“Frogs in a Well. Indian Women in Purdah”

Jeffery, P., 1979, Frogs in a Well. Indian Women in Purdah, London: Zed Press


The book addresses a theme that only partly fits with our research topic. Indeed, the main focus of “Frogs in a Well” is the analysis of purdah (“seclusion”, litt. “curtain”) practices of Indian Muslim women, specifically those experienced by the wives and daughters of the custodians (pirzade) of the shrine of the Muslim Pir (Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya) in Delhi. In our perspective, the interest of the book lies in the fact that it connects women seclusion practices with wider paradigms of social organisation, economic status, education, and marriage and property patterns. Analysing overall women conditions in India in terms of their being inserted within a highly stratified social system, Jeffery points out how purdah

“is not just a rural phenomenon. It has also been long associated with the urban elites, with the royal courts and the households of their followers, and with wealthy traders and businessmen. In stratified social systems, a common feature is the emulation of the rich by the less wealthy; and to this day, in India, purdah is widely – though not universally, it must be stressed – associated with respectability and family honour. Purdah is part and parcel of stratification in India” (p. 31).

Purdah, therefore, cannot thus simply be regarded as an Islamic institution, although ‘Islamic ideals’ or notions of ‘honour’ and ‘shame’ are important in providing religious and moral justification for the seclusion of women. While this framework of analysis is borrowed from the works of Goody (1976) and Boserup (1970), another important dimension the book is more concerned with is that of the pirzada women within their families, and the interplay between stratification at the wider societal level and stratification within the family. Here, factors as working outside home, household structure, marriage patterns, and transfers of property (i.e. dowries and inheritance) are taken into consideration and analysed in relation to societal stratification. The paradoxical conclusion of such analysis is that the more a woman acquires high status in the overall stratification system of Indian society by being inserted through marriage in a wealthy and respected family, the more her condition within that family will be a subordinate one.

After an overall presentation of the analytical framework, the author then proceeds (charter 3 and 4) by analysing the division between public and private spaces (the first, the Pir shrine, the space of men and of economic activities; the second, the pirzade “village” and the house, the space of women and of their duties) and the differential control of men and women over income and reproductive power of women themselves. Jeffery identifies three dimensions, political, ideological and economical ones, to the subordination of women and addresses them in relation to the ethnographic data collected during her fieldwork. The most interesting results for our research topic are those related to women property and inheritance. As it has clearly emerged also in other works here reviewed (see Basu, 1995 and Moors, 1995), women rarely inherit ancestral shares from their parents. The justifications for that are framed often in similar ways. In Jeffery’s words:

“Several women said that the shares would become impossibly fragmented if sisters took their portion along with their brothers. One elderly women put it this way: ‘These shares are undoubtedly our haq [right] but a woman can ‘forgive’ her brother so that he no longer ha any obligation to share the inheritance with her. That’s what I did with my brother – after all, he’s a poor man and I’m well settled here. So why should I bother to press my claims?’” (p. 53-54).

According to Jeffery’s data, among pirzade few women would receive their entitlement, unless their parents were wealthy or a woman had no brothers or close male relatives. Quoting again from the book: “Several of the pirzada women pointed out that a woman may weave her rights, or ‘forgive her brother, provided that she does so ‘out of happiness’ and not ‘under pressure’. If a man dies without giving his sister her due, he will suffer in the after-life, unless she has forgiven him. But it is considered honourable for a women to forgo her rights” (p. 56). Discussion on marriage transactions, specifically on dowry (jahiz) and mahr, shows how the first works in a way  much similar to dowry in Hindu contexts, while the second is often left unpaid through a set of strategies even in the case of divorce. Mahr as well can be “forgiven” by women, always ‘out of happiness’, and it looks like this is what happens in most cases. As it regards how men discussed the matter with their wife, a women told: “[…] if a woman asks her husband to give her the mahr, he’s quite likely to persuade her to forgive him. He’ll say he’ll give it to her in the after-life, and she’ll get a pearl palace to live in in Heaven – or something like that.” (p.58). Other women suggested that men would use the mahr as a bargaining point over the custody of children if there was any question of divorce, giving the wife an option of taking the mahr or being allowed access to her children. Furthermore, mahr are often so trivial that they would be of little use. The position of a bride in her in-law’s home is so potentially vulnerable that there was no point in pressing the issue.

The second part of the book (chapters 4-7) deals with relation between ideology and agency, mostly by referring to processes of internalization of  normative behavioural patterns on the side of women. Purdah is thus analysed as a set of practices both forced by men’s control and embodied in women world view. Women themselves become agents of perpetuation of their own seclusion through socialization of daughters/sons into the cultural world they live in. Methodogically, Jeffery investigates women inclusion within discursive and practical production of their seclusion trying to elaborate sets of behavioural norms. She does it by giving attention to the taken-for-granted world they live in both by directly observing women practices and by identifying reactions of the pirzade to breaches of norms (their verbal comments and their reactions of disquiet or horror when rules are broken). In author’s world:

“[…] the taken-for-granted world of the pirzade gradually emerges through hearing them discipline their children, or through their strident outrage at the ‘shameless’ misdemeanours of other people. But this world is also reflected in the behaviour of the pirzade: evidence of internalization can come from watching customary interaction and modes of behaviour which are second nature for them . Mere statements of norms can only hint at internalization, while the women’s commitment to the status quo is more forcefully suggested in their unquestioning adherence to those norms in their behaviour” (p. 91-92).

Such analytical model would “produce” a world completely close in itself, a self-perpetuating social system with little room for change, at least from within. For this reason, Jeffery gives voice to  complaints of pirzade women and describes their resistance practices, showing how the system is not completely accepted by the women, who both elaborate major critics to it and have developed strategies to bypass some of its constraints.

At the end, purdah is presented as a “negotiated privilege”, an expression that intends to highlight the ambiguity of a practice which is both abhorrent and attractive for women, both deprivation and privilege. In author’s words, “the pirzada women are pulled in contradictory directions, and the interest which they have in maintaining – rather than undermining – the status quo has too be assessed too” (p. 171).



Goody, J., 1976, Production and Reproduction, Cambridge University Press

Boserup, E., 1970, (reprinted 1997), Women’s Role in Economic Development, London: Earthscan

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