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Guest Blogger Rita Banerji is a writer and photographer. She’s the author of Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, a historical look at how India’s perceptions of gender, sex and sexuality have led to the ongoing female genocide. She’s also the founder of The 50 Million Missing, an online campaign to raise awareness about India’s female genocide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com Twitter handle: @rita_banerji
By 2030 India will have annihilated 20% of its female population – killed at every stage of life, before and after birth, for one reason only: because they are female!
What can individuals do to help stop this horrific genocide? This is the question that I am most frequently asked as director of The 50 Million Missing, a campaign I founded in 2006, to raise awareness about India’s ongoing female genocide.
My response always is that as individuals we need to “bring the revolution home.” By that I mean, that we need to examine the choices and responses we make in our individual lives, particularly when we have the option to do so.
India’s female genocide is the result of a cultural misogyny—a hatred of females—that manifests in explicit forms of violence like the murders of women for dowry, or the killings of infant girls. But what sustains this misogyny?
It is the subtle ideas, beliefs and social customs, which most people in India follow willingly or unthinkingly – not realizing how, even if they are not be directly killing girls or women, they are feeding the social mind-set that is.
This is where Professor Bose’s story comes in. Professor Bose (name changed) is a family friend of ours. She comes from a family of scholars, and though retired now, she taught for many years at the IIM – the Indian Institute of Management, India’s elite management schools. She’s well traveled, speaks a number of European and Indian languages, and is highly conversant in a range of social and political issues.
Last year, an old student of hers, who himself is a professor now, invited her to his wedding reception. It was subtly made clear to Professor Bose that she was not invited to the actual wedding. The reason why this was so is because of an extreme social prejudice towards widows in India that is both historical and vile. Considered as ‘harbingers of bad luck’ widows would be summarily disposed off through the custom of ‘sati,’ where they were burnt alive on their husbands’ pyre. Though incidents of sati are now rare because of an enforced law banning the custom, widows continue to be socially isolated, subjected to all forms of abuse, and even among the educated, middle and upper class Indians, widows still face a discreet, even if unstated form of prejudice.
Professor Bose knew she was not wanted at her ex-student’s wedding because as a widow she symbolized ‘bad luck’ for them. When she told me of the invitation, her eyes were wet, and there was pain written all over her face. She kept saying, “I can’t believe it! He was one of my brightest students.” Not only that, they had ‘gifted’ her a sari to wear for the occasion, just as they had gifted one to each of the other women in their family and close friends. Only that the sari they gave Prof. Bose was a grey and beige one.
Prof. Bose loves saris, and wears them very elegantly. However, she does not wear the white and greys that are relegated to widows, but wears them in the colors she loves – olive green, deep plum, etc. Color symbolizes life and vibrancy, and it was the primary reason that widows in India were stripped of jewelry and colored clothing. Many widows in India still wear white. It is a symbolic death that they are condemned to, even if they are not condemned to die by burning on their dead husband’s pyre. The ‘gifted’ sari was another hint to Prof. Bose, to fall into the social space designated to her as a widow. It would be embarrassing to the bride and groom should she show up in one of her wonderful colorful saris!!
I was furious. “Your student obviously is not as bright as you thought,” I told Prof. Bose. And then I said, “Please do not attend the wedding reception. Instead I’d suggest you walk into his wedding uninvited, and make it a point of going up to him, and telling him that if your blessings are good enough for his education, they are good enough for his wedding. Alternatively, attend neither his wedding nor reception, and send him a card telling him, what you just told me.”
In the end Professor Bose, attended the wedding reception. She wore that grey sari to the function, a sari she’d never herself choose to wear! And she did not attend the wedding. And that is why I ask the question: “Why did Professor Bose Not Attend the Wedding?”
Why would a highly intellectual, sophisticated, urban Indian woman, respected in her profession, make a choice that not only humiliated her, but which in fact empowered a social disgrace, an idea, a belief – that for centuries has battered women?
It is not like they would tie her, beat her, lock her up, or throw her into the wedding flames – is it? Women widowed are indeed still subjected to all forms of abuse particularly among the poorer and less educated sections of India, and there are incidents (as in this video) where the family will try to force them to burn alive on their husband’s pyre! This is primarily to prevent a woman from claiming her husband’s property. In most cases, where women are branded as witches and gang-lynched by the village, it is almost always the case that they are widows whose property the villagers want to take away, or women who men want to sexually exploit because they see them as alone and vulnerable. That is why some of India’s holiest cities Vrindavan, Varanasi, and Tirupathi, have become known as the “city of widows”. This is where thousands of such widows, who’ve either been driven out, or have escaped, live, in absolute poverty, often subject to further abuse.
However, this is not so for someone in Prof. Bose’s position. That is why it is women like Prof. Bose who are educated, socially and economically well-placed, who are in a safe enough position to challenge these customs and force the Indian mind-set to bury them. Instead like Prof. Bose most Indians still unthinkingly go along with social interactions defined by these misogynistic beliefs and customs.
When I asked Professor Bose, why, she sighed and said, “It’s their wedding. It’s not for me to say.” But as I told her, “It may be their wedding, but this is your society! This is also about you and women like you!” We are never an aloof spectator! Every custom, belief, and idea which dehumanizes women and girls, ultimately at some point feeds into the “collective mind-set” that’s responsible for India’s female genocide. The choice you make, whether you are an Indian citizen or even if you are an outsider to the Indian community – determines your role in India’s female genocide is. We either stamp out that destructive flame that a family member or friend lights in our immediate vicinity, or we stand by and allow it to be a part of the inferno that’s engulfing women and girls.
Therefore I ask each of you reading this: What would you do if you were Professor Bose?
I end with one of my favorite photos that I took of a woman, a widow, who is very poor and illiterate. She’s wearing white no doubt – but the first thing that struck me about her was that she dyed her hair black! She is far from renouncing life as widows are expected to. She is running her own business, making a livelihood, sustaining life through an extremely creative process – hand-making colorful clay toys! We chatted a bit, and I asked about the color in her hair and her bangles. She said, “Bhalo lage” (I like it). Then as I framed her in my lens, she made direct eye contact and gave a bold and cheeky grin. And I saw this woman surrounded by color and life, rebelling in the scope of her own social sphere in the way she knows best. And I thought, if she can, surely the rest of us can.
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I hv something to say about how an individual can take some positive step to solve this problem . If u will respond than I will write in detail
Ranjana — Do tell!
Such things are so common in our society and even in the educated class as you have said in this post. My mother-in-law is a widow and we wanted her to do rituals in our marriage but she was not allowed to do it by the pandit instead my husband’s Uncle and Aunt did the marriage rituals.
I was so upset but did not know how to raise my voice at that time. Now I wish I should have said something 🙁
Lazy Pineapple — I think because we are conditioned to not respond. That I believe is a part of the power structure of abuse too. All of us in one way or another do it. Dad beats up mom, uncle beats up his wife, there is talk of who’s giving how much in a wedding, in our family or among our friends, and we stay quiet, because we’ve been conditioned to. And once we become aware that we are the pebble that causes the ripple — and that it doesn’t hurt us to, but makes us feel lighter, better, that where I could I did speak, I did my bit, we do. I do. All my life I grew up not telling anything to my father or grandfather who were very abusive, but once I got to college — I needed to speak out and I confronted them. And told them that what they had done was not only wrong but illegal.
She shouldn’t have attended, or if she absolutely had to, she should have worn a bright red or mustard or peacock blue saree, and a huge red bindi and gone.
My mother lives in Bangalore, and on Varalakshmi Puja and Navratri, everyone who does the Puja invites everyone else to their house. My mother (I lost my father 6 years back), and others like her dress up in their bright silk sarees and attend just like anyone else. The only difference is that when they are leaving, they get the paan, supari, coconut and sweets, but not that tiny pudiya of sindhoor. Done so subtly, nobody even knows there is the slight discrimination. And that is how it should be.
My father passed away a few years ago, and my aunts had come for the funeral. After the cremation we got into the car to come home, and one of the aunts started tugging at my mom’s iron bangle (that bengali’s wear when married) — and said “you need to remove that now.” And I’m thinking “These women have their brains one a whole different plane!” So I told my mother, “No, keep it one. Good for your circulation which you’ll need whether or not dad’s alive!” 🙂
My father passed away a little more than a year ago and as the eldest in the family (and living in Europe), I was shocked and saddened to learn that neither my mother or myself could participate in the Hindu funeral rites in South India. A male friend of ours represented us and immersed my father’s ashes in the river. I stress South India as, having lived mainly in West Bengal, I feel that the South Indians are more conservative in their way of thinking. Being a widow or even a divorcee in this part of the world is also degrading. The minute you become one, you lose the respect or the popularity that you enjoyed in the past. This being the case, I would not even think of returning to live in India.
Aiesha, When my father passed away, the priest who was invited to do the ceremony — and made our live hell for 8 hours straight from before the cremation to when the ashes were submerged — decided that my sister’s husband would do the last rites, since my parents didn’t have any sons!!!
I’m sorry to hear of the hell you went through. The funeral for my father went off well more or less. We also had a Parsi friend reciting the prayers as my father was a Parsi but he wanted a Hindu funeral as Parsi priests have to be called from Mumbai or other big cities. Most of them are very conservative and do not accept doing the rites if he or she marries out of the “community”.
I was told by a friend that the choice of letting a woman participate (if no sons) depends entirely on the priest. My friend in Kerala managed to participate in the rites. I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that the literacy rate in Kerala has always been one of the highest in India…
Aiesha, I didn’t participate because I don’t believe in the rituals. I think they are humiliating. At the crematorium, he had my fathers body without a cover lie in line for 2 hours as we waited for his turn, and periodically had my brother in law circle and chant etc. — as people walked past. Such indignity!! Kerala has had a matrilineal tradition for long which could be the reason why girls there were educated too. Property passed women to women. That’s why widows were not treated badly because power is property which passed through the female line. But that has changed. They’ve started adopting the patrilineal mindset of the rest of India — so the rate of female feticides, infanticides have shot up, the practice of dowry has increased — so more young women now leave home and join convents so their parents don’t have to pay dowry, and the condition of widows is also become bad. See this http://www.hindu.com/2006/11/08/stories/2006110810110300.htm
This article made me so ashamed, that how people like us, ostensibly “modern” still do so little to question such practices. During my wedding, one of my sisters-in-law (husband’s cousin) was not allowed to participate in some of the rituals meant only for “sumangalis” – although I felt terrible about it, I did not raise a fuss, given that there was already so much chaos at the wedding. I still feel bad about it whenever I meet her, although I don’t think she holds it against anyone. How does one react in such situations, I wonder – like all the others have said, many of our functions, be it weddings or funerals involve so many other people too, and it is difficult to make one’s point. 🙁
This sort of Indian followed culture of such people make’s me sad. Though i would prefer to go against these people and let them change their thinking.
In my opinion change cannot happen overnight. My mother did not seek the blessings of elders after my dad’s death because when she was widowed ‘Deergha sumangali bhava’ was the only verbal blessing a woman was given and it had no meaning after dad’s death. But when her turn to bless people came she did bless a widow who prostrated at her feet and said ‘May you be blessed with health and happiness. May your children shine in life”.It is these seemingly insignificant change in the mind set that will ultimately change society.
The culture followed by us is very great however has alot of rules and regulations
If I was in Prof. Bose’s place I would not have even attended the wedding.I would never go to a place where I am not respected.
It is high time such irrelevant practices should be abolished. We all want to see the change, but no one is really ready to work in a direction to achieve it. Women continue to suffer in this country. Nothing will change unless the suppressed ones stand up and take an action to make their life better. But, somehow through posts like these, I hope those women get courage to stand up for themselves.
I am glad to say that my niece insisted her widowed mother do the rituals rather than her “married” aunts during her wedding. Her stubborn insistence paid off, Not only that, unlike prof Bose, her mother did not shy away from the daughter’s request. She rose to the occasion and did as was requested of her.
On this one I am glad to be a part of my family. When my uncle died, my aunt was not made to do those humiliating rituals. In spite of what others said my family stood their ground. She still wears color sarees and even wears bindi. Only things she has given up are the mangalsutra and the toe-rings which come with marriage. It helps that my family is one of the influential families in that place but I know how much people speak of it in not-so-nice terms behind our backs.
As a society we still have a long long way to go.
On a side note, do you know if that woman in the video was actually buried as per sati tradition?
Sapna — I am glad that people are taking a stand on this. About the woman in the video, I don’t know what they eventually did with her. But I can tell you that some of the photographers from our campaign’s Flickr group have met widows in Varanasi and Vrindavan who are there only because their families tried to kill them. They ran away. There are women who are coaxed. They are told they’ll be fed opium and burnt as sati and will do great honor to the family and will feel nothing because they will be passed out with the opium! What research is now showing consistently is that this is basically a ploy by the men in the family to take away the widows’ property and wealth. Either they burn them as sati. Or they lych them as “witches” or drive them out to varanasi etc. And the government and civil society actually needs to take a strong, legal stand on this. It’s a khap type mentality at work here.
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After reading your article ,one question kept disturbing me…what if Prof Bose had been a man instead …I bet he would have been invited to the wedding also….and not only that people would have looked at him with sympathy for managing his life without a wife to cook him meals or iron his clothes.It always pains me so much when I see a widowed women being discreaminated against while a man in the same position continues to enjoy the love and respect of the people around.
I really liked this article. Particularly the fact that mentions ” how its a collective responsibility to stamp out all ill-doings against women in all the setting possible” else we are a party to female genocide.
I would prefer to go against these people and let them change their thinking.
felt a lot of agony reading about educated people discriminating. then i noticed it all around me too in many other forms. love your write up highlighting the discrimination of widows. i only wish that prof. bose did not attend the wedding, and sent a message that she is against such treatment.
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