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  • Writer's pictureEvie Osbon

What does Purdah mean?

This blog delves into the etymology of the word, purdah…


For an audio version of this blog, please click this Soundcloud link:


The playwright, Evangeline ‘Evie’ Osbon, first came across the word, Purdah in their training as a new Work Coach for the Department of Work & Pensions in 2021. ‘Today the term [purdah] is used in British politics to describe the period in which civil servants must operate with political neutrality before an upcoming General Election. They are prevented from signing off new policies or making proactive announcements, and instead go into planning mode to try and prepare for the election's outcome.’ *¹

The word purdah is derived from the Hindustani word pardā, पर्दा, meaning “curtain” which itself is derived from the Persian word, pardeh ,پرده.

Pardah or Purdah is a religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim and Hindu communities. It takes two forms: physical segregation of men and women and the requirement that women cover their bodies so as to cover their skin and conceal their form. The term purdah is sometimes applied to similar practices in other parts of the world. *²

In their analysis of the poem, ‘Purdah I’ by Imtiaz Dharker, Professor Sarita Chanwaria says “The use of purdah must have been necessary in the early days of Islam in the Arabic region where there was constant strife and turmoil amongst the various tribes. And the purdah was meant to keep the women safe from harassment, but it also brought segregation of the women. In many parts of Indian society also, even today, purdah is observed. Thus we see in both Muslim and Hindu society, several restrictions are placed on girls and women to segregate and isolate them from the outer world. But with the rise of feminism, it's becoming a world wide rage, a protest, purdah is seen in a new light, a new perspective. It's now viewed as a flagrant violation of basic rights, freedom and dignity of women and it's now considered as a symbol of repression as it is devastatingly damaging to the personality of a woman. Today its evils are viewed as outweighing its good.” *³

In 2019, former political activist and practising barrister, Harini Iyengar told Lucy Middleton at the Metro*⁴ that the term has now been ‘misappropriated’ to describe the ‘right and proper way’ for civil servants to behave before a General Election. Also saying, ‘So when we hear the word “purdah” being used as jargon for proper behaviour by civil servants and ministers, we experience it as sexist, racist, and offensive.’

Our play (set in a front line civil service of the Job Centre) aims to criticise British politics, the patriarchy and its continual exclusion and repression of women and other marginalised genders, unpacking gender identity in this oppressive environment.

If you are interested in finding out more about the etymology of the word, purdah, we found the below links useful and informative and helped shape this blog!

Like with all Mind Out Theatre blogs/posts/policies we would welcome your thoughts on this!


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