Purdah is a word derived from the Farsi language. Purdah means to veil, to wear enveloping clothing, or to seclude oneself from others. It also signifies curtains. Over the course of the last few years, I have been recording diversity in the readings, meanings and interpretations of Purdah associated with Islam, such as hijab, niqab and burqa, while studying their cultural, historical and gendered contexts, through a postcolonial, intersectional, feminist lens.
I have actively used various forms of Purdah symbolically, realistically and conceptually in my art practice, channelling a variety of mediums to serve the project, such as Photography, Video Art and Performance. However, my research and practice took an interesting turn when I realized something was amiss: the voices of women who use Purdah in their everyday lives.
I embarked on an ethnographic journey across Pakistan, Morocco, Dubai and Canada to solidify my practice and my research, reaching out to individuals engaging with various forms of Purdah. Here are a few of the photographs and interviews I conducted along the way.
“I am in my 2nd year of medical school in Pakistan. I come from a very strict, orthodox, Muslim family. My father does not look at women when he converses with them.
I fought my family for higher education because I want to become a doctor and open my own clinic one day. I met them halfway. By promising to remain in purdah, veiled from my male colleagues and professors at the university, I have been given the freedom to obtain this education and pursue my passion for medicine and science. Many extended members of my family taunted my father and ridiculed him for allowing me to attend a co-education university. Initially, it really got to him, but now I think he is proud of me.
I don’t feel uncomfortable at all. In fact, I feel even more comfortable in this niqab. I am not a distraction for my male colleagues and this garment reminds me of the respect and honour of my father that I must uphold at all costs. I don’t really understand why we are considered oppressed in the West. I mean, if I really wanted to, I could take this off within my university’s walls. Who would ever find out? Nobody. But I keep it on, because this is my honour. This is my purdah.
I recently heard about Zunera Ishaq, the first Canadian woman in niqab to take the citizenship oath without unveiling her face. I completely object to this decision of hers and I don’t think the Canadian government should have given in. Islam promotes equal rights for all and makes it clear that as Muslims we are to follow the laws of whichever country we reside in. If Canadian law ordains that people show their face for citizenship oaths and other governmental procedures, then no human being can be exempt from this law whether they wear veils for religious/cultural reasons or not. Does Zuneira Ishaq think she is special? I think she has given Muslim women a bad name by creating an unnecessary scene out of this situation.
Let me check if my father is outside.
I didn’t tell him I was being interviewed today. He wouldn’t have given me permission to be on camera.
Yes, I’m sure I don’t want to notify him now. I would much rather do this without telling him. I’m a big girl. I can handle certain decisions without him knowing.
I think a woman has beauty that men don’t have and by covering herself she is preserving her beauty and not distracting or attracting the male members she has to face in society. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I feel safe within the fabrics of my niqab and hijab. I feel free underneath here.
You tell me. Do I look like an oppressed woman to you?”
“You want to take my photo and interview? But why? I am not really that important of a person. No one has ever asked for me to be photographed before. It feels strange, but I like it.
I came to the big cities from a village in Punjab when I was a little girl. I have seen a lot of hardship in my life. My husband is unemployed and spends most of my hard earned money on gambling. I try to hide money inside the mattress for the kids because I am sending them to school. I don’t want them to see the life I have seen. I bought them a used TV. I want them to be connected with the rest of the world and not fall behind. This world can be a very cruel place.
I have never worn a niqab or a burqa, though there are some women in my family that wear it on their way to work. My journey from home to the wealthy houses I work in as a maid, is long and filled with lecherous men who harass me on a daily basis. I usually cover my hair with my dupatta (cloth used in South Asian cultures to cover the chest area and/or hair) and in some vicinities and bus stops I cover my face as well.
Do I feel less harassed by covering my hair and face?
Not really! Men will be men, no matter what you’re wearing.
If it was up to me, I would not veil my hair or face at all. I don’t like to do it, but I don’t have much of a choice.
Sometimes I look at the western clothes that the beautiful, fair madams and their children wear in these big houses I clean all day for a living. Many of them bring clothes from their summer vacations abroad. In the colony I live in, the other maids are always passing judgmental remarks about the madams and their children. They say it is not a part of our culture or our religion to wear jeans with sleeveless tops.
I agree with them, because I have to, but secretly, I wish I could try on a pair of jeans.
Maybe in another lifetime.
Can you take another photo of me? This time I want you to take it with my face and hair uncovered.”
“My name is Fatima and I am currently studying at the American University of Dubai in the UAE. I am majoring in Studio Art and minoring in Advertising.
Purdah doesn’t have one, definitive meaning. To me, it means to keep yourself covered, from an Islamic perspective. But it could also indicate purdah of the eyes, similar to censorship. Purdah is interpreted differently in various cultures. At the basic level, I feel purdah exists in all religions, signifying modesty in dressing.
Hijab, for me, was a trend. Today, especially, it is a way to accessorize yourself. Not everyone is wearing hijab for religious reasons. I have an on and off relationship with it.
Then it’s not there.
Then it’s there again.
It keeps shifting.
I started wearing it when I was 10 years old along with my best friends. They kept it on for about a month. I went on to wear it for three years. When I realized that this is not just an accessory, and there is a huge Islamic element linked to it, it began to feel forced. I didn’t understand what it meant to wear a hijab. Suddenly I couldn’t wear shorts and dresses, because apparently that’s not something you do when you wear a hijab, or so society says. I got sick of the pressure I began to feel and took it off.
I later adopted the hijab again at the age of 20. I was an adult, and I understood the practice better. There is a lot of baggage that comes with wearing a hijab. Society begins to perceive you in a certain way and limitations are placed on you. I wore it fashionably, in contemporary ways, and yet again found myself crushed under the weight of wearing the hijab. As soon as the self-imposed, society influenced restrictions became suffocating, I took it off again.
I know of many women that are forced to wear it and the moment they are away from their parents or spouses, they remove their scarves and body cloaks. I see this quite a bit in Dubai. At the same time I also know women who wear it merely as a fashion accessory. I am against forced modesty. I believe every woman should be given a choice in the matter.
I used to believe that if you wear a hijab, people won’t look at you in a disrespectful way. I believed that people would behave in a more decent manner, respecting the Islamic element behind hijab and other veils. Unfortunately, I faced a lot of indecency. Every time I stepped out of the house with the hijab veiling my hair, I suddenly became centre stage and the focus of everyone’s attention. I did not like it. I began to think that perhaps taking it off would be a better decision and people would not be curious to look at me.
I have realized that veiling or unveiling makes no difference. Whatever society we live in, men feel entitled to look at the female body and project their fantasies on it. If they had a chance they would look right through our clothes too.
I do feel that maybe in a few years I might return to wearing the hijab. My relationship with this cloth is not closed off. I want to understand it. I want to investigate it. I want to research it. I want to interpret it in my own way. For example, my mother wears it for health reasons. No doubt, she is a religious woman and a practicing Muslim, but I feel she wears it mostly to keep the air from her ears and neck area. Whatever the case may be, she has experience, she has traveled the world, she researches Islam quite deeply and can make more mature decisions regarding veiling practices than I can at this stage.
Veiling is a personal choice. Just because someone is covering their hair or wearing a niqab or burqa, does not signify that they are terrorists or hiding bombs underneath their cloaks and garments. You cannot take a small percentage of terrorists and stereotype more than a billion Muslims.
Women must have the freedom to choose to veil. I am against burqini bans as much as I am against state imposed veiling. Both are unacceptable and a huge violation of the rights of women and their freedom.”
My name is Hamna and I am a housewife.
Purdah means to veil a woman’s body.
I was born in an Islamic environment in a Muslim household and observing purdah is important to me.
You see there are three things in the world we must look at when discussing the practice of purdah.
The house of God is Kaabah and it has a cloth over it.
There are so many books but Quran is one book that is usually covered with a cloth.
…and Number 3.
A woman’s body, a Muslim woman’s body should be covered so that when she leaves the house, she can run her errands comfortably.
I was 23 when I started wearing the niqab. I never used to veil in this way before. In fact, I wore all kinds of clothes. Even sleeveless tops.
Then I began to observe Islamic rituals with discipline. I kept reading and researching. I discovered that women who show off their skin will not see any corner of heaven.
I went for pilgrimage and made a pact with myself that I will start wearing the niqab.
Nobody in my family practices this form of purdah.
This was my choice entirely.
You know the other day I was out shopping with my husband and we decided to stop at the food street to grab a quick bite. An elderly man in western attire, sporting a cane walked up to my husband, pointed the cane at me and said,
‘If you want to keep her covered up like that, then keep her at home! Why have you brought her outdoors at all if you’re going to dress her this way?’
Can you believe that? The nerve! I glared at him, stepped in front of my husband and snapped back,
‘You want to talk about my purdah, you address me directly. You don’t need to ask my husband this question. If I had a problem wearing this veil outdoors then I would have stayed at home. I am perfectly happy!’
The man was so ashamed of himself and rightfully so.”
“My name is Maryam. I began to wear the niqab a few years ago. My mother does not veil her face, neither do my sisters. My grandmother did not like my decision to take on the niqab.
I don’t dress for my parents.
I don’t dress for men.
I don’t dress for my employers.
I dress for myself.
Sometimes I wear abayas and niqabs with embroidery and other times I prefer plain black. When there is a wedding in the family, I opt for colourful niqabs. I take it off when I am home around my immediate family. I keep a headscarf on at work. I clean homes and wash clothes for a living. I wanted to study but didn’t have many opportunities, so I am making sure my siblings finish their education and have better prospects. Can I go now? I don’t want to miss the evening bus and it’s a long journey home.”
Read Mariam’s article on Purdah here