Don’t Say Aurat

In Persian and Kurdish, the word “awrat” has been used to mean “woman”.  In Persian, this use of the word is uncommon and a bit archaic. But in Urdu, “aurat” is practically the only way to say “woman”.  Although it comes from the Arabic word “awrah”, this word is not used to mean “woman” in Arabic.

The original Arabic word “awrah” comes from the root “ayn-wâw-râ”.  The basic verb of this root, “awira / ya‘waru”, means “to be blind in one eye, to be one-eyed”.  One derived verbal form of this root is “awwara / yu‘awwiru”, means “to deprive of one eye; to damage, mar, spoil”.  Some nouns derived from this root meaning are “awâr”, meaning “fault, blemish, defect, flaw, imperfection” and “a‘war (m.) ‘awrâ’ (f.)”, means ‘one-eyed’.

The word “awrah” itself means “defectiveness, faultiness, deficiency, imperfection; pudendum, genitals; weakness, weak spot”.  As a technical term in Islamic law, the extended sense of “pudendum” has been defined to mean the part of the body that must be covered for the sake of basic decency: for men, from the navel to the knees, and for women, the whole body except for the face, hands, and the feet.  Some Muslim jurists over the centuries, with no justification in the sources of Sharî‘ah, increased the definition of woman’s “awrah” to mean the entire woman, with nothing excepted. This fit in with the institution of “purdah” which restricted women to their homes and made them cover their faces. One ruling of the veil, applied in some Arab countries, said that women had to cover one eye and leave the other uncovered to see with (which directly goes back to the original meaning of having only one eye).

The view of a woman as nothing more than something to be completely covered explains how the meaning of the word “awrah” became transferred from a bodily defect to the very identity of Woman herself. It is a reflection of the social status of woman in India, confined to purdah and completely veiled, that in Urdu, women can only be spoken of as “she whose entire being is veiled.”  But, what is worse is the original semantic implication still underlying this word: defect, deformity, weakness. It wrongs all womankind to designate them with such a derogatory term. The language we use affects the way we perceive reality. Calling Women a “defect” is a putdown that continually lowers her social and even existential status. To give women the respect they deserve, Urdu speakers need to stop calling them “‘aurat” and use another word. Given the rich resources from which Urdu draws its vocabulary, that would not be at all difficult. We could use Arabic imra’ah, nisâ’; or Persian zan; or Sanskrit strî or mahilâ. Anything would be better than the present word “aurat”. Since Persian is the source of most respectful words in Urdu, zan would probably be the best choice. It would then parallel the use of the Persian word “mard” meaning “man”. Zan comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *gwen- which also produced Greek gunê and English queen.