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8 Dehumanising Customs Indian Widows Have Faced Through the Years

The permanence of death may be daunting for the family that loses a loved one. But no matter how overwhelming it is for the family, it is far worse for a widow in India. We've come a long way since social ills and cultural tradition burdened society through its utter absurdity, and yet many parts of the country still uphold regressive customs when it comes to widowed women. 

Here are just a few ways in which widows in this country are treated with utter cruelty, stripped off their rights and dignity.

Wearing a white saree

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In Hinduism, white is considered the colour of mourning and is often the colour one wears to a funeral or memorial service. In parts of north and central India, it is believed that a widow needs to be in a constant state of mourning once her husband dies. She is compelled to adorn a white (or a colour close to white) saree for the rest of her life from the day of her husband's death.

Sati

An age-old social evil, satipratha - now outlawed - entailed a ritualistic suicide by the widow who would immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre. A dehumanising and barbaric custom, the tradition of sati was abolished in the 19th century with legal reforms during the British rule.

Renouncement of identity and wealth

Another dehumanising practice is the psychological abuse widows go through even today. In parts of UP, Haryana, and Rajasthan, once a woman's husband dies, she is immediately referred to as a mere object - 'it' instead of 'she' - and even basic human rights are taken away from her. To top it all, she is stripped off any inheritance from the husband's family and is even made to downsize her diet significantly, sometimes to just one meal a day, or turn vegetarian if she would eat meat when the husband was alive.

Untouchability

Even today, several villages in northern India ostracise women after their husband's demise. The village of Vrindavan is just one example of a town rife with widows stripped of their wealth and dignity, and condemned to a life of beggary and abject poverty. Most are considered 'untouchables,' and it is still believed that even their sight or slightest touch can bring bad luck to a person on the receiving end.

Solitary confinement

Source: Aljazeera

In several Hindu and Muslim households across the country, widows are confined to their homes, and sometimes even their rooms, without any interaction with the outside world. While some are made to adopt this solitary life for a few months, many are made to go through the rest of their lives in isolation and society-inflicted shame. When around strangers, even an accidental sighting of their face is seen as ominous and thus widows are made to cover their face in a ghoonghat or purdah when they are in contact with outsiders.

Forbidden vanity

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In many states across the country, when a married man dies, the woman is immediately made to discard marriage markers such as sindoor (vermillion on the forehead), mangalsutra (beaded necklace), bichia (toe ring), chooda (bangles), and so on. In many households, during the man's funeral, his widow is made to break her bangles to proverbially mark the end of a part of her life she cannot repair. The widow is then forbidden from indulging in vanity and enhancing her appearance with makeup, jewellery, or ornate apparel. In more extreme cases, women are made to shave their heads and not allowed to grow their hair for the rest of their lives.

Abstinence

The most common practice upheld even today is the confinement of a widow to a life of abstinence. Once a woman is widowed, she is forbidden from remarrying or taking a lover for fear of passing on the 'bad luck' to the next man she gets associated with.

Living in ashrams

Source: Wordpress

In towns such as Vrindavan and Varanasi, widows from the town and neighbouring villages are sent to homes or ashrams demarcated for them where the women coexist in solidarity but are confined to a life of prayer and solitude. There, they survive on donations and go through their day begging for alms and food. In some extreme cases, women have to resort to prostitution to make it through the rest of their lives.

While things are changing and we are slowly leaving regressive customs behind, we still have a long way to go to protect the basic human rights of women who have lost their husbands, who have been through a heartbreaking tragedy, and are constantly subjected to shame for no fault of theirs.

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