The Predicament of Women in Ancient India: [05] Pardah

Published: 21.05.2008
Updated: 02.07.2015

'Pardah' (purdah) is a Persian word, defined by WHITWORTH as follows: "A veil, screen, a curtain, especially one used to exclude women from public view." The common Sanskrit-word for veil is avagunthana, but there are also paraphrases such as '(with) hidden face.' It seems that the law-books do not refer to the use of the veil, but the texts (epic etc.) mention it.

The context says expressly in connection with pardah customs that the face is meant; the breasts are covered anyhow in one way or the other (jacket and bodice, sari). There is a difference between art and texts in so far as, in art, the upper part of the body of women is mostly uncovered, while there is no indication of bare breasts in literature. Refer for the problem of uncovered breasts in art to ALTEKAR 280-289: art follows its own law.

Pre-epic literature does not tell us much about material culture and social customs of the day. By contrast, the epics are a mine of information.

BROCKINGTON has collected epic data, treating Mahabharata and Ramayana separately. On pp.219-220 he writes on the Mahabharata "... women were not particularly secluded even after marriage," and he mentions public events (festivities including drinking-bouts) where women mix with the crowd, obviously without any form of pardah. On the other hand, Draupadi (wife of the five Pandavas), is mishandled by an impudent adversary and claims in the assembly that she has been touched by a rascal -- she who has before not been seen by wind or sun. The saying refers to a woman living in strict seclusion: In Sanskrit, wind and sun are masculine (!)

In the case of the Ramayana, BROCKINGTON mentions again public events and appearances of women in public (434). But on the basis of his chronology (§ 11.1) he emphasizes "the steady trend away from women's participation in public life to their almost complete seclusion within the home..." (433). He mentions many examples of the general deterioration of the position of women (435). "... widows were not regarded as inauspicious in the earlier parts of the texts, although in the fourth stage ['circa 4th to circa 12th centuries'] it is stated that widowhood is the greatest calamity that can befall a woman..." (434-435).

Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana has a complex character: a strong woman on the one hand and a soft-hearted, devoted wife on the other. A famous episode with Sita centres around the subject of pardah (here pardah in its widest sense):

After a long separation (see § 11.3: abduction and exile) Sita was expected to be reunited with Rama, her husband. Rama asks Vibhishana, the brother of Ravana (Ravana: the defeated and killed abductor, Vibhishana: the ally of Rama), to bring Sita to him. She should come in festive appearance. Sita objects: She wants to come at once -- and without ceremony. But Vibhishana repeats Rama's instruction, and Sita obeys. Vibhishana for his part is generous and kind-hearted; he wants to create for Sita an atmosphere of seclusion (following the custom as he understands it) and sends away the people (monkeys!) near the road to Rama. But Rama decides to make the meeting a public affair. He stops Vibhishana and declares that Sita need not be screened off against the public, even less when her husband is with her. The armies (monkeys, bears, demons) shall see Sita. This is on the one hand an unexpected affront, because Sita obviously wants reunion in privacy. On the other hand, the circumstances and Ramas explanation of his directive show that on the whole (whatever Sita's feelings), seclusion was in those days not the rule. Rama says that (a) a woman is protected by her behaviour, not by dress, houses, walls etc. This is an argument which was perhaps typical of the day when proponents and opponents of pardah (whatever the form) met. Rama continues (b) with general arguments, enumerating occasions like war, sacrifice and marriage where a woman can show herself. The present moment is such an occasion (war being just over). Finally, Sita comes as instructed. But she is overcome by shame and absorbed in herself. Rama comes to the point: After her stay in the harem of Ravana, Sita cannot possibly have preserved her purity. Now she may marry somebody else (Rama's brother, Ravana's brother etc.: a sort of niyoga). The episode ends with the fire-ordeal and the ultimate rehabilitation of Sita. Our conclusion is that under certain conditions a woman can expect privacy, but that she should show herself in other cases. It is not said that Sita is veiled when she meets her husband. -- Refer for the encounter between Rama and Sita to § 11.3 infra (... Sita twice repudiated) and to RUBEN 339-340.

ALTEKAR has collected considerable material showing that in post-Christian centuries the situation was mixed (169-176). References to the veil were now more direct. "... soon after the beginning of the Christian era, a section of society began to advocate a greater seclusion for women" (169). The use of the veil depended on the place in society, on the circumstances (at home / in the street) and on local customs. There are no shastric injunctions, and this probably added to the general confusion. Muslim influence (in later times), or no such influence, there were, depending on the definition, traces of pardah up to the 20th century. "Women of the peasant and working classes could of course not afford to remain in seclusion; they had to move out for their daily work. They used to move the lapel of their saris slightly over their faces when a stranger passed by them." (ALTEKAR 176) By contrast, women of the upper classes (who possibly stayed at home) could use the pardah up to the present, although it may now be extinct..

Interesting is a long monologue in a Buddhist text where a newly married woman (the wife of Buddha Shakyamuni!), when asked to cover her face, claims that virtue is more important than the veil (MITRA 198-199). This corresponds to Rama's above statement in the Ramayana. The saying in the Ramayana recurs much later in an eleventh century Sanskrit work (treasure of stories). ALTEKAR 174 -- M.CHANDRA observes (96) that "... a highly placed lady walked in the streets covering herself with a veil." This was the custom in the time of the Kama Sutra.

NARASIMHAN remarks: "To this day [1990], the archetypal Rajasthani woman is one of the most heavily veiled among all Indian communities." (126). See § 12.4 on the customs and atmosphere of Rajasthan.

On her way to the funeral pyre a sati can show her face, for the first time in her life (when the veil was compulsory), to the public (ZACHARIAE 567).

Title Photo Background:
Picture Credits: ASW - Aktionsgemeinschaft Solidarische Welt e.V., BERLIN.

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