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Challenging the status of widows in India is not just a function of legislation - but something all of us can do.
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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If you want to get back to work after a break, here’s the ultimate guide to return to work programs in India from tech, finance or health sectors - for women just like you!
Last week, I was having a conversation with a friend related to personal financial planning and she shared how she had had fleeting thoughts about joining work but she was apprehensive to take the plunge. She was unaware of return to work programs available in India.
She had taken a 3-year long career break due to child care and the disconnect from the job arena that she spoke about is something several women in the same situation will relate to.
More often than not, women take a break from their careers to devote time to their kids because we still do not have a strong eco-system in place that can support new mothers, even though things are gradually changing on this front.
A married woman has to wear a sari, sindoor, mangalsutra, bangles, anklets, and so much more. What do these ornaments have to do with my love, respect, and commitment to my husband?
They: Are you married?
They: But You don’t look like it
Me: (in my Mind) Why should I?
Why is being married not enough for a woman, and she needs to look married too? I am tired of such comments in the nearly four years of being married.
I believe that anything that is forced is not right. I must have a choice. I am a living human, not a puppet. And I am not stopping anyone by not following any tradition. You are free to do whatever you like to do. But do not force others. It’s depressing.