Purdah or pardah (from Persian : پرده, meaning "curtain") is a religious and social institution of female seclusion in Muslim-majority countries and South Asian countries. The Arabic equivalent is hijab. The term purdah is predominantly used in South Asia.
Purdah has “visual, spatial, and ethical dimensions”. It refers three main components: veiling of women, segregation of sexes, and a set of norms and attitudes that sets boundaries for Muslim women’s moral conduct.
Purdah is primarily practiced in majority-Muslim countries and Hindu communities in South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh). It varies broadly according to religions, region, nationality, cultures, and socioeconomic classes.
Pre-Islamic roots 
Although purdah is commonly associated with Islam, many scholars argue that veiling and secluding women pre-dates Islam; these practices were commonly found among various groups in the Middle East such as Druze, Christian, and Jewish communities. For instance, the burqa existed in Arabia before Islam, and the mobility of upper-class women were restricted in Babylonia, Persian, and Byzantine Empires before the advent of Islam. Historians believe purdah was acquired by the Muslims during the expansion of the Arab Empire into modern-day Iraq in the 7th century C.E. Historians argue that Islam merely added religious significance to already existing local practices of the times.
From the Quran 
Purdah was given religious significance under the Quran, the Islamic holy book, and by the Hadith. Rules about the purdah were listed in Verse 53 of Surah 33, where the Prophet Muhammed put his wives behind the curtain during the wedding feast of his newest wife Zeinab.
The verse reads:
O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses until leave is given you for a meal [...]. And when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk, such (behaviour) annoys the Prophet [...]. And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything you want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.” ([Quran 53:33])
The Quranic verses stipulate modesty for both men and women, but lists many more restrictions for women’s movement. The most explicit passage in the Quran that regulates purdah and female modesty is Verse 31 of Surah 24, which specifies the men whom women may interact freely.
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them [...]. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male attendants free of sexual desires. Or small children who have no carnal knowledge of women; And that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. ([Quran 24:31])
Lastly, Verse 59 of Surah 33 reveals a historical context of the purdah—it explains the necessity of a covering for women when they go outside as a way to signify their status so they would not be harassed by the hypocrites who habitually harassed female slave women.
Notably, during the Prophet Muhammad’s life, the purdah was restricted to only women of his family and tribe.
Adoption and spreading 
Historians believe purdah was originally a Persian practice that the Muslims adopted during the Arab conquest of modern-day Iraq in the 7th century C.E. . Later, Muslim rule of northern India during the Mughal Empire influenced the practice of Hinduism, and purdah spread to the Hindu upper classes of northern India. During the British colonialism period in India, purdah observance was widespread and strictly-adhered to among the Muslim minority. In modern times, the practice of veiling and secluding women is still present in mainly Islamic countries and South Asian countries. However, the practice is not monolithic. Purdah takes on different forms and significance depending on the region, time, socioeconomic status, and local culture.
Protection and patriarchy 
Some scholars argue that purdah was initially designed to protect women from being harassed, but later these practices became a way to justify efforts to subjugate women and limit their mobility and freedom. However, others argue that these practices were always in place as local custom, but were later adopted by religious rhetoric to control female behavior.
Some view purdah as a symbol of honor, respect, and dignity. It is seen as a practice that allows women to be judged by their inner beauty rather than physical beauty.
In many societies, the seclusion of women to the domestic sphere is a demonstration of higher socioeconomic status and prestige because women are not needed for manual labor outside the home.
Individual motivations 
Rationale for individual women keeping purdah are complex and can be a combination of motivations: religious, cultural (desire for authentic cultural dress), political (Islamization of the society), economic (status symbol, protection from the public gaze), psychological (detachment from public sphere to gain respect), fashion and decorative purposes, and empowerment (donning veils to move in public space).
See Hijab by country
One aspect of purdah is the physical veiling of women through coverings such as
- Dupatta: a scarf or end of the sari that cover the tops of their heads in northern Indian, traditionally dressed women wear
- Chador: a full-body-length semicircle of fabric open down the front, that covers the female’s head, most commonly found on Iranian women in public spaces
- Burqa: a head-to-toe garment women wear when moving through public space, mainly found in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Syria.
- Ghoongat: a veil to cover the face of married Hindu women in India
Conduct and seclusion 
Another important aspect of purdah is modesty for women, which includes minimizing the movement of women in public spaces and interactions of women with other males. The specific form varies widely based on religion, region, class, and culture. For instance, for some purdah might mean never leaving the home unless accompanied by a male relative, or limiting interactions to only other women and male relatives (for some Muslims) or avoiding all males outside of the immediate family (for some Hindus ). For Muslims, seclusion begins at puberty while for Hindus, seclusion begins after marriage.
Effects of Purdah 
Psychology and health 
By restricting women’s mobility, purdah results in the social and physical isolation of women. Lack of a strong social network places women in a position of vulnerability with her husband and her husband’s family. Studies have shown that in conservative rural Bangladeshi communities, adherence to purdah is positively correlated with risk for domestic violence. The restriction on women’s mobility limits their ability to access health care and family planning services, especially for unmarried girls. In rural Pakistan, unmarried women and girls had trouble accessing healthcare facilities even in their own villages due to purdah; all types of women had difficulty accessing facilities outside of their villages because they had to be accompanied. Along the same vein, studies of women’s contraceptive use in Bangladesh shows that women with decreased observance of purdah and increased mobility are more likely to use contraceptives.
Economic participation 
By restricting women’s mobility, purdah places severe limits on women’s ability to participate in gainful employment and to attain economic independence. The ideology of purdah constricts women in the domestic sphere for reproductive role and places men in productive role as breadwinners who move through public space. However, due to economic needs and shifts in gender relations, some women are compelled to break purdah to gain income. Across countries, women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to observe purdah less because they face greater financial pressures to work and gain income. Studies show that “it is the poorest, most desperate families that, given the opportunity, are more willing to stress purdah norms and take the social risks entailed when women engage in wage or self-employment. For instance, rural women in Bangladesh have been found to be less concerned with propriety and purdah, and take up work where available, migrating if they need to. They take up work in a variety of sectors from agriculture to manufacturing to the sex trade. However, other studies found that purdah still plays a significant role in women’s decisions to participate in the workforce, often prohibiting them from taking opportunities they would otherwise. The degree to which women observe purdah and the pressures they face to conform or to earn income vary with their socioeconomic class.
Political participation 
Social and mobility restrictions under purdah severely limit women's involvement in political decision making in government institutions and in the judiciary. Lack of mobility and discouragement from participating in political life means women cannot easily exercise their right to vote, run for political office, participate in trade unions, or participate in community level decision-making. Women’s limited participation in political decision-making therefore results in policies that do not sufficiently address needs and rights of women in areas such as access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities, property ownership, justice, and others. Gender imbalance in policy-making also reinforces institutionalization of gender disparities.
Influences on purdah 
Governmental policies on purdah 
See Hijab by country
In Tunisia and Turkey, religious veiling is banned in public schools, universities, and government buildings as a measure to discourage displays of political Islam or fundamentalism. In western Europe, veiling is seen as symbol of Islamic presence, and movements to ban veils have stirred great controversy. For instance, since 2004 France has banned all overt religious symbols including the Muslim headscarf. In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh where the word purdah is primarily used, the government has no policies either for or against veiling.
Nations such as Pakistan have been swinging to more conservative laws and policies that use rhetoric of following Islamic law, sometimes termed Islamization. The ideology is reinforcing traditional culture, traditional women’s roles in the domestic sphere, and the need to protect women’s honor. The result is policies that reinforce cultural norms that limit female mobility in the public sphere, promotion of gender segregation, and institutionalization of gender disparities.
Women’s movements 
Women have been engaging in efforts to challenge the gender inequality resulting from purdah. For instance, women in Pakistan (mainly from the middle and upper-classes) organized trade unions and exercise their right to vote and influence decision making. However, their opponents accuse these women of falling for the pernicious influence of Westernization and turning their backs on tradition.
Globalization and migration 
Globalization and Muslim women returning from diasporas has influenced Pakistani women’s purdah practice in areas outside of religious significance. One major influence is the desire to be modern and keep up with latest fashion or refusal to do so as a source of autonomy and power. Simultaneously, due to modernization in many urban areas, purdah and face-veiling are seen as unsophisticated and backwards, creating a trend in less strict observance of purdah.
For the Muslim South Asian diaspora living in secular non-Muslim communities such as Pakistani-Americans, attitudes about purdah have changed to be less strict. As it pertains to education and economic opportunities, these immigrant families hold less conservative views about purdah after moving to America; for the daughters who do choose to wear the veil, they usually do so out of their own volition as a connection to their Islamic roots and culture.
Controversy around women’s agency 
Purdah as protection 
Some scholars argue that purdah was originally designed to protect women from being harassed and seen as sexual objects. In contemporary times, some men and women still interpret the purdah as a way to protect women’s safety while moving in public sphere. Observing purdah is also seen as a way to uphold women’s honor and virtuous conduct. However, critics point out that this view engages victim-blaming and places the onus of preventing sexual assault on women rather than the perpetrators themselves.
Purdah as oppression 
Purdah is often criticized as oppression of women by limiting female autonomy, freedom of movement, and access to resources such as education, employment, and political participation. Some scholars such as P. Singh and Roy interpret purdah as a form of male domination in the public sphere, and an “eclipse of Muslim woman’s identity and individuality”. According to scholars such as Elizabeth White, “purdah is an accommodation to and a means of perpetuating the perceived differences between the sexes: the male being self-reliant and aggressive, the female weak, irresponsible, and in need of protection”. Geraldine Books writes “in both cases [of spatial separation and veiling], women are expected to sacrifice their comfort and freedom to service the requirements of male sexuality: either to repress or to stimulate the male sex urge”.
When purdah is institutionalized into laws, it limits opportunity, autonomy, and agency in both private and public life. The result is policies that reinforce cultural norms that limit female mobility in the public sphere, promotion of gender segregation, and institutionalization of gender disparities.
Sometimes reactions to purdah adherence can become violent. For instance in 2001 in Srinagar, India, four young Muslim women were victimized by acid attacks for not veiling themselves in public; similar threats and attacks have occurred in Pakistan and Kashmir.
Purdah as empowerment 
The revival of purdah in modern times is sometimes perceived as a statement for progressive gender relations. Some women wear veils and head coverings as a symbol for protection and freedom of mobility. They perceive purdah as an empowerment tool, to exercise their rights to access public space for education and economic independence. For instance, in rural Bangladeshi villages, women who wear the burkha were found to have higher social participation, visibility, which overall contributes to an increase in women’s status.
See also 
- Hijab by country
- Sex segregation and Islam
- Women in Bangladesh
- Women in India
- Women in Islam
- Women in Pakistan
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