Widowhood: A life interrupted
“I always felt different because everywhere I go people either give me sympathetic looks or are scared that I will bring bad luck. But the first time I actually felt betrayed was when one of my sisters was getting married. I was treated like an outcast by my own family, all of whom thought that if I touched the bridal clothes or anything related to the nuptial ceremony something catastrophic will happen,” narrated Mahar whilst describing her experience as a widow in Pakistan.
Mahar belonged to the upper-middle strata of the Pakistani society and lives in one of the largest cities in the country. However, her narrative made me think about hundreds of widows living in the rural areas of Pakistan who are far less educated and empowered than Mahar and most definitely a lot more discriminated.
Many will fail to admit the truth that despite all the progress that societies have made in terms of equality and human rights, widows are still considered a bad omen. Many widows are ostracised from society whereas, quite a handful of them are deprived of their rights to remarry and inherit property. Although all religions ask their followers to treat widows with respect and dignity, however, it is evident that the traditions and superstition supersede religious diktats.
It is important to understand that with the world embroiled in conflicts ranging from wars to religious violence the percentage of widows in societies is surging drastically. It is important to recognise them as equal and contributing members of the society by empowering them as much as possible so that they are able to lead ‘normal’ lives.
Despite of all the awareness regarding human and equal rights, widows are still living unfortunate lives in many south Asian countries. In fact, Pakistan is not the only country where widows are marginalised. Most South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal and India do not treat widows on equal footings with other women and citizens of the society. However, the situation in India because of old values and tradition is highly critical and worse than most countries.
An Indian widow from Pune, who now lives in Detroit, Michigan, shared her experience on condition of anonymity by saying, “I belong to an elite Indian family and one would think that with the world is changing so fast the country would have left behind its traditions. I agree that India is a progressive society but there are various issues that are still considered beyond discussion or argument and widowhood is certainly one of them.”
“I lost my husband when I was 40 and there were times that people, especially married women refused to even eat with me. I remember not being invited to events, people looking at me suspiciously if I smiled or laughed or at times even refusing to sit with me. It was almost like I was the reason why my husband died and I was left to live with the guilt. I still remember my mother telling me that I should have died with him. I was treated worse than an untouchable,” she added with tears glistening in her eyes.
“I fail to understand that why people do not realise that life and death is in the hands of Almighty and we play no role in such decisions whatsoever. If I had it my way I would have died before him,” she said.
India is one of the few countries where widows suffer the most. It is estimated that over 15,000 widows from different parts of India are forced to live in Ashrams located in holy cities such as Vrindavan — most of them hoping for a death which remains their only solace. A heavy majority of these widows sing bhajans and receive a small pittance from the people who visit temples, whereas others beg or receive a petty allowance from the government. One of the most heart wrenching facts about these widows is that sometimes they do not even receive a respectful cremation. In fact, just a few months back some of the widows who died were chopped up into pieces and their extremities were stuffed in gunny bags as the government did not have sufficient funds to cremate them in accordance with Hindu rituals.
Although many social organisations and activists are working to help Indian widows, however, it is evident that for them the only hope lies in death which will liberate them from this vicious cycle of life.
The predicaments faced by South Asian widows has prompted South-Asian Network for Widow Empowerment in Development (SANWED) to undertake various measures in order to create awareness about the problems faced by widows and mainstreaming them into economic and social stratum of societies. A few months back SANWED held a conference in Islamabad to adopt a unanimous declaration called ‘Islamabad Declaration for Mainstreaming Widows’ and ‘Single Women’s Rights in Public Policy’. The declaration is aimed at providing equal opportunities for widows who are discriminated in the society.
I always wonder why widowers are not considered pariahs or unlucky in our countries and why only women are punished for acts that are beyond their control. What part, if any, did the aforementioned women play in bringing about the untimely demise of their significant others? What choices did they have? If we all know the answers to these questions then why do we continue to expel widows from our society?
It might sound ironic but the bitter truth is that divorced women are stigmatised more than widows. It is evident that in patriarchal societies, such as ours, single women are considered heretical. Any woman who wishes or chooses to live without a man is stereotyped on the basis of her decision to live alone.
It is important to understand that women can survive without a male supporter and still continue to live a respectable life. The sooner we realise this the better it is for our societies, and more importantly, our future generations.
The writer is a Reporter at Dawn.com