The Purdah in Our Minds

This is the edited text of a keynote speech I gave last night at the inaugural seminar organized by Circle2020 and the Alliance Francaise de Karachi.

Circle2020 is an organization whose mission is to develop, support, build the #entrepreneurial & #leadership capacity of #women & #youth in Pakistan to bring about #socialchange.

With the Alliance Francaise, Circle2020 is holding a series of seminars, panels, and round-tables on this subject. Last night’s event, “Where are the Women,” kicked off the series. We had amazing panelists: Ziad Bashir of Gul Ahmed, Dr. Aneela Darbar, Pakistan’s only female US-trained neurosurgeon, Dr. Severine Minot of Habib University, famed journalist Mubasher Zaidi, Sadaffe Abid, the founder of Circle2020, moderated, while I gave the keynote speech.

To find out more about all of Circle2020’s activities, which include promoting women experts for media panels, conferences, seminars, and getting Pakistani companies to pledge to have more women on their panels, conferences, and boards, go to

Hope to see you at the next session, which will be on March 8th to commemorate International Women’s Day!

The Purdah in our Minds

Thanks for coming to our event this evening. This is the first in a series of seminars, lectures and activities by CIRCLE and the Alliance Francaise dedicated to women’s visibility in the workforce and other areas of public life. As the President of the Alliance Francaise, I want to welcome you all to this event, which is very much in line with our principles of the equality of women and men.  As a woman and a feminist, I’m very glad to see Sadaffe Abid taking this issue on because it affects not just women in Pakistan, but women all over the world. This is a problem we need to talk about because it’s hampering our growth as a nation. The first step towards tackling any problem is making people aware there is a problem, and that’s what we’re here to do tonight.

I want to talk about something not related to business or the economy as a way of making you understand what the problem is.  You must have heard of the cultural practice of “purdah.” In South Asia’s Muslim communities, this is the system of female seclusion from the rest of society. The practice of purdah actually originated with the ancient Persians and was adopted by Muslims during the Arab conquest of Iraq in the 7th century. In turn, the Muslim domination of northern India led to this practice being adopted by high-class Hindus as well.

So what exactly is purdah in the physical realm? The word “purdah” means curtain. It is defined as “the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home.” The practice has strong religious overtones: there is a verse in the Quran that whenever men were to speak to the wives of the Prophet, peace be upon him, they must do so from behind a curtain. Thereafter, this was seen as the most honorable way to live for all pious Muslim women. It is still practiced by some landowning families and now we see its resurgence in urban middle-class families as well, in Pakistan today.

Being Sindhi Sayed, I grew up in a family where the women of my father’s family observed the purdah system. What does this mean? The women were meant to stay in the home. They were not allowed to go to school. They traveled in a car with curtains on it. They had to be heavily veiled with a chador and would not travel in a car with any man other than their family members. If they walked in the streets of the village, the men would turn their backs to the women and not look at them. There was a front house, the autaq, where the men would go, conduct their business and receive visitors. In the evening they would come back to the house where the women lived, the haveli. The women’s world was so small, so narrow, all they could do was busy themselves with the lives of their children and husbands and the problems of the household.

When we lived in our house in Hyderabad, I had always been able to play freely, roaming around between the inside house and the outside house, which were separated by a wall and a door. Even at a very young age, I knew there was something very wrong with this system, most probably because my mother came from an urban family that did not practice purdah. I was aware of the fact that the women were being denied opportunities that they should have had – to move around freely in the world, as freely as a man.

Then, when I approached adolescence, I was told one day that I was not allowed to go through that door that separated the inside house from the outside one. I couldn’t understand why. “Because you are a girl, and you’re growing up” was the only explanation I was given. I watched as my younger sister and cousins, still prepubescent, romped and played and went in and out of the door freely. I couldn’t understand why I was not allowed anymore. My body felt heavy as a ton of bricks when before I had been light and free. It wasn’t just a physical restriction, it was a mental restriction. And it truly hurt. The only saving grace was that this wasn’t my everyday life. When I came back to Karachi, I was relatively freer. When I went to America, I was completely free.

Things are changing these days; even in my family, the girls today aren’t observing purdah as strictly as their mothers and grandmothers, but it still exists.

In my opinion, the purdah system and that door in the wall symbolizes all the lost opportunities that women are denied in our society because of our mental attitudes, which influence our rigidly-held beliefs abou gender roles. Not all of us practice the purdah system. We think of ourselves, especially in this setting, with all of our education and open attitudes, as far advanced from its inequality and absolute unfairness. Yet we carry the purdah system in our hearts and minds and we take them into our worlds – school, university, the workplace. There is a belief in the back of our minds, originating in this idea that women’s rightful place is in the home with the family.

Our social and cultural taboos and norms that impede women’s active participation in national economic activity are the biggest factors that prevent Pakistani women from reaching their full potential. They stop us from going to school so that we can learn. They stop us from being educated enough to know our rights. They stop us from being given jobs that we are fully qualified for, or for being paid the same amount for those jobs as our male counterparts. They stop us from reaching the upper echelons of business and of power, and they guarantee that we will always be unequal in theory and in practice.

What other explanation can there be for the disgraceful inequalities that women face still in the Pakistani workplace, in schools and universities? Why else are women turned away from jobs, or discouraged from working in the first place? Why else are 80% of medical students women, yet only 30% of graduates go on to practice medicine afterwards? Why do our television dramas portray working women as immoral and deplorable, while women who stay at home are angels? We are still sustaining the purdah system through our attitudes, which translate into reality for Pakistan’s 90 million women. They affect each and every one of us, no matter how educated or liberated individual women may be.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are four major categories of employment: employers, self-employed individuals, and unpaid family helpers and employees. In 2013 there were only 12 million women in the Pakistani workforce. You can guess where the majority of Pakistan’s women work – as unpaid family helpers and employees, as farmworkers, where their husbands negotiate their wages.

What we see in Karachi: women administrators, businesswomen, entrepreneurs, gives us the illusion of women’s visibility, numbers, strength and leadership. Most of these women are backed by companies or organizations that are largely run and owned by men. The truth is that women in the Pakistani workforce are largely invisible. 78% of KSE 100 companies do not have a single woman on their board. In business conferences held in Pakistan in 2016, only 14% of the speakers were women. Only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016. 20% of the world’s landowners are women, but in Pakistan we don’t even have the numbers for how many women own land. 

But we know that if we can increase the visibility of women in public arenas, and if we can increase women’s representation at the very top, things will change for all of Pakistan’s women. The invisibility of women from arenas including conferences, streets, C-Suite, boards, politics, newspapers needs to change. There is an immediate and urgent need for role models for young women. Diversity of gender is so good for business, so we need male allies to help institute systemic change. But first, we need to remove the purdah from our minds before we can make any of this a reality. 

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