PARDAH SYSTEM, the custom in certain societies of secluding women from men, is of ancient origin. Pardah is a Persian word meaning veil, curtain or screen. Pardah system involves the covering of the bodies or at least faces by grownup women from the gaze of males other than the closest kin, and their confinement to separate apartments in the interior of their homes variously called haram, zenana, antahpur or avarodha. In its most rigid form the pardah system prevails in some of the Muslim societies, but the custom of the seclusion of women from men existed long before the advent of Islam.
There is reference to it in the Old Testament and the practice was in vogue amongst the Chaldeans of Ur. In ancient Greece, Athenian women could not mix freely with male guests or friends of their husbands at home, and their movements outside the home were restricted. Islam only confirmed the custom with religious sanction and strictness. Theoretically a Muslim woman must wear a burqa`, a tent like garment covering the body from head to foot with only an emneshed opening in front of the eyes, whenever stepping out of her house.
Even within the house she must veil her face from all men except her father, her brother, and her husband.Among the Hindus of ancient India, pardah was at first confined to the women of some royal households as a symbol of prestige and superiority. The practice eventually passed on, in parts of the country, to aristocratic families, but pardah was not universally accepted as a social institution and was not adopted by the common people. The widespread use of pardah in north India came in the wake of Muslim conquest.
Certain classes of Hindus, notably the Rajputs, adopted it partly as a status symbol in imitation of the new ruling class and partly to protect the modesty of their women from the waywardness of the conquerers.Hindu women, however, did not adopt burqa` ; they only covered their faces and busts with their head cloth. The Gurus discouraged discrimination between men and women. As they raised their voice against the custom of sati, burning alive of widows along with the dead bodies of their husbands, they deprecated pardah and advocated equal participation of men and women in sangat or religious assembly and in other spheres of life.
In an anecdote preserved in Sarup Das Bhalla, Mahimd Prakash, Guru Amar Das (1479-1574) asked the pardahobserv`mg wives of a Rajput hill chief to come to sangat unveiled if they wanted to see him.Despite the disapproval of pardah by the Gurus, some classes of Sikhs rulers and aristocrats as well as latts of rural Punjab continued to practise it. The Singh Sabha movement and the spread of modern education, however, led to the gradual elimination of the custom. The pardah system is well on its way to disappearance even amongst the Sikhs of the rural areas.
1. Bhalla, Sarup Das, Mahima Prakash. Patiala, 1971
2. Baig, Tara Ali, India`s Women Power. Delhi, 1976
3. Mujeeb, M. The Indian Muslims. London, 1967
4. Marenco, Ethne K., The Transformation of Sikh Society. Portland, Oregon, 1974
5. Nikky Guninder Kaur Singh, The Feminine Principle in the Sikh Vision of the Transcendent.1994