My mother used purdah. She wore a burqa with a net cover
in front of the face. It reminded me of the meatsafes in my
grandmother's house. One had a net door made of cloth, the
other of metal. But the objective was the same: keeping the
meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her
conservative family. They told her that wearing a burqa
would mean obeying Allah. And if you obey Allah, He would
be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother
was afraid of Allah and also of her own father. He would
threaten her with grave consequences if she didn't wear the
all dark inside? Don't you feel breathless? Don't you feel
angry? Don't you ever feel like throwing it off? My mother
kept mum. She couldn't do anything about it. But I did. When
I was sixteen, I was presented a burqa by one of my
relatives. I threw it away.
The custom of purdah is not new. It dates back to 300 BC.
The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used purdah.
Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed purdah. In
the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover
their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a cloth or
similar object. This purdah system was obviously not
religious. The religious purdah is used by Catholic nuns and
Mormons, though for the latter only during religious
ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, however, such
religious purdah is not limited to specific rituals but mandatory
for their daily life outside the purview of religion.
A couple of months ago, at the height of the purdah
controversy, Shabana Azmi asserted that the Quran doesn't
say anything about wearing the burqa. She's mistaken. This
is what the Quran says:
"Tell the faithful women that they must keep their gaze
focused below/on the ground and cover their sexual organs.
They must not put their beauty and their jewellery on display.
They must hide their breasts behind a purdah. They must
not exhibit their beauty to anybody except their husbands,
brothers, nephews, womenfolk, servants, eunuch employees
and children. They must not move their legs briskly while
walking because then much of their bodies can get
exposed." (Sura Al Noor 24:31)
"Oh nabi, please tell your wives and daughters and faithful
women to wear a covering dress on their bodies. That would
be good. Then nobody can recognise them and harrass
them. Allah is merciful and kind." (Sura Al Hijaab 33: 59)
Even the Hadis --a collection of the words of Prophet
Mohammed, his opinion on various subjects and also about
his work, written by those close to him-- talks extensively of
the purdah for women. Women must cover their whole body
before going out, they should not go before unknown men,
they should not go to the mosque to read the namaaz, they
should not go for any funeral.
There are many views on why and how the Islamic purdah
started. One view has it that Prophet Mohammed became
very poor after spending all the wealth of his first wife. At that
time, in Arabia, the poor had to go to the open desert and
plains for relieving themselves and even their sexual needs.
The Prophet's wives too had to do the same. He had told his
wives that "I give you permission to go out and carry out your
natural work". (Bukhari Hadis first volume book 4 No. 149).
And this is what his wives started doing accordingly. One
day, Prophet Mohammed's disciple Uman complained to him
that these women were very uncomfortable because they
were instantly recognisable while relieving themselves.
Umar proposed a cover but Prophet Mohammed ignored it.
Then the Prophet asked Allah for advice and he laid down
the Ayat (33:59) (Bukhari Hadis Book 026 No. 5397).
This is the history of the purdah, according to the Hadis. But
the question is: since Arab men too relieved themselves in
the open, why didn't Allah start the purdah for men? Clearly,
Allah doesn't treat men and women as equals, else there
would be purdah for both! Men are higher than women. So
women have to be made walking prisons and men can
remain free birds.
Another view is that the purdah was introduced to separate
women from servants. This originates from stories in the
Hadis. One story in the Bukhari Hadis goes thus: After
winning the Khyber War, Prophet Mohammed took over all
the properties of the enemy, including their women. One of
these women was called Safia. One of the Prophet's
disciples sought to know her status. He replied: "If tomorrow
you see that Safia is going around covered, under purdah,
then she is going to be a wife. If you see her uncovered, that
means I've decided to make her my servant."
The third view comes from this story. Prophet Mohammed's
wife Ayesha was very beautiful. His friends were often found
staring at her with fascination. This clearly upset the
Prophet. So the Quran has an Ayat that says, "Oh friends of
the prophet or holy men, never go to your friend's house
without an invitation. And if you do go, don't go and ask
anything of their wives". It is to resist the greedy eyes of
friends, disciples or male guests that the purdah system
came into being. First it was applicable to only the wives of
the holy men, and later it was extended to all Muslim
women. Purdah means covering the entire body except for
the eyes, wrist and feet. Nowadays, some women practise
the purdah by only covering their hair. That is not what is
written in the Hadis Quran. Frankly, covering just the hair is
not Islamic purdah in the strict sense.
In the early Islamic period, Prophet Mohammed started the
practice of covering the feet of women. Within 100 years of
his death, purdah spread across the entire Middle East.
Women were covered by an extra layer of clothing. They
were forbidden to go out of the house, or in front of unknown
men. Their lives were hemmed into a tight regime: stay at
home, cook, clean the house, bear children and bring them
up. In this way, one section of the people was separated by
purdah, quarantined and covered.
Why are women covered? Because they are sex objects.
Because when men see them, they are roused. Why should
women have to be penalised for men's sexual problems?
Even women have sexual urges. But men are not covered
for that. In no religion formulated by men are women
considered to have a separate existence, or as human
beings having desires and opinions separate from men's.
The purdah rules humiliate not only women but men too. If
women walk about without purdah, it's as if men will look at
them with lustful eyes, or pounce on them, or rape them. Do
they lose all their senses when they see any woman without
My question to Shabana and her supporters, who argue that
the Quran says nothing about purdah is: If the Quran
advises women to use purdah, should they do so? My
answer is, No. Irrespective of which book says it, which
person advises, whoever commands, women should not
have purdah. No veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no
headscarf. Women should not use any of these things
because all these are instruments of disrespect. These are
symbols of women's oppression. Through them, women are
told that they are but the property of men, objects for their
use. These coverings are used to keep women passive and
submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they
cannot exist with their self-respect, honour, confidence,
separate identity, own opinion and ideals intact.So that they
cannot stand on their own two feet and live with their head
held high and their spine strong and erect.
Some 1,500 years ago, it was decided for an individual's
personal reasons that women should have purdah and since
then millions of Muslim women all over the world have had to
suffer it. So many old customs have died a natural death, but
not purdah. Instead, of late, there has been a mad craze to
revive it. Covering a woman's head means covering her
brain and ensuring that it doesn't work. If women's brains
worked properly, they'd have long ago thrown off these veils
and burqas imposed on them by a religious and patriarchal
What should women do? They should protest against this
discrimination. They should proclaim a war against the
wrongs and ill-treatment meted out to them for hundreds of
years. They should snatch from the men their freedom and
their rights. They should throw away this apparel of
discrimination and burn their burqas.