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Saturday, July 5, 2008
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Trapped in the darkness of purdah

A study of prisoners behind a veil interests Tulip Chowdhury

Frogs in a Well is a case study of the women of the pirzada families. The pirzada families are the custodians of one the most sacred Sufi shrines of India, that is, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia.(1240A.D1325) was one of the four Sufi saints who followed Khawaja Muinuddin Chisti. The shrine lies four miles to the south of Old Delhi. Patricia Jeffery delves deep into the life of the pirzada families and the secluded life of their women. The life of the pirzade (plural) around the shrine has a pulse of its own and has its own beliefs, rules and regulations.

The custodians of the shrine of Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and their families are called the pirzade. They claim to be descendents from the saint's relatives and disciples. The pirzade women live a secluded life within the shrine. Their life is of primary concern about home, marriage and child rearing. They have no voice in the family economy. Their life, their society is all around the shrine and the other families there. They are not expected to go out of their social system for education or reach out for any economic benefits. They are to be clad fully in burqa whenever stepping out of home or any place where males happen to be. There is a strict code of conduct where males are concerned. The system of purdah is inseparable from their life. However, the writer, when she meets these women, finds them lively conversationalists when not in the company of men. They even revert to complaints about the restriction of their movements outside their homes, about the sheer discomfort of having to cover their clothes with the burqa, especially in hot weather, about the shame they feel when strange men taunt them in the streets and their total seclusion from the affairs of the shrine. The pirzade women, they said, were like “kue ke meyndak” a frog in a well; as people with intellectual and physical horizons limited to the tiny patch of sky directly above.

The author is of the view that the seclusion of pirzade women appears to be a particular type of social system rather than being a purely religious tradition. The system of purdah is accepted by the women as social and religious aspects of their lives. It carries questions of honour and shame for the women. For the pirzade women Islam permits men and women to attain success, honour and progress in their own natural spheres. For a woman those spheres are motherhood and creating a stable home life. For the pirzade there is a marked spatial separation between the shrine --- the world of pirzade men --- and the bounded area of the village where the women spend most of their lives. The pirzade women do not go to the shrine regularly. If they do they do so at night or dusk so that the visiting pilgrims will not see them. They cannot go there at all during their periods of menstruation. No woman, pirzade or outsider, may ever enter the actual tomb chamber of Hazrat Nizamuddin. The shrine is a world of which the pirzade women are completely ignorant. They get to hear about it only what their men tell them. The men, on the other hand, keep the women out of any direct involvement with the shrine. As a middle aged man remarks, “Naturally my wife does not understand these matters. Why should she? She is far too busy with housework for me to bother her about how the festivals are organized.”

In all ways women are marginal to the shrine. They are in total ignorance of what goes on there or how the shrine is organized. From a very early stage of life a girl is taken care of by her father or brothers until her marriage and then her husband becomes her guardian. A daughter is often called a “guest” for she will soon be taken away to her real home with her husband. The daughter has to be given movable goods as her dowry. She receives trickles of gifts from her parents or brothers until she dies. Upon death the white shroud used for burial has to come from the parents or brothers. Thus the pirzade women remain economically dependent and socially secluded in their domestic sphere.

The purse strings are in the omplete control of the pirzade men. The income from the shrine is totally in the men's hands. The men buy the food and other requirements of the family. The pirzade women do not go shopping. The total exclusion of women from the financial aspects of life reveals their subordinate place among the men. There is a rota system through which the income of the shrine is distributed in turn among its people. Although the women are tutored about it, in practice they are denied their share. The Islamic law of inheritance clearly defines the woman's share of property. But pirzade woman usually give away their shares to their brothers for they have families to support. Anyone who refuses to do so is looked down upon.

The village is the world where the men are marginal, for they spend most of their waking lives at the shrine or conduct business elsewhere, meeting guests, buying stocks for their stalls. They rarely visit other pirzade and only occasionally visit their married sisters or brothers. For many men home is the place to take a quick bite or to snatch some sleep before more work in the shrine. The incomes of the men are solely dependent on the upkeep of the shrine. Religious and economic roles outside the home are the concerns of men. The main resources of the pirzade are solely derived from the cash which pilgrims present at various points during their expressions of devotion to the saint.

According to the writer, economic dependency throughout life is a prudent course for the pirzade women. There are some women who remark that their present comfortable life makes inheritance rights and marriage settlements unnecessary. All their wants are provided for and they rarely need to spend money themselves. However, the truth of it all is that all their “comforts” depend on the goodwill of the men. The keystone to the system of purdah among the pirzade in the shrine is the asymmetry between the sexes and the economic powerlessness of the women.

While holding up the life of the pirzade women, Patricia Jeffery examines laws relating to purdah, laws of inheritance and many other aspects of Islam. She also holds up the social aspects of Indian women's lives and their roles in the labour force. And along it all she holds up the case of the pirzade women and their life. The author very skillfully probes the context of gender and class politics in India and aims to capture the ambiguities of purdah: the women's (partial) acceptance of the status quo and their critiques of it. Her major concern lies in the pirzade women's ignorance of the stark realities of life outside the home. Frogs in a Well is indeed an eye opener of a book.

Tulip Chowdhury is a poet, short story writer and teacher.

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