views purdah as a symbol of social status for rural families since the richer families most strictly practice it. This article is very useful in showing the divisiveness that purdah causes in society.

Shaikh, Anwar. "Islam and Womanhood." June 16, 1998.
http://www.hindutva.org/AnwarShaikh/Islam/IslamWoman1.html (November 13, 1998).

The author of this article identifies what he sees as the three components, which the Prophet Muhammad used to perpetuate, man's control over woman. The three components are purdah, man's right to divorce at will, and polygamy. The section on purdah starts out with origins of purdah and its spread to the Muslims. The author then continues by quoting passages from the Koran and showing how purdah still adversely effects women.

Utas, Bo, ed. Women in Islamic Societies. New York, N.Y.: Olive Branch Press, 1983.

This book is a culmination of the many different views on historical perspectives and social attitudes of the Islamic treatment of women. It is the actual selection of papers that were written during and for a conference on 'Women in Islam' held in November of 1997. While it covers a multitude of topics some articles focus on the continued seclusion of Muslim women in society. There is a discussion of how this constant seclusion is not harmful. There are other formats, like poetry, where women reveal their voices. The value is very helpful in voicing the many different points of view of women and their solutions for the treatment of Muslim women.

Walther, Wiebke. Women in Islam. New York, N.Y.: Markus Wiener Pub., 1993.

This book examines the issue of women in Islam from a largely historical standpoint. It shows how the different way that women are treated in Muslim society arose from Islamic law, the Koran, and tradition. The author wrote the book for a wide range of readers, since the idea of women still living by the laws of traditional Islamic countries has become the focus of increasing international interest. His section on purdah focuses on the passages from the Koran that suggest the idea. He also remarks that purdah has had unfavorable consequences for women in Islam and the development of society as a whole. This text is useful in providing the historical background from which purdah arose.



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