Pardah is a word used in the Iranian world – Iran and Afghanistan – for veil, or curtain. It also encompasses a range of social and cultural behaviors throughout the Muslim world. Other languages of the Muslim world have their own word for pardah. And although the veil type varies from culture to culture, the behavior remains the same.
Having spent a decade in the Iranian world as a participant observer ethnographer, I experienced pardah to its fullest extent. Over the decade, as my language skills neared fluency, so was the expectation that I behave according to cultural norm. When I attended university in Peshawar, Pakistan, a curtain was drawn between male students on one side of the classroom, and female students on the other so that they could observe pardah. We could hear each other, and all participate in the conversation, but could not see each other. In Iranian traditional homes, different door knockers give off sounds indicating if the visitor is male or female, so that the inhabitants can send the correct gender to welcome the guest. In my own house in Pakistan, I had to maintain certain days for male guests and others for female guests to avoid embarrassment.
Women observe pardah in public, avoiding eye or other contact with males they don’t know. While a light veil suffices inside the home, covering just the head and shoulders, women don a heavy pardah from head to toe when exiting the home. How many times, while walking along roads or paths, did I, upon seeing a male approach from the opposite direction, pull off to the side, turn my back to the road, draw my veil tight around me, and wait for the on comer to pass before resuming my own path. This gesture grew all-too-familiar to me, even in its less dramatic performance of simply lowering my eyes and turning my head away from on coming males in busy American streets.
Today, with the covid-19 pandemic entering its third month, a beautiful Saturday in May, coupled with talk of reducing lockdowns, draws out thousands of quarantine-fatigued groups. Couples, families, friends, and pet walkers pack local parks to enjoy hikes and picnics, the only leisure outing afforded to most Americans. As the morning chill wears off I cast off my long-sleeved outer layer and let it rest on my shoulders, the sleeves hanging down in front of me. The paths that meander through the park are narrow, and roughly half the hikers wear masks, acutely aware of social distancing. I begin to notice the unspoken etiquette among us: One or the other stops, faces the woods to turn their back to the path, and lets the other pass by before resuming to walk. Masks or scarves are secured before crossing paths. As for myself, as I have no mask on, I take the sleeves of the shirt hanging over my chest, crisscross them to cover my mouth and nose, and tie them in back of my head. And as the day progresses and the crowds thicken along the path, I proactively initiate the pull-off, veer far off the path and into the woods, turn my back to the path, and tighten my covering. It suddenly dawns on me; I am thrown back, with this repeated gesture, to my days in the Muslim world, of observing pardah. And all around me, Americans are doing likewise.