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