Behind the veil: How prevalent is the practice of purdah among women in India?


Last month, two Muslim students from the Government Pre-University College of Girls, Udupi, who had challenged the hijab ban in educational institutions in Karnataka, were barred from taking their final exam. One even appealed to the Chief Minister via Twitter, asking him to allow them to take the exam wearing the hijab and “prevent their future from being ruined”.

Earlier in March, the Karnataka High Court dismissed petitions seeking the right to wear the hijab in classrooms, saying that wearing the hijab was not an essential religious practice in Islam and that freedom of religion under Section 25 of the Constitution was subject to reasonable restrictions.

The hijab controversy has come to single out Muslim women for their practices of purdah, however, an honest assessment of the practice of purdah in India tells us that purdah is not just a problem limited to the Muslim community but widespread. among Hindu women. thus, even if they do not necessarily practice it in educational establishments. Evidence also suggests that education is a crucial variable, with women having better access to education and much less likely to practice purdah.

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The practice of purdah among women in India exists in different forms of ‘ghunghat’, ‘pallu’, ‘dupatta’, ‘burqa’, ‘hijab’ etc. It should be clarified at this very point that the Hijab, which is a traditional scarf worn by Muslim women to cover the hair and the neck and sometimes the face, is different from the Burqa, which is a dress from tip to toe covering everything the body. Both, however, are types of veil worn by some Muslim women. Secondly, since all the above forms of purdah are comparable, it should also be made clear beforehand that the article deals with the practice of veiling by Indian women in general, regardless of its form.

What proportion of Indian women conform to the purdah system?

In a 2019 study by Lokniti, a program of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), conducted among 6,348 women aged 18 and over in 11 Indian states, respondents were asked if they practiced any kind of purdah. Overall, about two out of five Indian women admit to practicing it in these three situations, one-third in front of male family members, two-fifths in front of their relatives, and about the same proportion in public places. (Figure 1).

Hindu and Muslim women are placed equally

While the protest of these young female students for their right to adhere to their customary religious practice catapults counter-protests against the wearing of the hijab in educational institutions, one does not see a considerable difference between Hindus and Muslims regarding the practice. purdah.

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While more than two-fifths of Hindu women and Muslim women observe purdah even in their personal spaces, i.e. with male relatives (42% and 45%, respectively), nearly half of of them conform to the age-old practice when their parents are around (48% and 49%, respectively) (Table 1).

In public spaces, however, the gap between Hindu women and Muslim women is widening. With more than three-fifths saying so, Muslim women seem more likely to comply with the practice when in public. Nevertheless, the proportion of Hindu women remains high with over two-fifths wearing a ghunghat or pallu when in public. A negligible proportion of Christian and Sikh women report practicing any form of purdah.

Respect for purdah doubles after marriage

As evidence in Table 2 suggests, marriage proves to be a catalyst in this regard. Married women are more than twice as likely to practice purdah compared to the unmarried cohort. Overall, about two out of five married women are found practicing purdah in all three situations.

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Notably, the status of women in this regard does not change as much among Muslims as among Hindus after marriage. For example, while only 15% of unmarried Hindu women perform purdah in front of male family members, the proportion increases threefold to 45% when considering married Hindu women.

Almost half of single Muslim women (46%) continue to observe purdah in public spaces, however, compared to a fifth of single Hindu women.

The rural-urban divide

The rural-urban divide in this respect is also quite large. More than two-fifths of rural women (42%) practice purdah when surrounded by men in the family, compared to a quarter of urban women (26%). When it comes to wearing the veil in public, the gap is more or less similar, with 45% in villages and 27% in towns and villages declaring it.

Higher education makes a huge difference

With the hijab ban resulting in denial of education for girls and young women, the evidence from the study argues for changing the controversial ordinance issued by the government of Karnataka, which suggested that the ban did not constitute a violation of the right to freedom of religion (the Karnataka High Court, however, upheld the order). As the educational status of women improves, they are found to be less likely to observe any form of purdah. Overall, women who have had no formal education are about twice as likely to practice purdah in different situations, compared to those who have studied up to college. (Table 3).

Additionally, underscoring the poor state of women in education, the Lokniti-CSDS National Election Survey conducted in 26 states during the 2019 general elections reveals that approximately one in five women (22%) have access to education. college education seven percent below the overall national average of 29% (men and women combined) and 12 points below Indian men (Figure 2).

It is also important to point out that when we compare religions, Muslim women are the least likely to have attended college, only 16%. This is seven points lower than for Hindu women, where almost one in four (23%) have attended college.

While the right to practice the hijab (or not) should belong to women, the state should resist the temptation to create unnecessary barriers under the guise of making educational institutions free from religious symbolism. Given the low numbers, encouraging women to enroll in higher education would not only allow them to exercise this choice independently, but would also improve their overall status.

(Manjesh Rana is associated with Lokniti-CSDS. He is one of the authors of the recently published book by Routledge: “Women Voters in Indian Elections: Changing Trends and Emerging Patterns”, edited by Prof. Sanjay Kumar)


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