I always shudder at the thought I might one day be called called a -"Dakin", which means witch in Hindi. I will never forget the afternoon when my best friend from school told me why her mother and she had decided to move to the small town of Jamshedpur from her native village in West Bengal.
Her mother, Ratna, was 25 years old, when she became a widow. Her husband had died after a prolonged illness. When he was alive, they were fairly well-off, as her husband owned a fair amount of land and a shop. But no sooner had he died, the village shunned her and called her a "husband - eater" ! She said her family abused her and even beat her if she asked for food. Eventually they told her she should leave the village with her daughter, a suggestion she followed, as it was obvious to her by then it was the best option she had. And so she had come to the nearby town of Jamshedpur and started life afresh with whatever little she had left.
Widowhood in India is considered a curse, an aberration and a misfortune of evil proportions. "Dakin", "Husband-eater"and "Randi"(prostitute) are just some of the words used to describe a widow. The social stigma attached to her status is so great that it "de-sexes" her, and she quickly goes from being referred to as “she” to the impersonal "it".
One woman, who has faced extreme ostracism is Bimala Kumar. I first met Bimala in our organization called Deoraj, which works relentlessly to put smiles on the underprivileged faces. She had come to enquire about free supply of books for her 14 -year-old daughter. Draped in a faded sari, she looked haggard and weak, her pain apparent by hundreds of deep wrinkles in her face. Bimala has lived in Delhi for almost 15 years. Life was not easy for Bimala even as a teenager, when she was married off to a laborer almost twice her age. "My husband died when I was 19," whispers Bimala, now 33. She finds it difficult to express herself, and her unfinished sentences are a testimony to the trauma she suffered at the hands of the men of her village when her husband died. "Five men locked me in a room and beat me until I fell unconscious," recounts Bimala. "Before the beatings started, almost the entire village of about 3000 people had gathered around my house to witness the volley of verbal abuse, but not one raised a finger to stop those men." Shattered, Bimala had to give up her land and leave the village the next day to find a place nearby in a decrepit, slum area of Delhi called Krishna Colony. The anguish of being branded a "witch" and facing de-humanizing treatment was difficult to overcome, but Bimala refused to succumb. "I wanted to be a survivor, not a victim," she says. She now earns her own living working as a housemaid. She says: "The joy of finding my identity and becoming self-sufficient has been my reward." Though she still misses her village, Bimala does not plan to return there. Ever.
There are more than 40 million widows in India - almost 10 percent of the country's female population. According to the United Nations article 'Women 2000'- promoting goals for the advancement of women : "Widows are painfully absent from the statistics of many developing countries and they are rarely mentioned in the multitude of reports on women's poverty, development, health or human rights published in the last 25 years. Due to the persistent belief that widowhood is largely a ‘women's issue’ rather a social issue, we have limited resources and associations working to help them." This article emphasizes the fact that the subject of widowhood and the attempts to end the discrimination against them is especially important in developing countries like India, where statistical data on them is limited.
For the majority of widows in India, life is still what some have described as a "living sati", a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning. According to 2,000-year-old sacred texts by Manu, the Hindu progenitor of mankind: "A virtuous wife is one who after the death of her husband constantly remains chaste and reaches heaven though she has no son." Many widows, whether young or old, seem to have internalized these age-old rituals, too rarely asking themselves or others whether they are rational – or fair. Widowed women forego their colorful saris, jewelry, follow a restrictive diet and even shave their heads, subjugating themselves to the stereotyping of society which always expects them to be a certain sort of a person. Not expected to be happy without her spouse by her side, or be a part of any auspicious occasion in a household.
Meera Khanna, a trustee of the New Delhi based Women's Initiative For Peace in South Asia and a contributor to a book called- Living Death: Trauma Of Widowhood In India, writes: "The widow is "uglified" to deprive her of the core of her femininity. It is an act symbolic of castration. She is deprived of the red dot between her eyebrows that proclaims her sexual energy."
Widows are considered an economic and social burden throughout the Indian society. While some are relegated to a life of seclusion in their own dwelling, others are evicted either by their own family or by their in-laws, who want to prevent them from inheriting money or property.
Vrindavan, the holy town of Lord Krishna and Radha in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, is now home to over 6,000 widows. Known as the- "city of widows", this town is thronged by women young and old whose husbands have died, especially from Bengal. Some come here with the intention of devoting their remaining years to the service of Lord Krishna. Many others come to escape the brutality they face at home, while still others have been thrown out by their children, who no longer wanted them around. Temples in the area hire them to sing devotional hymns for three to four hours per day, for which they are paid the measly sum of two Rupees (about four cents) along with a quarter of dal (lentils) and a bowl of rice.
"Widows don't have many social rights within the family," says Ranjana Kumari from the Center for Social Research, a group that works to empower women. The situation is even more extreme in some of India's rural communities. "There, it is much more tradition-bound; in urban areas, there are more chances and possibilities to live a normal life." The many widows who do not possess any formal means of identification are unable to obtain the state benefits they theoretically qualify for. About 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions, but of that number, fewer than 11 percent actually receive the payments they are entitled to. In Vrindavan, many widows, especially the young, end up as prostitutes or are sexually exploited by the heads of the ashrams they live in.
One woman, a widow herself, has been a leader of the cause of the widows in Vrindavan for the past decade. Dr.V. Mohini Giri is a social activist, scholar and a leader of the women's movement. Her mother was widowed when Giri was 9 years old, and although she was still so young, she saw clearly what a struggle it was. Giri then lost her own husband when she was 50, and was put through the same humiliating experience. She was even asked on occasion not to attend weddings because her presence was considered bad luck.
"Generally, all widows are ostracized," she says. "An educated woman may have money and independence, but even that is snatched away when she becomes a widow. We live in a patriarchal society. Men say that culturally as a widow you cannot do anything: you cannot grow your hair, you should not look beautiful."
She adds, "It's not the women we need to change – it’s the mind-set of society.” Giri has successfully set up and dedicated a home to the elderly widows of Vrindavan called - "Ma Dham". It has so far cared for more than 500 widows. Another refuge run by Giri is called "Amar Bari"- which means my home in Bengali . It has become a true home for many Indian widows, who enjoy the freedom of growing their hair long and discarding the traditional white saris in which society obliges them to dress after the death of their husbands.
Despite her perseverance and her success, she says, "Mine is but a drop in the ocean."
However, widowhood is not a punishment and should not lead to "social death". A widow is first and foremost a human being, and her marital status cannot be a criterion in determining her independence or position in society. Why should we seek to appease a patriarchal tradition that stipulates a male presence is necessary to reaffirm a woman's place in our society and, quite simply, her existence? It is hard to imagine the hardship women have to suffer when their husbands have died. But it is no less tragic to have your family throw you out of their homes or people labeling you a witch,- just because you no longer have someone to call your husband. It is shocking to even imagine any mother alone in a strange city, begging for alms or resorting to any extreme measure in order to earn her living.
India, which is often projected as an accepting and multi-cultural society to the external world, in reality remains a highly discriminated country. The discrimination starts from home at an early age. Women are constantly made to realize their worth and value simply on the terms of being somebody's wife. Even such words as "helpless", "shunned" or "inauspicious", used to describe widows, invokes nothing but a feeling of empty pity for them.
But widows do not need our pity. Instead, as a conscientious society, we should focus on helping them live their own lives and accomplish their own goals. Like Bimala, there are many others, trying to find a way of earning a decent living and lead a dignified life.
Facilitating property rights, increasing government pensions, widening the options for widows to remarry and establishing wider remunerative employment opportunities are just some of the measures that should be taken to help one of the most neglected sections of our society. But when I think of widows like Bimala and then of the other women I know, it is clear that the negative social attitude towards widows is merely a reflection of the general attitude towards all women. Had the conditions for widowers been as adverse as those of widows, it is likely that people whose spouses had died would have attracted far more support and attention.
Most importantly for India’s widows, though, is to put a stop to the current practice of isolation and alienation. No woman should face what Bimala or many other women like her endure once their husbands die.They must be embraced for what they are : a valuable section of our society. Dignity and self-respect are vital for overcoming any kind of distress- emotional or physical. And that is why we need to take responsibility for making them feel they are not alone. They are part of us. Just as much as any other human being.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals