Brown Female Chronicles: The Social Observance of Purdah

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Purdah: A social practice throughout South Asia that involves separating men from women; it was used historically as a way to keep men and women in their respective social roles and currently is used to varying degrees in contemporary social life.

I learned more about purdah in a class this semester. Western perspectives of purdah are conflicted - some take the view that purdah is a cultural practice that persists because it is woven into the fabric of South Asian society and others view it as wholly oppressive and something to be expunged with feminism. Indian feminists (yes, they did and do exist) are just as conflicted: what does it mean to uproot a common practice like this? To what extent does it need to be changed or eradicated?

My personal experience with purdah has been in its mild social form - dressing modestly, moving into another room when an unrelated man comes to visit, often being escorted to destinations - but it's true that there are still some conservative families that practice its more extreme form of keeping women in the house, keeping them wholly covered, etc. It's not unique to Muslims, Hindus and most other South Asians practice these same rules. It can be really challenging to have an independent life as a woman under these practices.

But, to that point, I am still uncomfortable with the idea that purdah is any "more" repressive than the sexism that exists in Western nations like the United States. Some women, fully independent, still choose to wear modest dress. And there is a unique creation of female-only spaces that cannot be re-created without this system. Some might argue that these things signal oppression, but I believe that denies two important facts: safety and a woman's ability to choose for herself how she wants to live her life.

Social practices of purdah in Bangladesh have not restricted my mother from being a businesswoman, my aunt from teaching villagers about contraception and family planning, or my sister from pursuing a medical degree. However, the picture must be more complicated than the pursuits of women as individuals; we must look at the larger social system and see to what extent these practices hold cultural currency and how they interact with the viewpoints of feminism and other movements.