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We are often party to customs which shun single women and widows. Are we right in being party to outdated religious customs?
I was recently part of a semi-religious Maharashtrian function called Haldi-Kunkum, where a number of married women gathered. They were felicitated with marking their forehead with the mark of matrimony – namely the haldi – kumkum and a coconut, betel nut, rice and flowers were given; again, all symbols of wedded bliss.
All fine so far.
The accent is on keeping this entire jamboree within the purview of the ‘Savaasheen’ (as married women are referred to in Marathi). What always irritates me at such events is that none of the women invited are unmarried, divorced or widowed.
Indeed, even wedding rituals such as mehendi, sangeet, poojas, and similar quasi-religious occasions give ascendancy to married women with an intact ‘suhaag’.
My cook had a harrowing time raising her sons almost single-handedly, amidst the drunken beatings of her husband. But, a few months prior to the date of her son’s wedding (an event that she was eager to participate in), her husband passed away. Due to her widowed status, she had to remain a spectator in what was a moment of personal joy and triumph for her. Sitting far away, in a simple sari and hardly any adornment, she cut a forlorn picture.
The identity of most women in modern India is bound up with their fathers or husbands. Even our names have to be hyphenated with that of the males in our lives. Some flexibility does exist with regard to this under the law and women can keep their maiden name or change it to whatever they wish.
But, we do not and cannot exist in a vacuum, do we?
We step out and mingle with relatives, friends, colleagues. This is where most women who are single due to choice or circumstance are made to feel their ‘low status’.
Women living in cities may feel that I am overstating something that, perhaps, rarely exists in urban India. But let me assure you that it does. This conscious and subconscious shunning of single women is a symptom of a society which is deeply regressive. The initial herding of women according to their marital status and later, bestowing a superior ‘Chosen One’ status is a form of dependency on the males in their lives.
To an unmarried woman, it signals, “get married or else….”
To the married one, “Stay married or else.”
To the widowed/single ones, it signals ostracizing on a public platform, as in, “You were important as long as you are someone’s wife.”
I remember a birthday party, which started with the traditional aarti of the young tot, which is an old custom to wish the child a long life (called ‘ovaalni’).
All the close female relatives were asked to do the honours, one-by-one, until a young aunt who was a widow was left. When I edged her forward, I received glares of disapproval from the matriarchs present. It was left to the father of the child to put his foot down and insist that she perform the aarti.
Is the aunt’s blessing somehow tainted because she is widowed? Where are we after all these years of progress and modern thought? More importantly, the signal for such change is opposed by other females and then, has to be sanctioned by the males in the family.
Unfortunately for me, I am usually a bystander to this unfair behaviour many a time, as I rarely host such events and thus have no say in the matter. Bowing to the whims of the elders in the family is as ingrained in us as is the need to not hurt their sentiments.
But, if we are hosting such events/rituals, it is important for us to actively encourage an inclusive attitude and insist on the participation of all irrespective of their marital status.
Perhaps, this does not succeed in changing anything in the minds of the older ones, besides letting them know our views, but definitely creates the correct conditioning for the younger ones.
Do you have any similar experience to recount?
Pic credit: Rohit (Used under a Creative Commons license)
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