South Asian Conference Capacity Building of Marginalized Women: Widow
Report -- Third Installment
Plenary-Day 1 -International Testimony of Widows
1st-3rd February 2002, New Delhi
Reprinted by permission of Dr. V. Mohini Giri
DAY 1 PLENARY
The plenary began with the comments by the doyen of the Women's movement, Veena Mazumdar. She said, "Oppression grinds out the spirit. . . the capacity to challenge . . .to call fail as failed. Widows have been kept oppressed and suppressed by our society. Members of my generation have outlived their time: it is good to meet with other warhorses!!!!!
We need to come to grips with a number of things that go in our society. There is the power of myth versus the power of reality. . . the social reality of the way things function within families within societies. The power of myth (widow is evil, inauspicious, husband eater, dayan) and the power of social reality, what do we fight? I am not too sure if myth and reality can be separated. Society is not static and social practices are not dynamic.
If we look at the 1931 census, the 13.5 of the then Hindu population did not permit widow remarriage . . . all of us have been brought up in deep rooted Hindu tradition, we have been brought up to believe and accept the many inhuman social customs. Society has carried on following beliefs blindly, without stopping to question the validity of the beliefs.
Someone once looked at issue of wants. There are different kind of wants at the grassroots. . . older widows did not want any privileges. That was their passion, it was their desire to want nothing. But is that the same for young widows? Never the less, younger widows were kept suppressed and oppressed . . . We need to make other changes within the counter sanskritization movement. . . do not underestimate the power of the myth. This power may become more powerful Varanasi, Vrindavan and Mathura are all directed at the myth, directed at all of us, standing up for human rights. We need to set targets within this dynamic society and change the situation of widows.
Sujata Manohar, Member, National Human Rights Commission began by saying, "Poverty has a women's face. 70% of the world's poor are women. There is discrimination against women, more so with widows. The treatment meted out to widows is an example in cultural dehumanization. What is required are a set of special policies and measures for empowerment. All human beings have a right to dignity."
Between 1815-1828 there were 8135 deaths due to Sati. Sati was encouraged. It was glorified and given an example for others to follow. It was designed as a check (an effective check) on land and property and ensured that assets stayed within the male members of the family. In 1829 Raja Ram Mohan Roy campaigned for the abolition of Sati. Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar too campaigned for the rights of widows and supported remarriage of widows.
Despite such efforts violence against widows continues. Widows are retained in society, but how? Marginalized, pushed away out of sight and made socially dead. Social stigmas continue to exist even today and thus society found an easy way out. In the name of religion we found 3000 widows abandoned of these 90% were from Bengal.
While laws are in place a widow rarely gets to exercise her rights. Even when the Law gives her a share of the assets, it reverts back to the deceased husband's heirs. The Muslim Women's Shariyat act gives her the right to land but in reality it never happens. Christian and Parsi Laws are better, more "woman friendly". While there is the Indian Succession Act, it is always the customary laws that dominate. Women are under social pressure to forgo land.
In the international context widowhood is often seen as an Asian problem.
To bring about change in mindset we need:
- Education/ literacy
- Economic empowerment
- Legal reforms that prohibit discrimination
- Support structures in civil society.
The session began with the presentation of the country papers. The presentations were in alphabetical order.
Rukshanda naz who has worked extensively with Afghan refugees made the presentation for Afghanistan. She traced the history of women in Afghanistan. Women joined the Mujahideen but were never acknowledged. No Afghan women were part of the reconstruction process and women still struggle in the refugee camps. Afghan refugees found newspapers; materials and other documents-they burned that, as they did not want their children to know that they were part of the Jirga. They burnt their own history. There are 30 million refugees in Pakistan alone. From the camps there have been many cases of trafficking of young women. Young widows too are often kidnapped. In addition, widows are a vulnerable group seen as unattached without any male protection.
Testimony of Garwara from Afghanistan: widow residing in New Delhi
She lived in Gazni, Afghanistan. 12 years ago, a rocket struck down her husband. She was left behind with young children. She first took refuge in Pakistan and then moved to Delhi. The U.N. gave her support for two years when she had health problems but that has been withdrawn now. She made her living all this while by stitching clothes for other Afghanis. She has a problem now as the women who gave her clothes to stitch have moved to different places and she has lost her customers. Her 15-year old son works at a refrigerator shop in Delhi and supports the whole family. Her daughter initially went to an Afghan school run by an NGO. Currently she has a scholarship to study at an Indian School. The family has applied for emigration to Canada; they wait with hope for their visas. Gawara was full of sadness at the conference. she burst into tears many times and was not able to speak.
When asked whether she wanted to go back to Afghanistan, her answer is an emphatic "No. What is left for me there?"
Salma Ali a lawyer activist made the presentation for Bangladesh. She said that widows are vulnerable in Bangladesh as in most other countries of South Asia. In addition to poor wages they are sexually exploited, illiterate, poor, their living conditions are poor- they are denied basic human rights. They are discriminated by their husband's family and do not have any space at their maternal home. Besides being illiterate they have no skills with which they can earn a living. They find themselves cornered from all sides.
The Bangladeshi society sanctions widow remarriage widow remarriage, remarriages occur all the time, but it is not as easy as it may appear. Polygamy is prevalent in Bangladesh. A man may marry the deceased brother's wife, or the widow of some other person, but there is discrimination against her. She is given a much lower status than the wife. A widowed woman often has no choice about whom she can marry, in all probability she will get a partner who already has children from a first marriage.
How many widows can access legal aid in Bangladesh? Very few. There is social isolation even in inheritance. Religious and customary laws rule over and lower the status of the widow denying her rights even if she has them. The Shariyat law gives 1/8 to widows . . . but male relatives take away her assets. There is need for codified law.
The case study of Shahnaz Begam:
Shahnaz's husband owned a shop and van and a rickshaw. Everything was running smoothly until her husband died. At the time of his death they had two children a minor girl and boy. She had no education, and as a result complete dependent on her father-in-law and brother-in-law. Soon taking advantage of her vulnerable state, her tenant began creating unnecessary trouble. . . In the pretext of solving the problem of the tenant, the father-in-law asked her to hand over the papers of the house to him. Subsequently he encroached on her property. Shahnaz filed a case against her father-in-law. He filed a counter case. Shahnaz has got no justice so far.
Pem Wangdi made the presentation for Bhutan. She said that Buddhism binds us together and teaches us compassion and love.
Bhutan has a matriarchal society, which has always provided a safety net for women. In addition, the law has ensured equality amongst sexes. We ae kind to all our fellow beings and the status of women in Bhutan is very good in comparison to the rest of South Asia. 49.5% of people in Bhutan are women. There is no loss of status when you become of widowed in Bhutan. Many of our practices are different from other South Asian countries . . . the women inherit land and all other assets -- houses are female headed. Widows are not ostracized. Women -- daughters or widows can perform funeral rights -- there is no stigma or religious norm attached to that.
Case Study of once widowed Tshering Yangki
She was widowed when young and had a child from the first marriage. She continued to live in the same house as her parental one. Then she met another man and took the decision to marry him as she wanted her child to have father. Her family and that of her deceased husband were very supportive and encouraged the union. Then she moved out from the parental home and now lives with her second husband in a separate independent house. She has another child by him and they are all living happily. She is in touch with both sets of parents-in-law and they are all supportive of her decision.
Meera Khanna, Joint Secretary of the Guild of Service made the presentation for India. She said that to focus on the lives of nearly 40 million women who're widowed, to limit their traumatic struggle into a limited framework of time is a difficult task. Words limit the enormity of the humiliation and the agony of not being considered. That is the tragedy of widows in India. They cease to matter. Though physically alive, all their material, social and human dignity is annihilated.
Discrimination against widows has been given the sanctuary of customary practice in India. Often skewed religious interpretations are invoked to make marginilization of widows acceptable to all concerned. Ironically, the widow herself is conditioned to accept the daily violation of her dignity as a kind of atonement for some imagined or alleged "sin".
Widowhood in India amongst the higher castes is a state of social death. The widow's social death stems from her alienation from reproduction and sexuality, following the death of her husband. She is excluded from the functioning social unit of the family. The Brahmanic patriarchy was posed with a problem: although the widow was socially dead she continued to be a part of the society and had to be somehow incorporated. One way out was to ensure her physical death too. Another was to retain her in society and place her on the margins of society and then institutionalize this marginality. So the Brahminical patriarchy chose the second option, put her in a state between being physically alive and socially dead . . . depriving her of her sexuality and personhood.
On widowhood, women rarely inherit the husband's property on a clear title. If they do then they're deprived of effective control. Widows are often evicted from their marital homes. Male children may be taken away from them. The support from their natal homes may not be forthcoming Statutory laws do grant widows property rights. But a majority of them rarely have the legal awareness or the resources to fight for their rights. So destitution is really the only option left for widows in a country where social security is ineffective in its implementation.
Widows are vulnerable to violence, often at the hands of male relatives who intimidate them to give away her inheritance, meager though it is.
Degrading customary practices associated with widowhood further emphasize their marginalization. Poverty, destitution, illiteracy, homelessness force widows into poorly paid jobs or into the exploitative areas of informal sector like prostitution.
When they're with their families, they're often forced to work for their "keep". They're only tolerated not cared for, much less loved. The facts suggest that widows suffer from both economic and emotional paucity.
This book focuses on the subtle and not so subtle means by which society, through customary practice and religious sanction marginalize the widows and their subsequent struggle for identity. The status of widows should not be seen just as an accidental deprivation caused by circumstances. It should not be viewed just as a malaise rising out of adverse circumstances, but out of adverse social conditions, out of the unequal dynamics of gender relationships.
Social discrimination precedes economic deprivation or vice versa. The end result is that as a section of women, widows are the most vulnerable to abuse and violence. The marginalization though rooted deep in the patriarchal psyche is also the result of a very carefully delineated feudal practice to keep down the claimants to the material resources. To prevent the pressure on the resources, widows among the higher castes were prevented from remarrying. the patrilocal nature of the society succeeds in alienating the widow from all emotional and economic support. thus Patriarchy, Patrilineal inheritance and Patrilocality are the sole factors responsible for the discrimination of widows.
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