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Why Does Our Society Honour Sumangalis While Completely Ostracising Widows?

Posted: August 21, 2020

We may have pujas to invoke blessings of women who predeceased their spouses but what about respecting and caring for the one who lost theirs?

My mother in law expired recently and as part of the rituals for the departed we had something called ‘sumangali pooja.’ The pooja involves involves invoking the blessings of the women in the family who have predeceased their spouses.

While the rituals were on, I overheard our invited guests, exclaiming how lucky they would be if they died a sumangali. And mind you, among them some young, educated, financially independent women too.

They had to rebuild their lives from scratch

Appalled, my thoughts moved back to my young, not so educated aunt from a rural hamlet who was widowed at thirty eight. My aunt had to face both the apathy of her older women relatives and sometimes the unwelcome lecherous gaze of her male relatives. She moved to a larger town, if only for the anonymity it offered, slowly resurrecting her life, educating her children. Today she is a stock market wizard and we are proud of her.

Closer to home, my music teacher, in her late thirties, found herself widowed just  when her musical career dreams were taking flight. Shattered emotionally, undergoing psychological counselling, she is  rebuilding her life day by day.

When a senior doctor’s sister lost her husband at 40 after a prolonged battle with brain cancer, I was dismayed to hear the doctor say, “My poor sister. Her life is over. She has nothing to live for.” I was horrified to hear my progressive, feminist mentor speak so.

We completely disrespect the widows

And I guess our rituals and cultural practices surrounding death have a lot to do with it. We honour our sumangalis.

But how about honouring our widowed or divorced women also who struggle to face everyday challenges – emotional, physical and financial? The ones who are discriminated by women colleagues at work, ogled at by random men, ostracised from auspicious family gatherings? Should we not celebrate their effort to conquer their pain?

What gives sumangali women this superiority over the widowed women? As women we should understand better the plight of single women and strive for their integration.

Some of our traditions and customs are archaic and it is time we become truly progressive by abolishing outdated, prejudicial practices. How can we ask the other gender for equality when we women have biases ourselves? Especially when the bias involves the presence or absence of the husband?

Picture credits: Still from Netflix’s Stories From Rabindranath Tagore

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