The term purdah, meaning “curtain,” is used to describe the traditional seclusion of women in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia. It is particularly linked with Muslim and Hindu society, although in areas where these religions are a heavy influence, sex segregation is observed by people of all creeds. Purdah has been the subject of fascination and debate for centuries, with some people supporting the concept, while others are rigorously opposed to it, arguing that purdah is used as a tool for the suppression of women.
As a general rule, purdah is a cultural rather than a religious tradition. In other words, although purdah is associated specifically with some religions, this association is not really accurate. While purdah stems from religious values about modesty and proper comportment, it does not in fact have a grounding in religious teaching. In fact, some religious authorities are opposed to purdah for this very reason.
At its most simple, purdah simply involves the isolation of the sexes. Men and women are traditionally separated by a screen for prayer, for example, and they may be discouraged from associating in public. In the home, women often have a private area such as a zenana, or harem, where men are not allowed, and men and women are never left alone together, unless they are married. In some cases, purdah is enforced with the use of veils and other garments which are designed to isolate women. A harem, incidentally, is simply an area of the house where men cannot go, rather than a collection of odalisques, contrary to popular opinion.
There are a number of reasons why purdah may have become so common in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Although it is linked with the spread of Islam, historical evidence suggests that the sexes were separated long before the period of Muslim conquest in the region, and similar traditions of isolation around the world make it impossible for Islam alone to be responsible for purdah. Purdah rules may stem from a desire to control and protect women, and from traditions where men and women have very distinct and separate roles. Purdah is also about the manipulation and show of power to some extent, as only wealthy people can afford to have separate women's quarters, for example, or to isolate their women so that they do not have to come into contact with society.
Fans of the isolation of the sexes suggest that purdah fosters respect and love for women, sometimes suggesting that the comparatively lower rates of reported sex crimes in regions of the world which practice purdah are due to the isolation of women. Sadly, these seemingly lower rates are probably related to cultural values which lead women to refrain from reporting such crimes, out of fear of recrimination or mockery. Purdah also tends to keep women in a subservient position, as they cannot interact with men on equal footing, or society at large in very conservative regions.