Although purdah is commonly associated with Islam, many scholars argue that veiling and secluding women pre-dates Islam; these practices were commonly found among various groups in the Middle East such as Druze, Christian, and Jewish communities. For instance, the burqa existed in Arabia before Islam, and the mobility of upper-class women was restricted in Babylonia, Persian, and Byzantine Empires before the advent of Islam. Historians believe purdah was acquired by the Muslims during the expansion of the Arab Empire into modern-day Iraq in the 7th century C.E and that Islam merely added religious significance to already existing local practices of the times.
Historians believe purdah was originally a Persian practice, described in Herodotus, that the Muslims adopted during the Arab conquest of modern-day Iraq in the 7th century C.E. . Later, Muslim rule of northern India during the Mughal Empire influenced the practice of Hinduism, and the purdah spread to the Hindu upper classes of northern India. The spread of purdah outside of the Muslim community can be attributed to the tendency of affluent classes to mirror the societal practices of the nobility; poor women did not observe purdah. Lower class women in small villages often worked in fields, and therefore could not afford to abandon their work to be secluded. During the British colonialism period in India, purdah observance was widespread and strictly-adhered to among the Muslim minority.
In modern times, the practice of veiling and secluding women is still present in mainly Islamic countries and South Asian countries. However, the practice is not monolithic. Purdah takes on different forms and significance depending on the region, time, socioeconomic status, and local culture. It is most commonly associated with some Muslim communities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with Saudi Arabia. Purdah has been more recently adopted in northern Nigeria, especially in areas affected by the Boko Haram uprising. It is also observed by Rajput clans of India and Pakistan as a social practice regardless of religion.
Some scholars argue that purdah was initially designed to protect women from being harassed, but later these practices became a way to justify efforts to subjugate women and limit their mobility and freedom. However, others argue that these practices were always in place as local custom, but were later adopted by religious rhetoric to control female behavior.
Proponents of the practice view purdah as a symbol of honor, respect, and dignity. It is seen as a practice that allows women to be judged by their inner beauty rather than physical beauty.
In many societies, the seclusion of women to the domestic sphere is a demonstration of higher socioeconomic status and prestige because women are not needed for manual labor outside the home.
The rationales of individual women for keeping purdah are complex and can be a combination of motivations, freely chosen or in response to social pressure or coercion: religious, cultural (desire for authentic cultural dress), political (Islamization of the society), economic (status symbol, protection from the public gaze), psychological (detachment from public sphere to gain respect), fashion and decorative purposes, and empowerment (donning veils to move in public space).
The following reminiscence from C.M. Naim, describes the evolution of purdah during the first third of the 20th century among the sharif or genteel people of Avadh, United Provinces, British India:
The word ‘Hijab' is relatively new for me. It was not a part of my vocabulary as I was growing up. I learned it much later, when I began to read literary and religious Urdu texts. ... The relevant word that I learned growing up was purdah. And I learned the word and its many meanings in the observed practice of the various female members of my middle-class family in Bara Banki, a small town in north India.
For Ammi, my grandmother, purdah meant almost never venturing out of the house. On the rare occasions when she did, it was always an elaborate ritual. Visiting a family in the neighbourhood -- only on the occasion of some tragedy, ... she used a doli. The little stool slung from a pole that two men carried would be brought to our back door -- the door to the zanana or the ladies' section -- and the two carriers would step away behind the curtain wall. Ammi would wrap herself in a white sheet and squat on the flat stool, and a heavy custom-made cover would be thrown over her and the doli. The two bearers would then come back and carry the doli away on their shoulders. ... When Ammi traveled in my father's car, she covered herself the same way, while the back seat of the car where she sat was made completely invisible by pieces of cloth hung across the windows.
Apa, my mother, belonged to the next generation. She used a burqa. Hers was a two piece ‘modern' outfit, as opposed to the one-piece -- derisively called ‘the shuttlecock' by my sisters -- that was preferred by the older or more conservatively spirited in the family. I also remember that the older generation's burqas were usually white, while the new burqas were always black.
A different form of veiling, the ghoonghat, is found among some married Hindu women in rural North India. A fold of the sari is drawn over the face when the woman is in the presence of older male in-laws or in a place where there is likelihood of meeting them, e.g. the in-laws' village. It is not worn otherwise, for example, when visiting her mother's home or in a location far from the in-laws' village. Hindu women in other parts of India—south, east, west (below Gujarat)—do not veil themselves.
Another important aspect of purdah is modesty for women, which includes minimizing the movement of women in public spaces and interactions of women with other males. The specific form varies widely based on religion, region, class, and culture. For instance, for some purdah might mean never leaving the home unless accompanied by a male relative, or limiting interactions to only other women and male relatives (for some Muslims) or avoiding all males outside of the immediate family (for some Hindus). For Muslims, seclusion begins at puberty while for Hindus, seclusion begins after marriage.
By restricting women's mobility, purdah results in the social and physical isolation of women. Lack of a strong social network places women in a position of vulnerability with her husband and her husband's family. Studies have shown that in conservative rural Bangladeshi communities, adherence to purdah is positively correlated with the risk of domestic violence. The restriction on women's mobility limits their ability to access health care and family planning services, especially for unmarried girls. In rural Pakistan, unmarried women and girls had trouble accessing healthcare facilities even in their own villages due to purdah; all types of women had difficulty accessing facilities outside of their villages because they had to be accompanied. Along the same vein, studies of women's contraceptive use in Bangladesh shows that women with decreased observance of purdah and increased mobility are more likely to use contraceptives.
By restricting women's mobility, purdah places severe limits on women's ability to participate in gainful employment and to attain economic independence. The ideology of purdah constricts women in the domestic sphere for reproductive role and places men in productive role as breadwinners who move through public space. However, due to economic needs and shifts in gender relations, some women are compelled to break purdah to gain income. Across countries, women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to observe purdah less because they face greater financial pressures to work and gain income. Studies show that "it is the poorest, most desperate families that, given the opportunity, are more willing to stress purdah norms and take the social risks entailed when women engage in wage or self-employment. For instance, rural women in Bangladesh have been found to be less concerned with propriety and purdah, and take up work where available, migrating if they need to. They take up work in a variety of sectors from agriculture to manufacturing to the sex trade. However, other studies found that purdah still plays a significant role in women's decisions to participate in the workforce, often prohibiting them from taking opportunities they would otherwise. The degree to which women observe purdah and the pressures they face to conform or to earn income vary with their socioeconomic class.
Social and mobility restrictions under purdah severely limit women's involvement in political decision making in government institutions and in the judiciary. Lack of mobility and discouragement from participating in political life means women cannot easily exercise their right to vote, run for political office, participate in trade unions, or participate in community level decision-making. Women's limited participation in political decision-making therefore results in policies that do not sufficiently address needs and rights of women in areas such as access to healthcare, education and employment opportunities, property ownership, justice, and others. Gender imbalance in policy-making also reinforces institutionalization of gender disparities.
See Hijab by country
In Tunisia and Turkey, religious veiling is banned in public schools, universities, and government buildings as a measure to discourage displays of political Islam or fundamentalism. In western Europe, veiling is seen as symbol of Islamic presence, and movements to ban veils have stirred great controversy. For instance, since 2004 France has banned all overt religious symbols in schools including the Muslim headscarf. In Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh where the word purdah is primarily used, the government has no policies either for or against veiling.
Nations such as Pakistan have been swinging to more conservative laws and policies that use rhetoric of following Islamic law, sometimes termed Islamization. The ideology is reinforcing traditional culture, traditional women's roles in the domestic sphere, and the need to protect women's honor. The result is policies that reinforce cultural norms that limit female mobility in the public sphere, promotion of gender segregation, and institutionalization of gender disparities.
Women have been engaging in efforts to challenge the gender inequality resulting from purdah. For instance, women in Pakistan (mainly from the middle and upper-classes) organized trade unions and exercise their right to vote and influence decision making. However, their opponents accuse these women of falling for the pernicious influence of Westernization and turning their backs on tradition.
Globalization and Muslim women returning from diasporas has influenced Pakistani women's purdah practice in areas outside of religious significance. One major influence is the desire to be modern and keep up with latest fashion or refusal to do so as a source of autonomy and power. Simultaneously, due to modernization in many urban areas, purdah and face-veiling are seen as unsophisticated and backwards, creating a trend in less strict observance of purdah.
For the Muslim South Asian diaspora living in secular non-Muslim communities such as Pakistani-Americans, attitudes about purdah have changed to be less strict. As it pertains to education and economic opportunities, these immigrant families hold less conservative views about purdah after moving to America; for the daughters who do choose to wear the veil, they usually do so out of their own volition as a connection to their Islamic roots and culture.
Some scholars argue that purdah was originally designed to protect women from being harassed and seen as sexual objects. In contemporary times, some men and women still interpret the purdah as a way to protect women's safety while moving in public sphere. Observing purdah is also seen as a way to uphold women's honor and virtuous conduct. However, critics point out that this view engages victim-blaming and places the onus of preventing sexual assault on women rather than the perpetrators themselves.
Purdah has repeatedly been criticized as oppression of women by limiting female autonomy, freedom of movement, and access to resources such as education, employment, and political participation. Some scholars such as P. Singh and Roy interpret purdah as a form of male domination in the public sphere, and an "eclipse of Muslim woman's identity and individuality". According to scholars such as Elizabeth White, "purdah is an accommodation to and a means of perpetuating the perceived differences between the sexes: the male being self-reliant and aggressive, the female weak, irresponsible, and in need of protection". Geraldine Books writes "in both cases [of spatial separation and veiling], women are expected to sacrifice their comfort and freedom to service the requirements of male sexuality: either to repress or to stimulate the male sex urge".
When purdah is institutionalized into laws, it limits opportunity, autonomy, and agency in both private and public life. The result is policies that reinforce cultural norms that limit female mobility in the public sphere, promotion of gender segregation, and institutionalization of gender disparities.
Sometimes reactions to purdah adherence can become violent. For instance in 2001 in Srinagar, India, four young Muslim women were victimized by acid attacks for not veiling themselves in public; similar threats and attacks have occurred in Pakistan and Kashmir.
The revival of purdah in modern times is sometimes perceived as a statement for progressive gender relations. Some women wear veils and head coverings as a symbol for protection and freedom of mobility. They perceive purdah as an empowerment tool, to exercise their rights to access public space for education and economic independence. For instance, in rural Bangladeshi villages, women who wear the burkha were found to have higher social participation and visibility, which overall contributes to an increase in women's status.