Purda is an important aspect of the rules of Muslim family life. Historians differ on how purda came in vogue in Bengal. Many believe it was an ancient institution and some others hold that the practice originated from the Muslim rule. Perhaps the Muslim rule merely intensified purda, which was already in existence in some form or other. Purda was rigidly institutionalised under the Muslim rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. duarte barbosa, a 15th century European traveller, recorded that the women of the elite classes, particularly of the Muslim aristocracy, were kept secluded from the rest of the society. harem in the ruling families and also in the noble families during the Turko-Afghan and Mughal regimes is a perfect example of purda as an institution.
During the nawabi period, women of the Hindu aristocracy were also similarly kept secluded though not so rigidly. The landed and commercial middle classes that emerged in the nawabi period also adopted the purda system in imitation of the aristocracy. In the early British period purda was generally practised by all classes of people of Bengal. But due to Hindu reformist movements, the rigour of purda gradually weakened in the 19th century and practically disappeared from the urban Hindu society in the 20th century. But purda in the Muslim society remained more or less unchanged.
Women, when outdoors, were required to be completely covered by burkha (veil). Muslim women above the labouring class seldom moved out except in a covered palanquin or a hackney carriage or a boat. Purda prevented women in the past from receiving formal education at schools and colleges. So much was the orthodoxy about purda that roquiah sakhawat hossain, the social reformist writer and an ardent critic of Muslim purda system, had herself used elaborate veil while she moved out of her home in Calcutta. It was a practical necessity for her.
Under the impact of western education and other social forces purda became less common among the educated Muslim families. But women who follow the canons of islam strictly do still maintain purda, but not necessarily seclude themselves from the rest of the society. [Sirajul Islam]