My mother used purdah: you cover your entire body except for your eyes, wrists and feet. My mother wore a burqa with a net over her face. It reminded me of the meat safes in my grandmother's house. One had a net door made of cloth, the other of metal. But the objective was the same: keeping the meat safe. My mother was put under a burqa by her family. They told her that wearing a burqa would mean obeying Allah; if you obeyed Allah, He would be happy with you and not let you burn in hellfire. My mother was afraid of Allah and also of her father. He would threaten her with grave consequences if she did not wear the burqa.
My mother was also afraid of the men in the neighborhood; even her husband was a source of fear, for he could do anything to her if she disobeyed him.
As a young girl, I used to nag her: Mother, don't you suffocate in this? Don't you feel all dark inside? Don't you feel breathless? Don't you ever feel like throwing it off? My mother stayed quiet. She could not do anything about it. But I could. When I was sixteen, I was presented a burqa by one of my relatives. I threw it out.
The custom of purdah is not new. It dates back to 300 BC. The women of aristocratic Assyrian families used purdah. Ordinary women and prostitutes were not allowed purdah. In the middle ages, even Anglo-Saxon women used to cover their hair and chin and hide their faces behind a cloth. This purdah system was not religious. The religious purdah was used by Catholic nuns and Mormons, though for the latter only during religious ceremonies and rituals. For Muslim women, such religious purdah is not limited to rituals, but mandatory for their daily lives.
Recently, an actress asserted that the Koran does not say anything about wearing a burqa. She is mistaken. This is what the Koran says:
"Tell the faithful women that they must keep their gaze focused below, on the ground and cover their sexual organs. They must not put their beauty and their jewelry on display. They must hide their breasts behind a purdah. They must not exhibit their beauty to anybody except their husbands, brothers, nephews, womenfolk, servants, eunuch employees and children. They must not move their legs briskly while walking because then much of their bodies can get exposed." (Sura Al Noor 24:31)
"Oh prophet, please tell your wives and daughters and faithful women to wear a covering dress on their bodies. That would be good. Then nobody can recognize them and harass them. Allah is merciful and kind." (Sura Al Hijaab 33: 59)
Even the Hadith --a collection of the words of Prophet Muhammad, his opinion on various subjects and words about his work, written by those close to him - speaks extensively of purdah. Women must cover their body before going out; they should not go before unknown men; they should not go to the mosque to read the namaaz (prayers), and they should not go to any funeral.
There are many views on why and how the Islamic purdah started. One view has it that The Prophet Muhammad became very poor after spending all the wealth of his first wife. At that time, in Arabia, the poor had to go to the open desert for relieving themselves, and even for their sexual needs. The Prophet's wives, too, had to do the same; He had told his wives, "I give you permission to go out and carry out your natural work". (Hadith Bukhari first volume book 4 No. 149). Accordingly, this is what his wives started doing. One day, The Prophet Mohammed's disciple, Umar, complained to him that these women were very uncomfortable because they were instantly recognizable while relieving themselves. Umar proposed a cover but Prophet Muhammad ignored it. Then the Prophet asked Allah for advice and he laid down the verse (33:59) (Hadith Bukhari Book 026 No. 5397). Koran 33.59 “O Prophet! Tell they wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested.”
This is the history of the purdah, according to the Hadith. But the question is: as Arab men, too, relieved themselves in the open, why did not Allah start purdah for men? Clearly, Allah does not treat men and women as equals, else there would be purdah for both. To the Hadith, men are higher than women. So women have to be made walking prisons.
Another view is that the purdah was introduced to separate women from servants. This originates from stories in the Hadith. One story in the Hadith Bukhari goes thus: After winning the Khyber War, Prophet Muhammad took over all the property of the enemy, including their women. One of these women was called Safia. One of the Prophet's disciples sought to know her status. He replied: "If tomorrow you see that Safia is going around covered, under purdah, then she is going to be a wife. If you see her uncovered, that means I have decided to make her my servant."
The third view comes from this story: Prophet Mohammed's wife Ayesha was very beautiful. His friends were often found staring at her with fascination. This clearly upset the Prophet. So the Koran has an Ayat that says, "Oh friends of the prophet or holy men, never go to your friend's house without an invitation. And if you do go, do not go and ask anything of their wives." So it was to resist the greedy eyes of friends, disciples or male guests that the purdah system came into being. Later it was extended to all Muslim women. Now, some women practice the purdah by only covering their hair. That is not what is written in the Koran and in the Hadith: covering just the hair is not Islamic purdah.
In the early Islamic period, The Prophet Muhammad started the practice of covering just the feet of women, but within 100 years of his death, purdah had spread across the entire Middle East: women were covered by an extra layer of clothing. They were forbidden to go out of the house, or to be in front of unknown men. Their lives were hemmed into a tight regime: stay at home, cook, clean the house, bear children, raise them. In this way, half of the people were separated by purdah, covered and quarantined.
Why are women covered? Because they are objects for sex. Because when men see them, they are aroused. But men are not covered for this. Why should women have to be penalized for men's sexual problems? Even women have sexual urges. Women are not thought of as human beings; they are thought of as having desires and opinions separate from men’s. The purdah rules humiliate not only women but also men. If women walk about without purdah, it is as if men will look at them with lustful eyes, or pounce on them, or rape them. Do men lose all their senses when they see any woman without a burqa?
My question to people who argue that the Koran says nothing about purdah is: If the Koran advises women to use purdah, should they do so? Really, no. Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises it, whoever commands it, women should not use purdah: no veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf, not any of them. They are instruments of no respect. They are symbols of women's imprisonment. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men: things. These coverings are used to keep women passive, submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they cannot exist with their honor, confidence, separate identity, respect - with their own opinions and ideals - intact; and so that they cannot stand with their heads held high and their spines strong and erect.
Some 1,500 years ago, it was decided for one individual's personal reasons that women should have purdah; since then, millions of Muslim women have had to suffer it. So many old customs have died a quiet death, but not purdah. Instead, of late, there has been a mad craze to revive it. Covering a woman's head means covering her brain to ensure that it will not work. If women's brains worked properly, they would have long ago thrown off these veils imposed on them by a religious, patriarchal regime.
What should women do? They should proclaim a war against the ill-treatment meted out to them. They should snatch back from the men their freedom and their rights; they should throw their headscarves out. They should take off their burqas and burn them.