A Country For No Widows
The condition of widows in India is pitiable and hardly finds place in the gender discourse. Why is the condition of Indian widows deplorable? What does their future hold?
Lost in thought, Aarti Devi sits outside her tiny room and carefully cleans her dishes.
"I was married when I was 11 to a man thrice my age. He died of alcoholism. I came here because my son abandoned me. No one looked after me or wanted me. I have endured everything alone.” she says.
78 year old Aarti has weathered the pressures of life after the demise of her husband. She has been living in Vrindavan for the last 40 years due to the dishonor, exploitation and terror she encountered by her husband’s family. Her own parents were unwilling to accept her back. Today, years later, she finds herself at Amar Bari with many women like her, who gingerly steer life alone.
Vrindavan, a poetic temple crammed city which epitomizes people’s eternal devotion to Lord Krishna has a murkier side to it. A number of bald headed widows dressed in white can be seen begging outside the temple.
Vrindavan also called the city of widows’ houses thousands of widow women who live in ashrams. These women, who were once glorified as goddesses and loved as mothers, sisters and daughter-in-laws are most likely, meet their end in Vrindavan without ever meeting anybody again. These women have a kaleidoscope of stories about their past which succinctly depict our society which is deep rooted in patriarchy.
In as early as the second century BCE, the Laws of Manu, a significant Hindu text, had shaped a set of rigid gender rules in the Brahmin caste. Manu Smriti states that that a widow must shed all ornaments, observe fasts, shave off her hair, pray to God to get rid of her sins and also replace vermillion on her forehead with ash from her husband’s funeral pyre.
In a patriarchal society like India, widowhood is more than just losing a husband. It includes a gamut of social changes, from changing how the woman dresses to being dodged by family, particularly by her in-laws. The ordeal doesn’t stop there. The widow ends up becoming a social recluse who is stopped from partaking in community events and is often shorn of property rights. Widows, by tradition are only allowed one meal a day and are expected to relinquish all material desires.
Orthodox Hindus confirm to the tradition that non-vegetarian food and even certain vegetables have components that stir blood and in turn sexual desires. Some even go on to believe that onion and garlic should be stripped off their diets. This explains why malnutrition deaths are 85% higher among widows than in married women.
A patriarchal Brahaminical culture has imposed strange values towards widows. Nevertheless, a positive change in this direction will only be possible when the government uses education as a medium to explain its harmful impacts.
There are about 42.4 million widows in India, many of whom live in conditions of abject poverty. Their existence has often been labeled as living the ‘modern day sati’. Some widows are as young as 11 years old and are required to spend the rest of their lives in seclusion and longing.
An imperative cause of exploitation of widows is financial suffering. A mere 28% of the Indian widows are entitled to pensions, and of those, less than 11% essentially receive their entitlement. If a woman is not financially strong, she becomes dependant on her in-laws and her parents. Financial assistance is imperative to widows looking to lead an independent life in a patriarchal society that reeks of orthodoxy, but the state has failed to work towards that.
Many of the widows in Vrindavan have no choice but to beg for food and money to survive.
According to a research conducted by National Commission for Women, 74% of poor widows live in West Bengal, 89% of Indian women are illiterate, and 58% do not have ration cards. This is indicative of the fact that legislation has been unsuccessful in doing the needful for widows. Widowhood is not considered an important issue that calls for action in India.
It was in 2005, that the International Widows' Day was announced with a vision to make the UN known that a day to mark the occasion could possibly activate a restructuring of national laws to exterminate prejudices against the widows. However, it has been unable to bring about a substantial transformation in India.
The stigmatizing of widows transcends social status and permeates in middle class and upper middle class families as well. 37 year old Divya Gupta, now a resident of Kanpur lost her husband to a heart attack and currently lives with her parents. A professor by profession, Divya bore the misgivings of widowhood, but decided to fend off efforts by her conservative in-laws to tie her down with chains of regressive mindsets. She left her in-laws in Rithala, Delhi to go back to her home town.
“Water went above my head when my father in law started threatening me and accusing me of greed. His daughters thought I was there for my husband’s property. Things went out of hand when he held my neck one day in front of my kids. That’s when I decided to leave” she said.
Patriarchal family systems, the tradition of patrilocal marriage and patriarchal inheritance have shored up the idea that women are mere "possessions" who have no right over the husband’s property. Inheritance delegates to the males even in many matrilineal societies.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requires international governments to enact gender equality regulations. Some governments have made an effort to help widows gain inheritance however, little has changed in India. A host of cultural factors impedes any actual access to justice.
Many laws to protect women have been passed in India since independence. But the personal laws are what govern widowhood traditions. The way widows are treated by the community or the pain they go through to survive by reciting bhajans and begging.
There is extreme lack of public concern and awareness for widows on the part civil societies, governments as well as women’s organizations, leaving a few.
Millions of women like Divya and Aarti carry with them not only the pain of a life without love, but also the loss of self-dignity. Some have, by virtue of their education managed to leap out of this rut, while some still struggle to survive. On one hand, we are talking about making India a world superpower, while on the other side we have ridiculous gender out casting that is upheld time and again. It is time, we set our priorities right.