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20 April 2011

The mysterious world of purdah

Some Northern Irish journalists and political commentators were forced to do some homework this week after one of the parties faced questions on whether they had breached the election guidelines governing purdah.

If you are now wondering what purdah is, be comforted by the knowledge that you are not alone.

The author of one article I read had resorted to repeating verbatim the Wikipedia definition in order to explain this rather unusual sounding word - one that is often replaced by the more self-explanatory term - 'pre-election period'.

In short, it refers to the period of time between the dissolving of the assembly after an election is called and the new government being formed once the election has taken place. Guidance on handling government business when in purdah is issued to the parties and civil servants to ensure that no party or candidate uses their position for electoral advantage, for example their departments publicising favourable reports or significant achievements during this period which could unfairly influence votes.

These official guidelines are intended to keep civil servants and executive departments out of party politics during election campaigns. This lofty aspiration is not however the reason I find purdah interesting - it has more to do with where the term originates. Like the journalist I mentioned earlier I was drawn to the internet in search of a deeper understanding of the word and found to my surprise a world of mystery and virtue.

Purdah is a Persian word meaning curtain - "a curtain which makes sharp separation between the world of man and that of a woman …the public and the private, just as it sharply separates society and the individual"1. In middle-eastern culture the term is heavily linked to a sense of protecting virtue and honour.

The women who observe purdah are kept apart, hidden, but they don't cease to exist - so too with the word's application in our political culture. Policy development and implementation are not temporarily frozen, as some descriptions of purdah may lead one to conclude, but during the interregnum period heralded by an election such workings are merely hidden from public view.

If anything, this is the period when some serious thinking goes on as preparations are made for a new session of government. This is when major over-arching documents like the Programme for Government are conceived and then shaped into draft form. This is when major stakeholders and interest groups are consulted on the cross-cutting themes they believe should be priorities for the new executive.

But who are these major stakeholders and interest groups? Well certainly not the faith groups if the senior civil servant who attended a meeting of the public policy network we set up for churches and para-church groups is to be believed. Representatives from industry, business, health and education are there, so too are groups who have an equality agenda - thus satisfying Section 75 requirements. 

Yet as equality in the area of faith is the first to be mentioned in Section 75, is it not strange that there is no faith representation. Indeed, with 45 per cent of the Northern Irish population regularly attending church on Sundays how can an 'interest' group of this size be 'overlooked'?

Ignoring all faiths equally is no solution to the difficulties around equality issues, especially when having no faith is included in guidance relating to definitions of faith. A discussion with no faith representation is not one free from competing values, no-one, no matter what their religious or non-religious views are, is value neutral.

Our current period of purdah may aspire to protect political virtue and honour in terms of the electoral process, but what if such respect was applied to the seeking out of voices wishing to contribute to the policy process - no matter how hidden it appears at this time?

As I concluded last month when discussing the public consultative process, contributions from a wide spectrum of civic groups, including faith groups, enhance discourse and ultimately the resulting policy. But once again, while there is a responsibility on the part of the political establishment to address the lack of faith representation in pre-consultation dialogue, we in the churches must play our part. When made aware of shortfalls or gaps in the lists of interest groups we cannot just moan that once again we have been ignored. We must pull back the curtain of the frequently self-imposed purdah we find ourselves in and demonstrate that we have a voice, one that is far from insignificant and one that will benefit society.

[1] Schuon, F. Understanding Islam