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Honorable Status of Women in Islam

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Symbol of honour

Purdah in Practice Development

In the medieval Indian society, purdah was common with the Muslim ladies. Strict purdah originated with Amir Timer; when he conquered India and entered in this country with his army and womenfolk. He made the proclamation, “As they were now in the land of idolatry and amongst a strange people, the women of their families should be strictly concealed from the view of stranger[s]”. Purdah, thus, became common among the Muslim ladies, although it was not as rigid with the Hindu women. A girl started observing seclusion near her puberty and generally, continued to adhere to it till her death.

The Muslim men were very zealous in guarding their women from public gaze and considered it a dishonour if they were exposed unveiled. Monserrate, mentioning about harem ladies of Akbar’s time, wrote that they “are kept rigorously secluded from the sight of men”. Similarly, Manucci, writing during the time of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, recorded, “[T]he Mahomedans are very touchy in the matter of allowing their women to be seen, or even touched by hand ... .” At [an]other place, he writes that amongst them, “it was a great dishonour for a family when a wife is compelled to uncover herself”. He also refers to an incident concerning this wherein a soldier was travelling in a cart along with his wife and daughter, when the tax collectors tried to check his cart by force. The soldier became so furious that he chopped off the head of that tax collector and also wounded many of his attendants. Thereafter, feeling dishonoured, as his wife and daughter had been seen by the tax collectors, he killed both the ladies too. Similarly, Amir Khan, a noble, felt dishonoured when his wife could not observe purdah in an effort to save her life by jumping from the back of an elephant she was riding, who had run amuck, and decided to divorce her. Shah Jahan rebuked him and forbade him from doing so. They were so protective of their women that they would not allow their wives to talk even to their relatives except in their presence. Consequently, all Muslim ladies, except those belonging to peasant or inferior servants, followed purdah strictly.

A treatise on the lives of Muslim women of the subcontinent from the 13th to 18th century

Two factors were mainly responsible for this. Firstly, since the royalty and nobility religiously practised it [purdah] to maintain their exclusiveness, it came to be regarded as a symbol of respectability. It percolated down but only to the extent the lower classes were able to afford it. Secondly, the threat of invaders and also the sensual laxity and outrages perpetrated by the Muslim royalty and nobility of the sultanate and the Mughal periods had instilled a sense of insecurity among the Muslim subjects and also among the Hindus. Consequently, they relegated their women meekly behind the purdah so as to save them from the lustful eyes of these masters. The more was the slackening of morals, the stricter became the rules of women[’s] seclusion. A majority of the Muslim population of India were Hindu converts. These neoMuslims were more zealous in following the tenets of the faith embraced than those to whom it came as a matter of course. Such persons enforced the purdah norms most assiduously upon their womenfolk.

There was a direct nexus between the rules of Muslim marriage and purdah. The Quran has prescribed the list of prohibited relations with whom one cannot enter into a matrimonial alliance. Such persons are called mahrams. Purdah from such persons was only a matter of routine and not strictly enforced. All others, that is, those with whom matrimonial alliance can be established are called namahrams. Purdah was strictly propounded from such persons. The contemporary society tried to compensate itself for the weakening moral values of the menfolk by overemphasising the chastity and morality of a girl. Purdah was taken as the safest instrument to avoid contact with the namahrams. Under the conditions, the menfolk not only refrained from giving social freedom to their women but also abstained from marrying the ladies who enjoyed such liberties.

Observance of Purdah

From the beginning, the royal and aristocratic classes, with the exception of the Turkish women and a few others, were more rigid in adhering to the rules of purdah. Not only did the walls of the harem become higher and stronger with the passage of time, the restrictions imposed also increased successively. So strict was their seclusion that even when they fell ill, the attending doctors were not allowed to touch and feel their pulse. Therefore, for their examination, a handkerchief was first wrapped all over the body of the patient, this cloth was then dipped into a jar of water and it was through its smell that they were required to diagnose the disease and prescribe the medicine. Later on, some selected physicians like Bernier and Manucci were allowed to feel the pulse of the harem ladies. But such special privilege was given to them only after an established familiarity and a long testing. They were also subjected to surprise checks. Manucci narrated that once when he stretched his hand inside the curtain to feel the pulse of a ladypatient, it turned out to be the hand of Shah Alam himself. Nonetheless, these physicians were not permitted to see the ladies. Whenever their services were required inside the harem, their heads were covered by the thick shawl hanging down to their waist or feet and were led in and brought out like blind men by the eunuchs. The ladies also were such touchmenots that if they were to show some ailing part of their body to the doctor, they would see to it that he could see only that part. Even the old mother of Shah Alam, who needed to be operated upon for gout twice a year, would put her arm out from the curtain, only uncovering two fingers wide of the affected part and the rest of it would be carefully covered with cloth.

The whole outer world was inaccessible for these ladies. If ever they moved out, it was in covered palkis and dolas surrounded on all sides by alert guards. So much so that if they were to travel on elephants, they would ride them inside a tent pitched near the palace gate. Even the mahouts of the elephants covered their heads so that they could not see the royal ladies while they rode the animals. On the elephantbacks, they sat inside covered haudas. Their slave girls were also made to move in covered conveyances. The slave girls of Tatar Khan, a noble of Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq, were reportedly carried in locked conveyances lest the eyes of namahrams would [sic] fall on them.

Purdah, infact, had come to be regarded as a symbol of honour. The worst punishment they could think of for their enemies was to parade their womenfolk unveiled and [the] best honour they could extend to a person was by asking their harem ladies to unveil themselves before him. Describing about a custom prevalent on the Malabar coast, Ovington wrote that the husbands, “even the prime nobility” offered their wives to the guests as a mark of welcome to them and refusing the offer was considered as an “affront”. That is why the women there gained the name of “Malabar Quills”.

The stress on observance of purdah differed during different periods. Muhammad bin Tughlaq, for example, was so scrupulous in this regard that when he entered his harem, he was careful that his eyes did not fall on a “namahram.”

It is, however, interesting to note that contrary to Indian conditions, there was no complete seclusion of Turkish ladies from the outside world. Annette Beveridge wrote, “It appears probable that there was no complete seclusion of Turki women from the outside world as came to be the rule in Hindustan. The ladies may have veiled themselves but they received visitors more freely ... .” She noted how the senior nobles and officers of Babur regaled harem ladies in Kabul with interesting stories about India. According to Gulbadan, the ladies of royal harem of Humayun mixed freely with their friends and visitors, went out dressed like males at times, enjoyed picnics and music with their mates, played polo and so on. She has described numerous such occasions. Manrique recorded that he dined with Wazir Asaf Khan and met the Emperor and many members of the imperial family and in the feast, many unveiled ladies of rank took their seats at the table. In Meena Bazar, all ladies appeared without purdah following the principle, as narrated by the author of QanuniIslam, that “women need not be veiled before the king or a bridegroom, both known as Shah”.

There are, at least, two clear examples, those of Razia and Nur Jahan, when a lady came out of the covering of the burqa and discharged the administrative responsibilities like their male counterparts. Nur Jahan even came to the balcony for Jharokha-Darshan (a daily practice of public audience by the king at the balcony). Rajput queens in the Mughal harems did not observe purdah on many occasions. Similarly, the Kashmiri women guards of the palace were, generally, found without purdah. The lively paintings of Maham Anaga in AkbarNama, with her impressive facial contours and white and yellow robes, clearly indicates that it could not be the work of imagination but of someone who had observed her closely. In the later Mughal period, Mughlani Begam looked after administration of Punjab without observing any purdah.

The above excerpt is taken from the chapter ‘The Harem and Purdah’.

Excerpted with permission from
The Status of Muslim Women in Medieval India
By Sudha Sharma
Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd
ISBN 978-9351505662