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Looking through the Purdah

Looking through the Purdah

Purdah: An Anthology by Eunice de Souza; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2004; pp 552, Rs 595 (hardback). INDRANI SEN One feature of colonial India was debates pertaining to gendered social practices like child-marriage, polygamy, female infanticide, oppressive high-caste widowhood and purdah. Purdah or female seclusion, observed by upper caste/class Hindus and Muslims was the practice of keeping women hidden behind the veil, away from public gaze. Of course, unlike many other reform issues, purdah could not be addressed through legislation but only through debate and discussion. While progressive Indian and western thinkers urged its gradual removal, conservative sections argued for its continuation. It is against this backdrop of intense and sometimes bitter debate and discussion on purdah in colonial India that one must approach the volume under review.

Looking through the Purdah

Purdah: An Anthology

by Eunice de Souza; Oxford University Press, New Delhi; 2004; pp 552, Rs 595 (hardback).

INDRANI SEN

O
ne feature of colonial India was debates pertaining to gendered social practices like child-marriage, polygamy, female infanticide, oppressive high-caste widowhood and purdah. Purdah or female seclusion, observed by upper caste/class Hindus and Muslims was the practice of keeping women hidden behind the veil, away from public gaze. Of course, unlike many other reform issues, purdah could not be addressed through legislation but only through debate and discussion. While progressive Indian and western thinkers urged its gradual removal, conservative sections argued for its continuation. It is against this backdrop of intense and sometimes bitter debate and discussion on purdah in colonial India that one must approach the volume under review.

Purdah: An Anthology attempts to capture diverse perspectives on the subject through a sampling of letters, memoirs, sociological studies, novels, short stories and poetry drawn from the 19th and 20th centuries. The nearly 50 excerpts taken from published sources are arranged under four broad sections.

Western Perceptions

The opening section ‘Western Perceptions’, presents colonial writings predominantly by colonial administrators, their wives, as well as by travellers, missionaries, physicians and a few “Indianised” white women. It includes passages from Louis Rousselfelt, J K H Denny, Monier-Williams, Lepel Griffin, Colin Mackenzie, Lady Dufferin, Annie Besant, Frieda Hauswirth and Charlotte Wiser, among others. A surprising inclusion is of the two leading historians of our time, Meredith Borthwick and Gail Minault – a point we shall return to later.

Although the editor’s Introduction does not really mention this, the British in India were deeply curious about life behind the veil, an arena that was jealously guarded by colonised men against the coloniser’s gaze. Since access to it was available only to women, white women’s writings often carried accounts of a visit to the zenana.

Foremost among Europeans in possessing first-hand experience of purdah were women missionaries who entered the zenanas and interacted with women under purdah as teachers, reformers or physicians. Disappointingly enough, missionary accounts included here are limited to those by Edward Storrow and Marcus Fuller. More female missionary writings would have further enriched this collection especially since their male counterparts had no direct experience of the zenana.

While pucca memsahibs did not have much to do with purdah, there was always the exceptional white woman who did write knowledgeably on the subject – most notably Fanny Parks with her celebrated revelations of life inside princely zenanas, from which a very brief extract is included in this section.

One of the more interesting accounts by a white woman is that by Meer Hassan Ali, an Englishwoman who married an Indian and lived as a ‘purdahnashin’ in early 19th century Lucknow. However, while she describes in great detail general features of ‘zeenahnah’ life such as the daily routine, food habits, entertainment, style of dress, room furnishings, the interiors and so on, she is disappointingly silent about her own personal experiences. Nothing is revealed about any possible cultural clash or personal difficulties she faced and her critique of the system is barely hinted at: “As the bird from the nest immured in a cage is both cheerful and contented, so are these females” (p 13).

While almost all the western writings are critical of female seclusion, it is interesting to note how the category of “western perceptions” gets complicated in the writings of someone like Sister Nivedita. Born as Margaret Noble and thus technically an Englishwoman who later became a Hindu female monk, her writing presents one of the most heartfelt “Indian” defences of purdah.

Historically, purdah was associated with an entire gamut of problems, including the tyranny of the mother-in-law, early motherhood and female health. Health concerns were often voiced by doctors and medical missionaries and diseases like tuberculosis leading to enhanced female mortality were viewed as a fallout of female seclusion. This aspect of health is touched upon by Kathleen Olga Vaughan, a physician who worked in Kashmir. She points out the high

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006 incidence of osteomalacia which she found among women under purdah who were denied the health benefits of sunlight.

Indian Perceptions

The section on ‘Indian Perceptions’ showcases a wide range of Indian views including that of Syed Ahmed Khan, Chirag Ali, P N Bose, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi, S Khuda Buksh, Ameerali Syed, Kalikinkar Dutta, Husain B Tyabji (also surprisingly enough Malavika Karlekar). Most fascinating are passages from early Indian feminists like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. However, it is not “Sultana’s Dream” her famed anti-purdah fantasy that appears here, but her lesser-known Bengali writings which used to appear in a Muslim women’s journal. These narrate anecdotes from everyday life and sharply expose the absurd and sometimes tragic results of observing purdah.

Rukhmabai, famous in late 19th century for refusing to live with an illiterate husband to whom she was married in infancy, is represented here by her essay ‘Purdah – the Need for Its Abolition’. Her critique of seclusion becomes all the more powerful given her own resistance to patriarchy. Of course, not all the writings in this section are critical of the veil and some – such as Sultan Jehan Begum, one of the begums of Bhopal – voice strong support for it.

Possibly the most absorbing section is ‘First Person Accounts’, containing personal narrativesof struggles against purdah. Traditionally, women were strictly forbidden from reading or writing. Amar Jiban, Rassundari Debi’s famous autobiography which discloses a simple Bengal village wife’s timid but tenacious efforts to read, and the less well known efforts by Bibi Ashraf to write, are inspirational personal narratives of female resistance:

I got hold of some blacking from the kitchen, the clay lid of one of the water pots, and a fistful of twigs from the broom. Thus equipped I went up on the roof, pretending that I was going to rest there, and excitedly began to copy out words…

We also have lively accounts from Ismat Chugtai’s autobiography where she recalls her successful ploys at subverting her family’s efforts to put her in a burqa. Other personal accounts featured in this section, not necessarily connected with female resistance, are by Sunity Devee, Bipin Chandra Pal, Mohamed Ali and two begums of Bhopal – Shah Jehan and Sultan Jehan Begum.

The section on ‘Literary Evocations’ presentsfictional representations of purdah, many of them translated from Bengali, Urdu, Dogri and Hindi. The excerpt from Tagore’s classic Home and the World delineates the turn of the century dilemmas of his heroine Bimala emerging from the purdah. The one-act Urdu play ‘Behind the Veil’ by Rashid Jahan, a member of the Urdu Progressive Writers’ Movement and extracted from the revolutionary and subsequently banned anthologyAngare (1932) voices the sufferings behind the veil, with polygamy, endless child-bearing and domestic male tyranny to which wives were routinely subjected.

To its proponents, purdah was considered a social marker of gentility. Yashpal’s Hindi short story, The Curtain subjects it to sharp irony as a completely meaningless

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

status-symbol to which an impoverished family desperately clings, long after all other symbols of gentility are gone. Others literary works included here are by Romesh Chunder Dutt, Rajinder Singh Bedi, S L Joshi, Iqbalunissa Husain, Sarojinin Naidu and B P Sathe.

Given the common perception of purdah’s Islamic origins, the collection wisely includes a preponderance of Muslim writers with the purpose – as the editor points out – of displaying diversities among Muslim writers and to demystify notions about Islamic conservatism. However, the editor’s Introduction falls short in other respects. Normally, the Introduction in such anthologies is required to throw light on aspects like the conceptual perspective of the collection, the rationale behind the selection of articles, their organisation, structure and so on. More importantly a subject like purdah needed to be elucidated and situated within a social, historical and cultural framework in the editor’s introduction.

At times the volume seems to lose focus. A number of the writings (e g, Annie Besant, Syed Ahmed Khan and Kalikinkar Dutta) do not deal with purdah at all but with female schooling. Schools for girls was a separate and altogether distinct social reform issue. If the educational aspects of purdah had to be delineated, it should have been through instances of “purdah instruction”, that remarkable system whereby teachers conducted classes behind the veil.

But perhaps the most serious flaw in this volume is a methodological one whereby contemporary south Asian historians like Meredith Borthwick and Gail Minault are put along side colonial administrators, etc, under the same section. Can these scholars’ landmark studies on 19th century Bengal and western India be located as “western perceptions”? Or for that matter, can Malavika Karlekar’s work be considered under ‘Indian Perceptions’? These scholarly writings should have been placed in an altogether separate section entitled ‘Contemporary Scholarship’.

But despite these weaknesses, this volume largely fulfils the purpose behind such anthologies – which is to collate and assemble primary writings that are important, rare, inaccessible or unusual. With an admixture of celebrated primary texts along with others not so well known, Purdah: An Anthology presents on the whole, a useful collection of writings.

EPW

Email: biswamoy@del2.vsnl.net.in

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

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