A Country for no Widows
The condition of widows in India is tragic and hardly finds a place in the gender discourse. What does their future hold?
Devika Sharma Delhi
Lost in thought, Aarti Devi sits outside her tiny room and carefully cleans the 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. Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I have survived on my own,” she says.
Aarti Devi, 78, has weathered the terrible traumas of life after the death of her husband. She has been living in Vrindavan for the last 40 years due to the dishonor, exploitation and terror inflicted on her by her husband’s family. Even her own parents were unwilling to accept her back. Today, years later, she finds herself at ‘Aamar Bari’ with hundreds of women like her, who gingerly steer their difficult life alone.
Vrindavan, a beautiful and crammed temple city which epitomises people’s eternal devotion to Lord Krishna, has a murkier face to it. A number of bald-headed widows, mostly emaciated and dressed in white, can be seen begging outside the temples.
That is why Vrindavan is also called the ‘city of widows’. It houses thousands of ‘exiled and condemned’ women who live in ashrams, temple spaces, open corridors, even homeless. These women, glorified as ‘goddesses’ and ‘worshipped’ in Hindu mythology and ‘family values’, and once loved as mothers, sisters and daughter-in-laws, most likely, meet their end in Vrindavan without ever meeting any loved one again. They are dumped and discarded for life, to die alone, left to their solitary, poverty-stricken, degraded fate, often combating hunger and multiple diseases. These women have a kaleidoscope of tragic stories about their past which succinctly depict our society which is deep-rooted in patriarchy, marked by a certain brutal and ruthless ritualism towards women.
In as early as the second century BCE, the ‘Laws of Manu’, a significant Hindu text, has shaped a set of rigid gender rules, driven by the Brahminical code of conduct. Manusmriti states 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 code in which women are condemned to be brow-beaten in the male-dominated hierarchy, as a widow, she is certainly more inferior then a wife.
In a patriarchal society like India, widowhood is more than just losing a husband. It includes a gamut of social changes, from changing how a woman dresses, what she eats or desires to eat, the manner she conducts herself, to being pushed into daily humiliation and degradation by the family, particularly by her in-laws. The ordeal doesn’t stop there. Widows, often, even in these times, end up becoming a social recluse who are stopped from partaking in community events, is compelled to be exiled in the family, shut out from social life, and is mostly shorn of property rights. In some communities, widows, by tradition, were only allowed one meal a day and are expected to relinquish all material desires.
Orthodox Hindus confirm to the mindless tradition that non-vegetarian food and even certain vegetables have components that “stir the blood and arouse sexual desires”. Some even believe that onion and garlic should be stripped off their diets. This explains why malnutrition deaths are 85 percent higher among widows than in married women.
Orthodox and brutish male-dominated family systems, the tradition of patrilocal marriage and patriarchal inheritance have shored up the idea that women are mere ‘possessions’, or ‘reproductive machines’ who have no right over the husband’s property. Inheritance delegates to the males even in some matrilineal societies
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 virtually living the life of a ‘modern day sati’. Some widows have been as young as 11-year-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 percent of Indian widows are entitled to pensions, and, of those, less than 11 percent receive their entitlement. If a woman is not financially strong, she becomes dependant on her in-laws and parents. Financial and social assistance is imperative for women whose husbands are dead and who are looking to lead an independent, productive and fulfilling life in a patriarchal society that reeks of orthodoxy, prejudice, gender injustice and exploitation. Indeed, the Indian State and its governmental agencies promising ‘women and child welfare’, or, our social systems and community networks, even the voluntary sector, has effectively failed to work towards that.
Many of the widows in Vrindavan, mostly ageing and physically helpless, have no choice but to beg for food and money to survive. Or, depend on charity.
According to research conducted by the National Commission for Women, 74 percent of poor widows live in West Bengal, 89 percent of Indian women are illiterate, and 58 percent do not have ration cards. This is indicative of the fact that legislation has been unsuccessful in ushering in a positive change for widows. Widowhood is not considered an important issue that calls for action in India.
The International Widow’s Day was announced in 2005 with a vision to make the UN aware that a day to mark the occasion could possibly activate a restructuring of national laws to exterminate prejudices against widows. However, it has been unable to bring about a substantial transformation in India.
The stigmatising of widows transcends social status and permeates in middle class and upper middle class families as well. Deepa Gupta (name changed), a resident of Kanpur, lost her husband to a heart attack and currently lives with her parents. An academic, Divya bore the misgivings of widowhood, but decided to fend off efforts by her conservative in-laws to tie her down within the chains of regressive mindsets. She left her in-laws in Rithala, Delhi, to go back to her home town.
“My real problems began when my father-in-law started accusing me of being greedy. 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 children. That’s when I decided to leave,” she said.
Orthodox and brutish male-dominated family systems, the tradition of patrilocal marriage and patriarchal inheritance have shored up the idea that women are mere ‘possessions’, or ‘reproductive machines’ who have no right over the husband’s property. Inheritance delegates to the males even in some matrilineal societies.
That is why Vrindavan is also called the ‘city of widows’. It houses thousands of ‘exiled and condemned’ women. These women, ‘worshipped’ in Hindu mythology and ‘family values’, and once loved as mothers, sisters and daughter-in-laws, most likely, meet their end in Vrindavan without ever meeting any loved one again. They are dumped and discarded for life, to die alone, left to their solitary, poverty-stricken, degraded fate, often combating hunger and multiple diseases
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 archaic practice of Sati is well-known, but little do people know about the horrors of the daily suffering of widows, the way they are treated by the family/community, or the pain they survive in exile, solitary and homeless, by reciting bhajans and begging, as in Vrindavan.
There is extreme lack of public concern and awareness for widows in the civil society, as well as among NGOs and women’s organisations. Millions of women like Deepa and Aarti carry with them not only the pain of a life without love, they also face daily attacks on their self-dignity. Some have, by virtue of their education, sheer will and determination, managed to come out of this rut, while many still struggle to survive. In ‘global India’ this ‘gender outcasting’ has become a veritable social curse, best witnessed in the ‘Holy City of Vrindavan’.