A Persian word meaning “curtain” or “veil,” purdah (also spelled pardah or parda) refers to a set of religious and social customs practiced within some Hindu and Muslim communities in India under which women are required to conceal their face and body from public observation. Purdah may also refer to the covering itself that is worn by women over their faces in accordance with the rules of the purdah. The custom of purdah resembles another tradition known as ghoongat, which is more popular among Hindu communities. Much like purdah, the term ghoongat may refer to both the practice as well as the veil or headscarf used for the practice.
The purdah system is likely to have reached India through Persia and become widespread during the rule of the Mughals, though some scholars argue that it predates the arrival of Islam and covering the head with a headscarf or veil was already practiced in parts of the country. However, the predominance of Muslim culture in northern India did lead to the popularisation of the custom within Hindu communities as well. Accounts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries indicate that purdah had become fairly commonplace by this time, especially among groups of higher socioeconomic status, such as the Rajput community of Rajasthan.
A woman practising purdah was known as pardanashin or purdahnisha, which means “covered by the purdah or veil.” Purdah observance can broadly be categorised as complete observance, which involves covering the entire body and face, or partial observance, which primarily involves covering the head and face. Purdah may include the use of garments such as the hijab, the naqaab, the burqa and the chador. In parts of India where women wear the salwar-kameez, a dupatta may be worn on top of the head and used to cover the face.
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