Disrespecting the White Dupatta

In the eastern world, a death is mourned massively especially that of a man. And as most of the family will grieve over the loss of a loved one, it is the wife who ultimately finds herself in the most compromising of situations. Historically, widowed women were expected to be burned on the pyre of their dead husbands. This form of widow burning was known as “sati” (Sanskrit for ‘faithful wife’) and dates back to the fourth century. Eventually this heinous form of self-sacrifice was banned for obvious reasons. What exists now is totally different. While the more educated deal with widows in a more nonchalant manner, it is the more middle-class (please mind my aristocratic choice of words) that treat widows in a most questionable way.

There are numerous accounts of elderly mothers who are thrown away and abandoned by their families when their husbands die. Unsure of where to go, most of these widows find themselves fleeing to Vrindavan, a holy city that is now famous for housing the widowed. These women then find themselves begging for food, shelter and money. A 70-year-old widow found herself in the same situation after she was ostracized by her family. “My son tells me: 'You have grown old. Now who is going to feed you? Go away.' What do I do? My pain had no limit,” she said to a well-known publication. Life only got harder after she was literally abolished to Vrindavan. “Now I have to loiter just for a bite to eat,” she claimed as she sat outside one of the many temples in the holy city.

Statistics claim that in a city that is populated by about 55,000 people, at least 15,000 of those people are widows. And of course, to no one's surprise, the Indian government doesn’t view this issue as a problem. What’s worse is that if a younger woman is widowed, all her rights are immediately snatched from her. This canmean money, independence and most importantly, her status. The middle-class believes that such a widow has no rights in a family and in turn, is shunned by society. In many cases, these women are not included in family events such as weddings and births as they are deemed as bad luck. And that isn’t even the most wrong part. These women are deprived of basic essentials in life that include growing their hair out and shouldn’t appear “beautiful”. For the most part, these women wrap themselves in white saris and sport crew cuts similar to those that are given to criminals in jail. In addition, they are given basic food sans any spices so that their “sexual desires” are not heightened. A case that came to light very recently was one that used widowed women as prostitutes as a barter for housing and food. To everyone’s surprise, this “institution” was run by an ashram but what was unknown was that the priest in charge had taken on the role of pimp to the women.

In the case of a widowed child – yes, child marriage still does happen in some parts of India, she is forced to also live a life of homelessness after she is abandoned by her in-laws and family. An 85-year-old woman recalls her abandonment after she was literally thrown in a corner of the city at the tender age of 15. Married at 12, she became a widow three years later. “I came here when I couldn't work anymore. I used to clean houses," she says. "Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I survived on my own,” she explains. She was also pregnant when she arrived into Vrindavan; her child died a year after its birth. Osteopororis-stricken, she now makes a living sweeping the streets and washing dishes.

So why is it that the government knows about this sickening situation and decides that nothing should be done about it? There is no answer to this question. Widows choose not to voice their opinions and repress their feelings. It is sad that our politicians do not feel that this is a situation that needs to be sorted out immediately. Yes, this is not an affair that is related to the government but the Indian government has never had a problem dabbling in social affairs previously, so why is there a problem now? They need to intervene and ensure that a widow is given as much respect and rights as any other Indian citizen. What difference does her marital status make?

Luckily for many widows in Vrindavan, a number of educated entrepreneurs have taken it on themselves to give these deserted widows another chance at life. They teach widows that they are not any different to a married woman and should not be outcasted by society or accept social humiliation. But ultimately what needs to change is not these women; it is society and their mindset which has been tarnished by old ideals. This is the 21st century; it’s about time people start realizing this.

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