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  Exposing Purdah: The Truth Behind the Veil  

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Pratibha Patil, Exposing Purdah - Truth Behind Veil

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By: B Shantanu
July 19, 2007
iews expressed here are author"s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


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By now, most of you must have heard or read about the controversy caused by Smt Pratibha Patil’s recent remarks on the purdah system.

To recap briefly, Smt Pratibha Patil, the Congress nominee for the post of President, while speaking at a function to commemorate the 467th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap in Udaipur said, “We have been practising purdah in Rajasthan, which was brought about since we had to fight the Mughals…We had to protect our women and children and that is why the women were kept behind closed doors.” (TOI  front page, June 19 ‘07 and other sources).

The statement sparked a storm of criticism and provided the perfect fodder for our headline hungry and sound-bite starved news media.

No sooner had the remarks appeared in press, the “counter-attack” started.

Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind general secretary Maualana Mehmood Madani said,”She has twisted history, she must apologise and withdraw her observations” (TOI, Front page, June 19 ‘07)

Irfan Habib said “It is silly to talk of the Mughal invasion being the reason for the seclusion of women and introduction of the veil. “The seclusion of women was seen even in Mauryan times. It is, in fact, mentioned in Kautilya’s Arthshastra” (unfortunately he did not give any references nor did he mention whether the veil was worn by women in Mauryan times)

…and then gratuitously added, “To say it was because of the Mughals is like saying that they brought Sati to India, which is absolutely untrue” (The Asian Age, 19 June ‘07). 

B P Sahu, a Historian at Delhi University was quoted as saying: “…the idea that the purdah system started as as result of the invasion by the Mughals is one of the stereotypical ideas that have been taken from the works of British historians.”

Academic Kamala Mitra Chenoy of JNU said: “Though it is widely believed that the purdah system began after the Mughal invasion, in fact, it was prevalent earlier” (Hindustan Times, Pg 13. June 19 ‘07)

As I read these comments, I noticed that there seemed to be no academic/expert who was quoted from anywhere else in the country other than Delhi; there was no one from abroad either - perhaps the experts at Oxford and Harvard were too busy to be bothered with such trivialities?

The sole exception appeared to be the Economic Times  which had a quote by Varsha Joshi (historian at the Institute of Rajasthan studies, although - for all I know - the institute may well be located in Delhi)

The Economic Times (pg 3, June 19 ‘07) was also the only one (Pg 3) to print a quasi “counter-view”: Sarabindu Mukherji (Reader at Hansraj College and ex fellow ICSSR) was quoted as saying that Smt Patil’s remarks are apt and timely (and) “She has shown a great sense of history”. He added that “Historians and social scientists should get into the habit of telling the truth”.

I did a double take when I read that last bit. Did Shri Mukherji mean that historians and socials scientists were NOT in the habit of telling the truth?

But back to Mughals and the purdah…

Most experts/academics who commented on the controversy noted that the purdah was prevalent even before the Mughals and mentioned that seclusion of women existed in India in earlier times too (see e.g. Prof Habib’s comment).

Most of my keen readers must have immediately spotted the deliberate obfuscation in that sentence.

Since when did seclusion of women became synonymous with the purdah system?

And please note that while segregation of sexes in Islam is an established and well known fact (and Islam actively discourages social interaction between men and women), this has never been the case in the Hindu social system – neither do any Hindu religious texts ask women to cover themselves.

Even if we were to accept that the practice of “purdah” did exist before the Mughals, surely there is no doubt that it must have become even more widespread as a result of Islamic influence in the North, reflecting the status of women in Islam and the treatment of women by Islamic rulers and victorious troops?

But did covering one’s face (not head – this is an important distinction) i.e. “purdah” really pre-date the Mughals?

Let us look at some historical evidence regarding the treatment and position that was accorded to women in India before the Mughals – or to be more precise, before the Muslim (incl. Turkic and Afghan) invasions of India.

In a well argued article on Lokmanch.com (in Hindi), Vijay Kumar, Associate Editor of “RashtraDharm” provided the historical backdrop to the controversy.
He wrote (excerpts; loosely translated and paraphrased),

“Muslim attackers would often carry women and girls as spoils of war to destroy the morale of the fighting forces…and such women were frequently sexually exploited by soldiers on the battlefield…

The decades between the 10th and 12th centuries bore the brunt of these attacks (including the bloody expeditions of Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad of Ghur) and consequently the practice of getting girls married at a very young age took roots.

This was also the time when the practice of conducting weddings at night time and ensuring the bride and the groom were sent off before sunrise began (to protect them from marauders and warring soldiers).

The practice of the groom wearing a sword and keeping the route of arrival and return of the “Baraat” (wedding party) as separate also began at around the same time.

While before the first born girl child was “shown” the rising sun and prayers were said for her lasting good fortune, around this time, the practice of taking the first born girl out at night time and praying for her good fortune by “showing” the North Star began to take hold.

This was the same society where history and tradition has mention of several skilled and highly educated women such as Apala, Lopamudra, Gargi, Maitreyi, Bharati etc.

There are also historical records of women skilled in the Vedas and sacred hymns. In fact, even the wives of teachers and saints in “gurukuls” used to teach students staying in the ashram. Would this have been possible if these women were kept under wraps and denied education and skills? In fact, the beginning of formal education was one of the sixteen “sanskars” in a person’s life. Women were not only active in the field of education, they even went to war with their husbands.

The story of Kaikeyi helping King Dashrath by holding his chariot wheel using her finger is well known as is the tale of Subhadra when she helped Arjun fight with the army of Dwarka.

All of us have seen Ramayan and Mahabharat on TV. Did you ever see anyone in a veil in these serials?

I know that at least a few historians will question these statements citing lack of conclusive evidence for Ramayan or Mahabharat – but what is relevant here is not whether the great wars took place or whether Bhagwan Shri Rama actually existed or not – the point is that these tales reflect the prevalent situation in society at that time and it is hard to dismiss them as pure fiction.

It was only following the Islamic invasions that women began to get behind the purdah and veil. Not surprisingly, the purdah system first started becoming prevalent in Rajasthan which bore the brunt of these attacks.

In “Lifting the veil” post on his blog, Varnam narrated an incident about priests in Guruvayur who actually reprimanded a North Indian woman from covering her head when she entered the temple.

He also noted how “there is enough and obvious historical evidence to suggest that women never had to cover their heads” (a point that was also made by Vijay Kumar in his post on Lokmanch).

Varnam also remarked on the depiction of women in art and paintings around this period: “as time passes — and you enter the galleries showing Rajput miniatures from later periods — the veil makes its appearance, until even Adishakti Parvati has her face partly covered.”

As he wrote, while it may be true that the practice pre-dated the Mughals (considering that the Mughal period began only from the 16th century), if “the word Mughal rule is used incorrectly in a broader sense to include the Turkish and Afghan rulers as well, then the practice may not have – strictly speaking – directly attributed to Mughals but it certainly had something to do with the invasions of India starting from 9th c. AD.

The Times of India published an extract from noted Historian Satish Chandra’s book (“Medieval India”) in its report (TOI, Pg 13, June 19 ‘07) that appeared to support this view:  “During the Delhi Sultanate period, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence our outsiders became widespread among the upper class women…..Arabs and the Turks brought the custom to India, and consequently it became widespread in India”

Although Shri Chandra did note that the practice might have become widespread due to social reasons: “…perhaps the most important factor for the growth was social - it became a symbol of the higher classes in society. And all those who wanted to be considered respectable tried to copy it.”

There is – as far as I know – no known cultural, artistic or historical evidence to show that women covered their faces before the 10th century AD – i.e before the Muslim invasions began.

As Varnam says, “Face covering was completely absent in India till the 11 -12th century and they are not present in the Ajanta paintings. Slowly the head covering starts appearing with the arrival of Muslims with a 1250-1275 book in Jaisalmer showing a woman covering the back of the head using the sari.”

As I read through all of this, the picture began to get clearer. In particular, these points stood out:

  • While purdah may have pre-dated the Mughals, it was almost certainly a result of Islamic invasions of India beginning from 9th century onwards
  • There is no evidence to suggest that segregation of sexes was practised in India in earlier times
  • There is no cultural or religious basis (in Hindu society or Sanatan Dharma) for segregation of sexes or for having women cover their head
  • In fact, there is enough and obvious historical evidence to suggest that women never had to cover their heads
  • And finally, there is no known cultural, artistic or historical evidence to show that women routinely covered their faces before the time of Islamic invasions

In the end, I found it hard to disagree with Varnam’s conclusion:

Pratibha Patil did nothing wrong, but stated a historical truth. Her only mistake was that she picked the wrong community to blame. Instead, if she had blamed the caste system or denounced Brahmins, it would have been accepted without debate that she was the person with the perfect secular credentials to be the President of India.

Unfortunately, this is what might be the truth behind the veil.


Special Mention:

Best Comment on the controversy:
Nandita Prasad Sahai (quoted in TOI, Pg 13, June 19 ‘07):

“Most historians consider the Muslim invasion as a watershed when purdah is said to have become more widespread as a defensive reaction in troubled times among the Rajput royalty trying to protect their women. In fact, the case is unproven in the absence of statistical material that could establish a change in the extent of the practice of purdah

Unbelievable. Shall we now go searching for statistics to prove/disprove historical theories? I am looking forward to some statistics to prove that the Indus Valley people actually lived in houses and not caves

Close Runner-up for Best Comment:

Yahya Bukhari, Member of the Jama Masjid’s consultative committee:

“(It is) an “anti-Muslim” statement…It is a purely religious matter and she has no right to interfere in matters of any religion.”

Nothing left to say.

B Shantanu

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