The English Purdahnishins: Or the Zenana of the English House of Commons Circa 1902

We dug into our archives and found a rather delightful and highly revealing picture of the status of women in the British Parliament at the turn of the 20th century.
The English Purdahnishins: Or the Zenana of the English House of Commons Circa 1902
F Villiers

Preface

One of the biggest con jobs that the colonial British carried out, especially, in India was to repeatedly tom-tom the half-truth that their society was egalitarian and just. This half-truth was one of their prime justifications for abusing our “caste system,” which they claimed was responsible for our backwardness, among other things. It’s another profound tragedy that we swallowed it wholesale.

But as we have seen in the “luminaries” series on The Dharma Dispatch, as Indians began to go to the UK (and Europe in general) and saw firsthand and pulled the wool off these hollow claims of European social equality, etc, things slowly began to change.

The English Purdahnishins: Or the Zenana of the English House of Commons Circa 1902
Luminaries of the Modern Indian Renaissance: Or a Commentary on Our Civilisational Amnesia

The following is one such firsthand account written by Sri Kevalkar in 1902. Kevalkar visited and stayed in the UK for some time and he had the opportunity to also witness the functioning of the House of Commons. In a highly understated fashion, he remarks on the pathetic status of women of the England of that period using the example of the House of Commons. Kevalkar calls these ladies, English Purdahnishins (women who are behind the purdah). He observes how there were extraordinary restrictions on ladies who wished to merely view the Parliamentary proceedings, and calls it a “Zenana.”

Here’s the full account. It is rather delightful, somber and quite educative. Emphases have been added.

THE ENGLISH " PURDAHNISHINS."

A "PURDAHNISHIN " is a lady who does not allow herself to be seen by the sterner sex. It will be interesting to our Indian ladies to know that their English sisters have to become " Purdahnishins," if they wish to go to the House of Commons.

The "Ladies Gallery" is one of the darkest corners of the House, with at the most accommodation for about fifty. The side of the gallery which looks upon the main part below, is surrounded by a "wire blind" (not by curtains, as some impetuous lady might venture to turn aside the curtain and peep out!), so that the ladies sitting there become the exact prototypes, for the time being, of Zenana ladies attending a Durbar.

Of course they can see and hear to a certain extent what is going on below, but the members and the visitors cannot see as much as even the hem of the dresses of the " Purdahnishins " behind the wire blind.

I am not sure why such restrictions as regards ladies' presence are made in a meeting that represents so thoroughly the whole British nation, a nation that treats its women with so much chivalry and courtesy. I shall not add " liberality," for as everyone knows, there is some room for improvement as regards the liberal feelings of the English nation towards their women. There are some Universities in Great Britain and Ireland that do not give their degrees to women, and many colleges that do not allow women to take advantage of the excellent teaching of their institutions.

I shall venture to add that we (“backward” as we are) have greater cause to be thankful to our Universities. Almost all of them are ready to bestow upon us their desirable and much-coveted honours. Comparing the abilities that the English women possess, I can say that our countrymen are far more liberal to us.

To many English people who have read accounts given of the Zenana System and the maltreatment of widows in India (often exaggerated), this will appear paradoxical. But on reflection it will be found that those Hindus who were able to realise that their partners in life should be thoroughly cultivated so as to become good wives and good mothers, could at the same time grasp the fact that they would cast a slur on their own refinement of feeling if they did not allow equal advantages to the mothers of the future generation.

Postscript

When Sri Kevalkar wrote this, the women’s rights movement in the West was nowhere on the horizon. It would take about four decades before it began. Sadly, instead of having powerful, learned, and articulate spokespersons who could champion the true equality that lies at the heart of the Sanatana conception and practice of marriage and family, Indians blindly opted to import the worst elements of the women’s movement and more dangerously, the cancer called feminism.

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