By: B Shantanu
July 19, 2007
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Exposing Purdah: The
Truth Behind the Veil B Shantanu
Hindus under Muslim Rule in West Bengal
Jinnah - A genuine Muslim communalist
Gandhi, Moulana of Muslim appeasement
Why do Muslims protest violently?
Sati-Pratha and its origins
Fragile Islam, Touchy Muslims
Forefathers of Indian Muslims Were Hindus
We are still under siege in our own country
Disenchantment of Indian Muslims
The solution has to come from within Muslim society
Open Letter Indian Muslim Council
The Mirage of Hindu-Muslim Unity
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.
general secretary Maualana Mehmood Madani
said,”She has twisted history,
she must apologise and withdraw her observations” (TOI, Front page, June
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
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”:
(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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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.
Times of India published an extract from noted
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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.
Best Comment on the
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
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.”
left to say.
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