Purdah and Afghanistan Culture

...Understanding purdah in daily interactions with Afghans.

National Museum of Afghanistan

Marble sign outside of the entrance
to the National Museum of Afghanistan

How is it defined? Purdah is a word that literally means curtain. It is usually used to refer to the social practice of the veiling and the seclusion of women from men.

However, it is much more than veiling women. It is the social system that determines sexual propriety and manages inter-gender interaction and relationships.

This social system includes, but is not limited to, the practice of veiling women and the variety of ways that this veiling is practiced, the seclusion of post-pubescent females from marriageable males, and the minimization or elimination of interaction between non-related males and females.

Purdah also affects the way marriages are formed and how spouses interact.

Afghans have rules on how their society is to function. These rules are drawn from Islam; the writings of the Qu’ran, and the sayings/traditions of the prophet otherwise known as the Hadith.

Honor-Shame Paradigm

Before understanding how Purdah operates within Afghan culture, it is imperative to first understand an honor-shame culture.

One of the fundamental paradigms in the Afghan worldview is honor and shame. In the honor-shame paradigm, how one is seen and perceived by others matters a lot. Thus, people’s lives are ruled by what others think.

In addition, it is more important to agree, than disagree, even if it does not comply with what one really thinks. People are concerned with saving face, making a good impression, and having an honorable reputation.

Haya - beHaya

Additional research about the culture reveals that modesty is an integral component of the Afghan social order. The Pashtu word for modesty is haya, Haya as a principle embraces both sexes, female and male.


Modesty in western cultures refers to self-controlled, sexual behavior. However, in the Afghan context, haya as a principle includes keeping one’s promise, respecting one’s elders and moderation in one’s behavior. If one laughs too loud one can be seen as be-haya (without modesty).

Haya and Clothing

Haya is also reflected in the way people dress. A man is to cover his torso, arms and legs. A woman is to cover her torso, arms and legs, as well as have an additional cover over her head and torso. Even inside the home many women and teenage girls wear a shawl or scarf).

Haya and Purdah

Haya as a over-ridding principle which maintains social order encompasses a broad range of social interactions. Haya is also the foundational principle behind the system of purdah (literally: curtain) which refers to maintaining a proper separation of females from non-related and marriageable males.

Purdah is the gender-oriented dimension of haya. Consequently, purdah is an integral aspect of the society’s moral system and not something that can easily be discarded.

Purdah expresses itself through the creation of various gender-oriented boundaries: boundaries of space, walls, cloth, and sound. The ways in which purdah is expressed by the various ethnic and socio-economic groups vary; but, everyone practices purdah in some form.

Purdah and Outsiders

One of the reasons why purdah is practiced is because of the outsider. In the mind of the Afghan, an outsider is a non-relationally connected male, that is, neither a relative nor a close friend.

In addition, the outsider is not to be trusted; he is potentially a sexual predator. Since Afghans view outsiders in this way, we can understand why it is essential for them to protect their women from these potentially predatorial outsiders.

Purdah: Separating Public Space from Domestic Space

Purdah responds to this need for separation by creating two distinct spheres for human activity, the public sphere for outsiders and the domestic sphere for insiders. A Pashtun described this division of space in this way:

"Islam has given women the right to move about elegantly inside the house and to men the right is given to move about outside with men."

Males are given free access to public space, while women are given limited access. In contrast, females are given free access to domestic space, while males are given limited access.

Afghans create this division of public space from domestic space with walls. There are eight foot walls separating the public sphere from the domestic. The walls are the first line of protection for women.

The second line of protection is the mehmAn KhAne(guest room). This is a separate room with its own entrance where male guests who do not belong to the family can visit or stay.

The women of the house do not come into contact with these male visitors. The reason is to protect the ehteram (honor) and the namus (sanctity) of the women. (Also, women’s voices are not to be heard by these visiting men).

In contrast, if a woman comes to visit a house, she has the freedom to meet all the women who live there. Women, even expatriates, have total access to all the people in the home, women, children, and sometimes even the men of the house.

There are still places in Afghanistan where families will practice a strict form of purdah: where they will not let anyone attend the wife when she is in child birth, and they refuse to take a sick wife to a clinic. If a wife dies in child birth, she dies. In this way they believe they are maintaining the honor of the house.

There is a Pashtu proverb that says: "A woman’s place is in the home or in the grave."

Islam and the Afghan culture recognize that there are situations where women have to enter public space. Therefore, special spaces are created for them. For example, buses have special places for women. If there is a line at the post office or the bank, women are supposed to go to the front of the line and be taken care of while the men wait.

There is another boundary besides the boundaries of space and walls. This is the boundary of cloth. This is the extra layer of cloth women are expected to wear. This layer enables women to enter public space without being fully present.

Consequently, by not being fully present, the covered woman communicates that she has haya and she is protecting men from their own sexual desires.

Another boundary is the boundary of the companion. You will notice that women rarely move about in public space alone. They almost always have a companion, even if the companion is a small child.

This companion demonstrates to all in public that the woman is relationally covered; thus, she is modest. A woman moving about in public alone, with no relational covering, can easily be seen as be-haya (without haya), opening her to potential sexual harassment.

Many Afghans are cannot understand how women can be unattached, like a single women coming from the west to work in Afghanistan.

They find it difficult to understand how her family would give them permission to leave home and go abroad, to be removed from under the family’s authority and protection. They wonder how the family could let the woman be unprotected, and they also may wonder how the family can protect its good name if the woman acts shamefully.

We have come across one interesting explanation by some guards, who said: "We know why these women are here, they behaved so badly in their own country that their fathers have sent them here..." (to learn proper behavior)?? (If they only knew how much women sacrifice to serve in their country)!

Previously we mentioned that Afghans do not trust outsiders. This lack of trust also extends to wives. This is because the wife has come from the outside into the Afghan’s family. There are certain assumptions Afghans have that compounds this lack of trust.

In the Hadith it is mentioned that women are not as intelligent as men. In this light, women can be easily taken advantage of, be impulsive, and consequently get themselves into trouble. Also, if a woman is unprotected, her (sexual) desires would lead her into immorality.

For this reason even young girls are kept at home. Many are only allowed to go to school till the third grade. One of the reasons Afghans fought against the Soviet Union, was the fact that they instituted co-education and made school education compulsory.

We highly recommend expatriates study these pages on purdah well, both before and after arrival to Afghanistan.

Author Patrick Krayer has lived among Pashtuns for twenty years and holds a PhD in Intercultural Studies.

So how should Expatriates approach the differences they encounter in the Afghan Culture?

How to win friends and influence people...Afghan style

What an American Mom wants you to know...Download the Free Planning Guide with More Culture Tips

Return from Purdah to Afghanistan Culture