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Yesterday was International Widows Day, marked on 23rd June every year. Let’s look at how widowhood has been in India through the centuries, and now.
If ‘widow’ is a woman one who has lost her spouse, ‘widowhood’ is the socially constructed stigma attached to a widow. Though a widower can tie the wedding knot again without any inhibitions or social restrictions, a widow is mostly bound by social as well as religious obligations. According to a 2020 report, there were 55 million widows in India.
The word for widow in many Indian languages. ‘vidhwa’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘vid’, meaning ‘destitute’. In India, widows are being treated almost as is destitute.
If we go deep down the lanes of our cultural legacy, a woman had the privilege of choosing her life partner through ‘Swayamvara‘ or had a chance to have a child through ‘Niyoga‘. From there onwards in the following centuries, quite shockingly, her position slipped down to the level of getting burnt alive with her husband’s pyre in the name of ‘Sati’. Even those who escaped this heinous ritual, didn’t lead a dignified life as well. Instead, they went through daily psychological trauma. As Manu dictated around 2000 years ago, ‘A widow reaches heaven by remaining pure and dedicated to her deceased husband’, a widow’s life more or less followed this social norm.
As widowhood was believed to be the result of her sins, she was treated like an untouchable and kept away from all auspices of the world. She was asked to practice self-restraint from expressing all worldly desires and dedicate her life to spirituality and eat sattvic food. She was deglamorized, head was tonsured and asked to wear white sarees, so that men don’t get attracted to her body. In case, she developed sexual urge or forced into a sexual relationship and gave birth to a child, she was socially boycotted. Then, she and her ‘illicit’ child remained untouchables forever. Thus, the life of a woman was bound by the fate of her marriage and the survival of her husband.
Though Sati was abolished during the British regime, the fate of a widow continued to be miserable. In some communities, especially in north India, widows are thrown out of the house. Thus, widows are commonly fraught by poverty, lack of family support, loneliness, and a bleak future, mostly give up their will power to survive.
From times gone by to the contemporary world, the tradition of dumping widows at Brindavan in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh is still prevalent. Brindavan is also labelled as the ‘City of Widows’. Abandoned by family, widows explore their means of livelihood, such as begging or prostitution, and spend the rest of their lives in this hostile human world by singing bhajans of Lord Krishna. Among these, there are plenty of teenage widows too.
Brindavan is still flocked by widows, who travel thousands of miles to escape from the pitiless dear ones, in search of some solace at the end of their life journey.
With this background to the status of widows, we need to recognize that widowhood is not a woman’s making, instead, it is an accidental event in uncertain human life. In fact, a widow needs compassion, understanding and support from her immediate environment. But what she gets in turn, is a traumatic experience which takes away all that is left in her. Many communities still believe that the death of a husband is due to his wife’s sins. In many indigenous and tribal communities and elsewhere too, widows are also branded as ‘witches’, then they are alienated from society and sometimes killed too, for the same.
Even today, the possibility of a remarriage for widows remains highly elusive. Since a woman is considered to be the property of her husband’s family, the approval of the deceased husband’s family is required, in addition to the support of her own family. Even if there is consensus on either side, if she has children, she has to think twice before entering new wedlock, as her new family might not accept her children from the first marriage.
While keeping these things in mind and also understanding that, getting rid of any social stigmas take time and also that a woman’s identity doesn’t depend on her marital status alone, the government and social welfare organizations have to work towards widow’s self-reliance. What most widows need is empowerment through education and on the job training. So, the following measures are required; free education for widows, community support from self-help organizations, micro-credit systems offering loans at low interest rates and safe shelters offered by the governments with the support of social welfare organizations.
Finally, we need to build an all-inclusive society where these archaic social, cultural and religious restrictions on human life don’t have a space of recognition.
Image source: a still from the film Ramprasad ki Tehrvi
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Dr. Jyothi, Assistant Professor of English, Tumkur University. Has been a teacher of English and
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