‘Purdah’ is a Persian word which literally means ‘a curtain’. A curtain covers the windows and the doors to prevent the inside view to the outsiders. The high walls and screens erected within the house, too serve as purdah. In the present context, the word ‘Purdah’ has been used for the concealment of women and separation of the worlds of men and women. Purdah is most commonly discussed in the context of Muslim women, though it is not just an Islamic tradition. Hindu women who in the Vedic period did not use veil at all, came to be veiled at a later date, though in a different way and to a different extent.
Purdah, a veil for women to conceal themselves, expresses a cultural attitude indicative of a social system: “Here the female body is a metaphor of land and it is this body which needs to be controlled….. Purdah is based on the principle of inequality, and establishes itself on the dual strategy of control and exclusion which projects women as secondary.”
Women, who had many equal privileges with the male members of the society during the Vedic period were reduced to a position of total subordination during the time of the Simritis. They were declared to be intrinsically polluted and impure and hence ineligible, even for listening to the recital of sacred texts and receiving religious instruction. The inherent attraction of the male for the female was considered to be a temptation to sin, and man had to remain on guard all the time. This put the women behind the veil who were subjected to confinement in the interiors of the household. During the invasions of India, the female of the invaded populace further became a liability for the male, who had to be ready to protect their honor and chastity in the troubled times. This led to the increased rate of purdah system.
The origin of the word ‘purdah’ from the Persian language gives the impression that purdah is a Persian custom, yet it is a tradition spread over various regions, irrespective of the religious beliefs. Religion only plays its part in the furtherance of the custom that is more or less region based, depending on the economic and socio-psychological landscape of the area: “Several varied systems of thought converge into this practice. These myths of creation that project women as secondary, as source of temptation and seduction, and actual kinship patterns that project women as objects of exchange and hence as equated to property requiring ownership and protection; all are indicators of female subordination and a symbol of power relationship.”
When Manusmriti held its sway, there was total subordination of women. “Manusmriti deals with different roles of women and the overall picture it presents is of the woman as a person naturally soft and docile; irrational and vulnerable, easily distracted from the path of virtue and hence greatly in need of male control.” Under the system woman was in the absolute control of the male members of the family. No woman could go outside the house unless she was masked. Even parts of the household were separated for women for the purpose of segregation.
The custom of observance of purdah means much more than mere concealment of the physical self of a woman. It indicates a social structure, that discriminates between its male and female members. It makes a woman anonymous, a non person. It restricts her to the domestic sphere and makes her a passive personality not daring to venture out of the four walls of the house. Under the circumstances the question of her having independent thinking and a personality of her own does not arise.
This condition of society was not acceptable to the Sikh Gurus, as it was incongruent with their thought process. Affirmation of the dignity of human beings, men as well as women, was central to their teachings. The custom of purdah, a symbol of the subordination of women, had no place in the social milieu, if women were to be equal participants in the process of community building the Sikh Gurus had taken up in hand. For them moving away from purdah meant moving towards freedom and enlightenment.
However, doing away with purdah called for a complete change in family relationships and in the manner the women viewed themselves. A total change was required to “enable the concepts of personhood and responsibility to grow, and for supportive system to develop, so that the joy of growing up female could be truly felt.” The Gurus wanted women to experience the joy of growing up female. Their vision of the immanence of the Creator in all of His creation could be realized only in the forceful implementation of gender equality. They wanted women to know their immense potential, and to experience their personhood which was essentially spiritual. Unfortunately, stifling social customs conspired to exclude them from participation in the mainstream societal work. The Sikh Gurus were determined to restore to women their unique destiny. Carrying on the task started by the first Guru, the third Master, Guru Amardas, meticulously worked for the removal of all prevalent social evils that relegated women to a secondary position; the system of purdah being one of them. He strictly forbade the wearing of the veil by women attending his congregations. Even the queens from upper castes, for whom wearing of purdah was mandatory under the prevalent norms, could not attend the congregational sessions conducted by him, with the veils on their faces. While giving audience to a Hindu queen when she came all veiled, he said, “You mad woman, have you come to see the Guru and you cover your face from him.”53 The incident recorded in the history proves that the Guru strictly enforced the dictum. Since the veils accentuate the sex differences, the system has been strongly condemned in Sri Guru Granth Sahib:
Stay, stay, O daughter-in-law, do not cover your face with a veil.
In the end, this shall not bring you even half a shell. Do not follow in the footstep of the
one who before you used to veil her face. The only merit in veiling your face is that for a few days,
people will say…What a noble bride has come.
My shyness and hesitation have died and gone,
and I walk with my face unveiled. The confusion and doubt has been removed
from over my head.
Sikh code of conduct prohibits wearing of the veil by Sikh women. It ordains, “A Sikh woman should neither wear a veil nor should keep her face hidden.” Denouncement of the system of purdah cannot be expressed in words stronger than the ones used by Prof. Puran Singh, a Sikh mystic:
To keep woman heavily laden with ornaments behind the veil,
away from field and farm, to conceal her like your gems in sandalwood boxes, in the golden chest,
behind heavy screens of false honor and false shame and impure virtue, is a barbarity that
poisons hearth and home, denies God, and makes the human soul a toy; life an oppression,
a suffocation, death; and of love, self respect, honor, and virtue a dead mockery!
Shame on such society, down with it!
The suffix ‘Kaur’ with the name of Sikh women symbolically stands for a veil free life for them. The word ‘Kanwar’ from which the suffix is derived literally means ‘the son of a king’. It goes without saying that the son of a king cannot be hidden behind a veil.
Free from the bondage of purdah, Sikh women made positive contributions to the making of a new social order; first as consorts of the Gurus, contributing to the social reconstruction in every possible way, and then as heads of religious denominations and later on as warriors and as statesmen. A woman behind purdah could not possibly be so awakened, dynamic and free to accomplish all this.