There are more than 40 million widows in India – 10 percent of the country’s female population. 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. 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”.
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. Widows should no longer look attractive, and are expected to wear only simple white saris for the rest of their lives. On news of their husband’s death, they break their bangles and can no longer wear jewellery or use sindhoor – the red powder women wear in their parting and on their foreheads to denote their married status.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.
Her diet is also strictly restricted – she is forbidden from eating meat, fish and eggs, as well as anything touched by Muslim hands. And as traditionally, bakeries were run by Muslims, bread, biscuits or cakes are banned. She’s expected to fast several times a month, sometimes eating nothing but fruit for days on end.
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. 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. 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. The older women are often left to beg near temples or on busy streets. 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.
excepted from The State We’re In Oct 2009