About Widows in India

Once a woman becomes a widow, she is labeled untouchable, a cursed woman, believed to be the source of her husband’s death. It is perceived that if you associate with these widowed women you will also be cursed. After the […]

Once a woman becomes a widow, she is labeled untouchable, a cursed woman, believed to be the source of her husband’s death. It is perceived that if you associate with these widowed women you will also be cursed.

After the death of her husband, the woman is thrown out of the home and out of the village. Widows sometimes find huts or build their own shelter along the outskirts of the village, a place where outcasts and other untouchables gather. The living conditions are harsh, offering no water or toilets. Often women marry very young leaving them without the opportunity to receive an education.

When they are forced to leave their home, these women move into a survival lifestyle. Taking what work they can in order to provide for themselves and their children, widows are often forced into a life of prostitution and begging. Opportunities for work in the fields or labor intensive construction may be available, however widows are frequently taken advantage of and often only receive half the daily wages others receive. Their children are left home alone while they work, leaving them with no opportunity for education. Shockingly, a woman in India can be widowed as young as age 13 and left with little to no hope for being remarried.

There are more than 40 million widows in India – 10 percent of the country’s female population. Widows are still accused of being responsible for their husband’s death, and they are expected to have a spiritual life with many restrictions which affects them both physically and psychologically.  Although widows today are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre), they are still generally expected to mourn until the end of their lives.  And for the majority of these women, life is what some have described as a “living sati”, a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning.

Only 28 percent of the widows in India are eligible for pensions, and of that number, less than 11 percent actually receive the payments to which they’re entitled. If a woman is not financially independent, she’s at the mercy of her in laws and her parents. And if they don’t have the will or the resources to take care of her and her children, she’s on her own.

Hindu widows especially are faced with a battery of societal taboos; the general rule of thumb is that the higher their caste, the more restrictions widows face. Traditionally when a man dies, his widow is expected to renounce all earthly pleasures.  An orthodox widow may be expected to cut her hair or even shave her head. A widow from the south of the country may not even be able to wear a blouse under her sari.

A widow’s diet may also be strictly restricted – she may be forbidden from eating meat, fish and eggs (foods necessary to avoid malnutrition or even death.), as well as anything touched by Muslim hands. Traditionally, bakeries were run by Muslims, so bread, biscuits or cakes are banned. Orthodox Hindus also believe that vegetables like onions, garlic and certain pulses heat the blood and are impure foods, so they’re also on the list of forbidden foods. She’s expected to fast several times a month, sometimes eating nothing but fruit for days on end.  For India as a whole, mortality rates are 85 percent higher among widows than among married women, according to research by the Guild for Service.

A widow is sometimes called “pram” or creature, because it was only her husband’s presence that gave her human status. In some Indian languages, a widow is referred to as “it” rather than “she”; in others, the word doubles as an abuse or is barely differentiated from the word for prostitute.

In much of Indian society—across caste and religion—a widow is often perceived by family members to be a burden.  There are many hardships women have to suffer once their husbands die. A family may be ostracized if they don’t adhere to the restrictions society places on widows. Washer men won’t wash their clothes, no shopkeeper will sell things to them, they won’t be able to participate in any rituals, and so on.

In addition a widow was considered inauspicious, so she couldn’t be present at the rituals and celebrations that form such an integral part of Indian life, such as marriage or birth ceremonies

Traditionally, Bengal has been particularly harsh in its treatment of widows, especially when coupled with the centuries-long tradition of child marriage in the region. Copying the myth that the god Siva took Parvati as his wife when she was only eight, girls were married off as young as eight or nine years old and as Hindu India was polygamous, a man could have several wives.

Often the girls were married off to much older men, and there was even a tradition of giving daughters in marriage to travelling Brahmin priests who would come to visit a family for a night, marry the daughter, before moving on and leaving her behind.

Girls married off as children stayed in their parents’ house until puberty and only then could the husband come to claim them. Unsurprisingly, these girls were often left widowed and even if they were still barely children, the restrictions still applied.

Moitri Chatterjee remembers an aunt who had been married off at eight years old, only to find herself widowed at nine. “Imagine, without even tasting married life, she became a widow and had to undergo all that penance, fasting, not eating, cutting her hair, wearing a white sari.” Such child widows usually were unwanted in their in-laws’ house, so they either stayed in their parents’ house as unpaid labour or were sent off to the “widow cities” such as Varanasi or Vrindavan.

These cities are still magnets for widows and today they are full of dingy guest houses and ashrams where impoverished and abandoned widows come to try to eke out an existence till the death they long for comes to claim them. It is common knowledge that younger widows are often sexually exploited in these places, though the subject is taboo enough to earn an instant brush off if brought up with the authorities. As for the older women, their only hope is to plant themselves near temples or on busy streets and beg. Some go to bhajanashrams where they sit in shifts to chant prayers – for a four hour shift they can earn a cup of rice and 7 rupees – about 12 cents.

These conditions don’t bespeak the conditions for all widows. India is changing no doubt, but even in today’s India – the India of the silicon revolution – there are still millions of women who are left without the options offered to the moneyed middle class.