Purdah or Pardaa (Persian: پرده, 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 among Hindu women in parts of 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 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 Gender Equality in the Gender Equality 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.
Criticism of purdah has occurred historically. Purdah was criticised from within its community, for example in the 1905 story entitled The Sultana’s Dream, by Bengali feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a social reformer and the chief architect of the Constitution of India, imputed many evils existing among the Muslims of British India to the purdah system of purdah in his 1946 book Pakistan , or The Partition of India, saying that women lack “mental nourishment” by being isolated and that purdah harms the sexual morals of society as a whole.
- Ambedkar, B.R. 1946. Pakistan, or the Partition of India, 3rd edition, Thacker and Co. Bombay. Chapter 10.
- King’s College Women’s history
- Description of purdah practices in 20th century India by C.M. Naim, Professor Emeritus of Urdu and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago