History 5th October, 2020

History Of The Purdah System: Unveiling its Multidimensional Roots.

The idea of secular India has come under scrutiny from numerous ends. Despite secularism finding its way into the Constitution’s pages in 1975, the experiences of those residing in India have been quite stark. The arguments put forth by rightists mainly surround the past emperors’ wrongdoings to rationalise the events of today.

Mughal emperors have been scrutinised often due to their religious affiliations, overlooking the wrongs of the Delhi Sultans, Hindu rulers and numerous other monarchs (which our history books have or have not discussed). “The Mughals were largely the ones willing to wipe ‘Hindus’ from their kingdoms”, was a statement once delivered by an uncle of mine. He added, “Do you know Hinduism is the most tolerant religion? Islam, on the other hand, binds people, women especially. What comments do you have on the Burkah worn by women of that religion?”.

Burkah is a word that loosely falls under the category of purdah or veil. But what is to say a purdah is only an event of the past, an occurrence in the attires of a few? ‘Purdah’ is a Persian word translated as curtain, veil, attire worn by women to mark their social and physical segregation from the rest of society by covering their bodies and/or faces. Purdah takes different dimensions depending on the country, place of origin and hence – has numerous variations.

These practices have demarcated the status of women in society, their activities, their access to different institutions, and their autonomy.

The physical expression of purdah translates into zenana (women living in separate quarters), burqa/chadar (veiling by a garment), ghoonghat (covering the face) and certain others. All these instances provide exposure to the restriction of women’s movements by regulating their behaviour and their access to the public-private spheres of life. A woman’s private space is considered the walls of her house, but only before the men come to assume their ‘rightful’ place inside the homes.

Veiling and seclusion of women are customs followed in Hindu and Muslim religions alike but differs in context. While the latter religion advocates this practice as a means to safeguard women from other men by separating the feminine world, the former religion has devised their method to enforce the subordination of women in the arena of family and kinship – to establish the supremacy of the in-laws. Such customs have provided a systematic lens of viewing women as inferior beings according to their role in the public and private spheres due to their gender identity.

These practices have demarcated the status of women in society, their activities, their access to different institutions, and their autonomy. These dictated spaces virtually eliminate women’s opportunities to assume roles more than that of a wife and mother. The purdah has not been restricted to any particular religion; it has manifested across various sects of humanity only to control womenfolk further.

Historical backdrop

Mughals have been credited with bringing the purdah system to India – which was later adopted by the Hindus of the land. Such was translated from their clothing (burkhas) to women’s physical spacing in courtrooms (high-walled enclosures/screens). However, it should be highlighted that the purdah system’s historical roots can be traced to Persian culture, which was later adopted by the Muslims in the 7th century AD. Additionally, scholars like Satish Chandra have stated that this practice was introduced in India by the Delhi Sultanate, way before the Mughals set foot in the Indian mainland.

Then northern rulers of India widely adopted this practice for fear of women being captured by invaders, an age-long practice of reducing women to prize trophies. Numerous other texts narrate that women from Arabia were accustomed to veiling themselves with a cloth to protect themselves from harsh climatic conditions. Hence, the purdah was considered a shield for women against adverse climatic conditions, pollution and dirt. The purdah system comprises hijab, niqab, burqa and chador – each of which is an essential part of this practice.

The Hindu Purdah – The Ghoonghat

Bringing this exercise to the Indian mainland during their conquests, the Rajputs were among the most dominant groups to be stern believers of the purdah system. Such is also witnessed from the tale of Queen Padmavati. She jumped into the pyre of fire (sati) along with other married women never to be seen by Allaudin Khilji, the Delhi Sultan (internalised patriarchy is visible even in such instances in the most nuanced way).

These dictated spaces virtually eliminate women’s opportunities to assume roles more than that of a wife and mother.

When this practice came into contact with Hindu culture’s rural areas, it was translated as laaj. The newly married daughter-in-law was to cover her head with the pallu or dupatta in the presence of her husband or in-laws. However, the purdah observed during the colonial era was exclusively practised by the Muslim community. Nonetheless, this system stood its ground in Hindu practices as well.

Women’s seclusion was so strongly associated with the ghoonghat that the honour of the families and the feminine code of modesty were upheld and tied to it. Texts have disclosed that by the 15th century, the purdah became an integral part of Rajasthan’s feudal etiquette in an attempt to mirror the practices of the ruling population. Therefore, it was followed by women in dominant communities.

The practice of purdah amidst Muslims is followed when a girl reaches puberty, while the concept of ghoonghat is initiated after marriage in Hindus. While the Hinduized version of purdah was staunchly followed in the Northern belt (Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, parts of Madhya Pradesh, Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh), Ajanta caves provide us with the information that the Southern part of India had no reference to this system. There is no rapid shift from purdah to no-purdah regions.

Instead, there is a gradual transition through the areas while the uniform idea remains of establishing supremacy over the womenfolk. Such is translated through the custom of ghoonghat followed by the daughters-in-law. In the Rajput era, the purdah represented economic superiority along with it being a marker of good behaviour from a religious point of view.

Henceforth, down to the present century, dominant groups and royal families remain anxious to introduce purdah in their family to command respectability. The affluent homes could afford to observe strict behaviour imposed on women while those who were financially vulnerable were to send womenfolk for employment opportunities. Hence, those belonging to the base of the pyramid could not forgo their labour power to gain better economic opportunities/livelihood.

The Ghoonghat In The Current Context

These garments have held women in the pits of patriarchy for long. For instance, in her work, Tasneem Chowdhury (1992) provides examples from the households of Lucknow wherein Shusheela Bajpai had to cover her face every time she stepped out of the house. Only after she reached the outskirts of her village would she be free from the ghoonghat, freed by her anonymity.

In a society where male pride is very significant and simultaneously fragile, the seclusion of women has remained an essential aspect of male control to date.

On the other end, Sudevi, a non-dominant caste woman working in the fields, did not cover her head due to her working conditions. However, both of them were expected to look after their in-laws. The purdah system strikingly demarcates the task between men and women as the latter is supposed to be associated with the housework while the former sets foot in the public spaces.

Whether the purdah is implemented as a form of oppression, protection, or empowerment, voluntarily or through generations, is crucial. Purdah and its numerous manifestations have been a controversial topic sensitive to various levels of the social setup. In the contemporary era, this theme has been a weapon in the social war to appease some and target others.

In a society where male pride is very significant and simultaneously fragile, the seclusion of women has remained an essential aspect of male control to date. The custom of purdah or ghoonghat requires a woman to isolate herself from those who are not the immediate family by veiling her face, thus controlling her access to the world. The lack of institutionalisation surrounding this issue is reflected by the absence of legislation around this engrained practice. One also needs to simultaneously acknowledge the choice of a woman in her attire without imposing any norms. Yet, this does not hinder us from spreading awareness and trying to deconstruct the historicity of such practices.

Also Read: The Good Woman Vs The Bad Woman: A Brief History


Featured image source: Pinterest. Artist – Raja Ravi Verma




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