Maharashtra Village Bans Oppressive Widow Customs
Some 250 km from Pune, the world looks just a little more hopeful. A village in Maharashtra’s Kohlapur, defined by imposing temples and palaces, passed a legislation last week banning oppressive rituals widowed women were thus far subjected to.
The culture of oppression is by no means limited to the village. Typical rituals as per upper-caste Hindu custom demand physical detachment as well as social ostracisation; a widowed woman is one who is required to break her marital bangles, wipe off vermilion from the forehead, part ways with the mangalsutra, never wear “bright” colors again, while eschewing any contact with the outside world. Essentially, remove any sign of the marriage post the husband’s death and retreat into invisibility; as if in the male partner’s death, the woman also dies.
Any woman’s existence after that is cruelly painted as “unlucky.” Sudevi, a 30-year-old widow in a village in Uttar Pradesh, in 2020 spoke of the inhumanity at the heart of all of this: “While they were stripping off my jewelry and washing the color off my forehead, I kept thinking that these people—my relatives, my neighbors, and my so-called friends—are not my well-wishers. My life is devastated. And all they care about is their merciless customs.”
The invisibilization of widows in India, and across many parts of the world, is built on a gory truth: singledom, for any reason, can be cruel and oppressive. “If you are single, you could just fade away. If you are separated or divorced, you may struggle all your life – so many women stay in a bad marriage and suffer. And in some families, the prospect of being widowed does not bear thinking about,” as Rupa Jha noted in BBC in 2014.
The anatomy of discrimination then speaks of a reality that is pervasive and deep-rooted. To counter this, the panchayat in the Herwad village in Shirol tehsil of Kolhapur district passed a resolution. This was in response to the stories of 12 women in the village who lost their husbands to the pandemic; the “insulting” traditions they faced made the prevalence of widow rituals a pain point. “We have initiated various steps for the welfare of women who lost their husbands to Covid19…Now, we felt it was time to end the widows’ ostracism,” said Surgonda Patil, sarpanch of Herwad.
The proposal to undo the legal barriers for women whose husbands have died was further supported by women panchayat members in the village. “As per the law, every citizen has the equal right to live with freedom however these practice has taken away the rights of the women which is actually against the law and the constitution,” the resolution stated. “Every widow of this village and the country has the right to live respectfully, therefore, all the practices related to widows are being demolished with immediate effect. Simultaneously, an awareness campaign should also be carried out in the village to make people aware of this resolution.”
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India has among the highest number of widows in the world; yet, many human rights activists note that women continue to face abuse, violence, stigma, loss of rights, and even enslavement in some cases. Gram panchayats passing resolutions and encouraging elected representatives to enact a law works in togetherness with social awareness programs.
As the resolution noted, women whose husbands die have a right to live with dignity and respect. This would require a legal system that would advocate for their rights by valuing their personhood, not the patriarchal institution the woman is linked with.
But much of it boils down to deconstructing the ideal of a married woman and the pedestal that patriarchy upholds for them. Even the gory practice of sati was criminalized in 1829; then there were further laws to criminalize the glorification of sati. But the power of rituals is sacrosanct; they hook a people’s imagination and touch upon their beliefs in an ineffable way.
Many of the customs are rooted in Brahminical patriarchy, and this legislation is thus progressive on more fronts than it seems would help. In a 1916 paper, B.R. Ambedkar explained the oppression of widows due to these traditions as follows: “The husband may die before the wife and create a surplus woman, who must be disposed of, else through intermarriage she will violate the endogamy of the group.” He noted how the existence of surplus woman — the widow — remains a “menace in any case.” One of the remedies the Brahmnicial patriarchy society thinks of “is to enforce widowhood on her for the rest of her life.”
There are three evils that a surplus woman is fraught with, he noted. “Being dead and gone she creates no problem of remarriage either inside or outside the Caste. But compulsory widowhood is superior to burning because it is more practicable. Besides being comparatively humane it also guards against the evils of remarriage as does burning; but it fails to guard the morals of the group. No doubt under compulsory widowhood the woman remains, and just because she is deprived of her natural right of being a legitimate wife in future, the incentive to immoral conduct is increased. But this is by no means an insuperable difficulty. She can be degraded to a condition in which she is no longer a source of allurement.”
Oppressive customs, like those expected of widowed women, then unfold suffering for millions of women who do not fit the ideal of the model women living happily in the veil of patriarchy — which is to say, most women.