‘In Rajasthan, people still practise purdah. The practice came into existence during Mughal rule, when we had to protect our women from men. After that the Mughal rule came to an end, we got Independence but we still continue to practise purdah. We must change with the times.”
The above is from a speech of Pratibha Patil, Governor, Rajasthan and the UPA candidate for the forthcoming Presidential race and the virtual president-designate in Udaipur at a function to commemorate the 467th birth anniversary of Maharana Pratap. Her reference was just to urge for abolition of the practice. However, her opinion that the purdah was introduced in India to “save women from Mughal invaders”, has created a furore among the Muslim leaders, historians and politicians of opposition parties, who wants to cash on this. Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind general secretary Maulana Mehmood Madani said, ‘She has twisted history, she must apologise and withdraw her observations.” It has certainly created a problem for Mrs.Patil.
I don’t know why we Indians have become so much intolerant. It is something strange for our culture of thousands of years. Why should the people take an opinion so seriously? I personally feel the purdah certainly was to conceal the faces of women from strangers, particularly the strong, brute, uncultured ones. Someone who would have seen Padmini, the queen of Rana Pratap ancestry, narrated about her beauty to Alauddin Khilji who invaded the kingdom to get her as her wife. But it was not only Mughals, it was also true with the Hindu kings and even petty feudal from whom the fear was equally there for women.
Historians say ‘purdah’ originated in India much before Babur heralded the Mughal rule in 1526 AD. Some of them say purdah was a status symbol of the higher classes in medieval India. According to renowned historian Satish Chandra, during the Delhi Sultanate period, beginning in 1206, the practice of keeping women in seclusion and asking them to veil their faces in the presence of outsiders became widespread among the upper class women. It was the Arabs and the Turks brought the custom to India, and consequently, it became widespread in north India. Historian Kegan Paul traces the practice of the custom back to the Vedic period. And anthropologist Patricia Jeffrey also opines its origin before the Muslim invasion. The mediaeval Chittorgarh fort that has separate quarters for women called the ‘jenani deorhi’. Even in our village, we also had a system of ‘janani kitta’ that used to be meant for women. Women will have purdah with all the elders in the family. Yamuna used to have purdah till very late, whenever she used to visit our village. It was absolutely necessary when we used to visit our mother at Bodarhi, my maternal village. It was to convey the message among the neighbours, particularly the women folks that the daughter- in-law is very obedient and abides the traditional things even though she is a wife of an officer. Interestingly, the peasant and working class women did not observe purdah. It was a feature primarily among upper classes. However, very lately they also copied what the women of the farming community did.
However, ”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.”
But I feel like narrating some troubles caused by purdah system. Every summer in marriage season in Bihar in good old days we used to read a number of stories how the brides returning with their husbands from the marriage used to get mixed while boarding trains. My grand father has also mentioned about it in his diary. It is certainly something that must stop. The respect can be shown in other ways too.
But I believe, the best against purdah has come from Tulsidas in his Ramcharitmanas. Sita is being brought from Lanka’s captivity after Ram wins the war in ‘palki’ or ‘sivika’. And then Ram instructs, “Kah Raghuvir kahaa mum manahoo, sitahi sakha payade aanahoo, dekhahhoon kapi janani ki nai.” (Let Sita come on her feet, so that all the monkeys can see her as mother.)
A poet talks about the prevailing traditions of the society through his characters. Purdah was not a part of Indian cluttered. I have hardly seen any female statute with veil o the face.