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Zenana


Zenana a Persian term originating from zan or 'woman'. Zenana is primarily a Muslim social institution under which a separate apartment is assigned to women members and women guests and visitors to the family. More simply, male and female members of the family work and interact and relax in separate spaces within the family precinct during working hours of the day. Women members themselves are also euphemistically called zenana.

It is a system of keeping womenfolk secluded from the male members of the family not only on social and religious grounds but also on the ground facilitating day to day work. Under the zenana system, men and women work in separate spaces within the family and its men and women members are entrusted with separate activities. The system is also known as andarmahal/antapur. Zenana is closely related to purda. What is zenana within the precinct of the family is purda in the larger setting of the society. Zenana system became particularly popular in Bengal after the region came under Muslim rule from the early 13th century. During the Sultani and Mughal periods, the Muslims, particularly of extraneous origins, strictly practiced zenana, and influenced by them, the high caste Hindu families and local Muslims also started practicising the zenana system.

Until late nineteenth century, zenana was a social and religious practice both among Muslims and Hindus. It was the Brahma Movement which first attacked the zenana system for Hindu families. The Brahma women began to work and intermix within the family and later they even came out of home without wearing veils. But the Muslim society, particularly of ashraf classes, maintained the system until very recent times. Modernism, urbanization, rise of middle classes, social mobility, empowerment of women, and other forces, including the housing system in urban areas, led to the decline of the zenana institution from the early 20th century. But in the rural areas, where housing system is largely unchanged still, the system is quite operative even now. [Sirajul Islam]

See also harem; purda.