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Ladies of Caubul (1848 lithograph) showing the lifting of purdah in zenana areas.

Purdah or Pardaa (Urdu: پردہ, Hindi: पर्दा, Persian: پرده literally meaning "curtain") is the practice of preventing women from being seen by men. According to the exactest definition:

Purdah is a curtain which makes sharp separation between the world of man and that of a woman, between the community as a whole and the family which is its heart, between the street and the home, the public and the private, just as it sharply separates society and the individual.[1]

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[2] and among Hindu women in parts of India, a practice that was adopted out of fear during Muslim rule.[3]

In the Muslim world, preventing women from being seen by men is closely linked to the concept of Namus.[4][5] Namus is an ethical category, a virtue, in Middle Eastern Muslim patriarchal character. It is a strongly gender-specific category of relations within a family described in terms of honor, attention, respect/respectability, and modesty. The term is often translated as "honor".[4][5]



A woman's withdrawal into purdah restricts her personal, social and economic activities outside her home. In other words, a woman in purdah should always remain at home. It is permissible, however, for a woman in purdah to come out of her house in extreme necessity but that is subject to certain conditions. They are:

  • She should be accompanied by a close male relative (mahram)
  • She should be covered so that men cannot see her. The usual purdah garment worn is a burqa or a niqab, a veil to conceal the face. The eyes may or may not be exposed.
  • She should not mix with men who are not related to her.

Physical segregation within a house can be done with walls, curtains, and screens which separate the Zenana (women's chamber) from the Mardana (men's chamber).

History and context


Muslim scholar Fadwa El Guindi observes that the Achaemenid rulers of Persia were reported by the Graeco-Roman historian Plutarch to have hidden their wives and concubines from the public gaze.

The barbarous nations, and amongst them the Persians especially, are extremely jealous, severe, and suspicious about their women, not only their wives (hai gamētai), but also their bought slaves and concubines (pallakai), whom they keep so strictly that no one sees them abroad; they spend their lives shut up within doors (oikoi) and when they take a journey, are carried in closed tents, curtained on all sides, and set upon a wagon (harmamaxai).[6]

The wives were hidden in wagons and litters, that is, by purdah. It is likely that the custom of veiling continued through the Seleucid, Parthian, and Sassanid periods. This tradition of Purdah is reflected in the Shahnama, the Persian chronicle in which women are generally referred to as pushide-ruyan (پوشيده رویان) "those whose faces are covered" or pardegian (پردگيان) "those behind the curtains"

Purdah was rigorously observed in Iran before Reza Shah's purdah ban. The practice was also 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.

Greece and Byzantium

Upper-class Greek and Byzantine women were also secluded from the public gaze.

Arab and Islamic world

Muslim women were to be veiled (hijab) or secluded because it marked them as respectable (see Sex segregation and Islam).

In historically Islamic Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, purdah is a custom with cultural rather than religious basis. Even 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. In 1925 Marmaduke Pickthall, a British convert to Islam and translator of the Qur'an, gave a lecture in Madras titled "The Relation of the Sexes"[7] which condemned purdah in the Indian subcontinent, and also criticized the practice of face veiling among Muslim women.

Bhimrao Ambedkar, a social reformer and the chief architect of the Constitution of India, imputed many evils existing among the Muslims of colonial-era India to the 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.[8]

Pratibha Patil, who later became President of India once said that the purdah system was introduced among Hindu women to protect them from the Muslim invaders.[9]

See also


Silver zenana carriage for Hindu women
  1. ^ Understanding Islam, by Frithjof Schuon. ISBN 0-14-003413-7. Page 18
  2. ^ World faiths, Teach yourself - Islam. By Ruqaiyyah Maqsood. ISBN 0-340-60901-X. Page 154.
  3. ^ SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS IN INDIA Gender, Institutions and Development Database
  4. ^ a b Werner Schiffauer, "Die Gewalt der Ehre. Erklärungen zu einem deutsch-türkischen Sexualkonflikt." ("The Force of the Honour"), Suhrkamp: Frankfurt am Main, 1983. ISBN 3-518-37394-3.
  5. ^ a b Dilek Cindoglu, "Virginity tests and artificial virginity in modern Turkish medicine," pp. 215–228, in Women and sexuality in Muslim societies, P. Ýlkkaracan (Ed.), Women for Women’s Human Rights, Istanbul, 2000.
  6. ^ cited in Briant 2002 p. 284
  7. ^ Pickthall, M. 1925, The Relation of the Sexes
  8. ^ Ambedkar, B.R. 1946. Pakistan, or the Partition of India, 3rd edition, Thacker and Co. Bombay. Chapter 10.
  9. ^ Patil’s purdah remark courts controversy Tuesday , Jun 19, 2007 at 0000 hrs

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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