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Why do we shame widows?

By Kumkum Bhatia

Rows of helpless, emancipated, head-shaven women in white cotton saris line the streets of Vrindavan (near Mathura). It is estimated the city hosts more than 15,000 such widows, most of whom have been abandoned by their families and forced to live a life of penury. How can a society that is supposed to revere women as devis treat its widows so badly?

Fortunately, the plight of widows is not the same all over India. Bengal, Rajasthan, some places of Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu force their widows to shave their heads, remove all jewellery, wear white and consume a bland diet devoid of spices. In other places, restrictions are much less.

Importance of Hair

In India, shaving one’s head has been an important custom. It starts with the ‘mundan’ – a cleansing and protective ceremony for children between ages 1-3, which also ensures a healthy growth of hair. In addition, shaving one’s head is a sign of surrender to the Lord, where the devotee offers his or her precious hair (as in the famous Tirupati Temple) to dissolve the ego, show repentance and start life afresh; a son shaves his head on the death of his father as a symbol of mourning. Sometimes tonsure has also been used as a method to punish robbers and thieves.

Thus hair is considered precious and adds to the beauty of a person. Consequently, in order to make the widow less attractive, she was forced to shave her head. “The widow is ‘uglified’ to deprive her of the core of her femininity,” writes Meera Khanna, a contributor to a book called Living Death: Trauma of Widowhood in India. This practice became magnified in places where child marriages were prevalent and the girl became a widow at a tender age.

It is unfortunate that the death of her spouse shatters the life of the young widow. She is considered the cause of her husband’s death by her in-laws, looked on as an inauspicious person and treated as an outcaste. “Widowhood is a state of social death, even among the higher castes,” says Mohini Giri, a veteran activist in the fight for women’s rights. “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.”

Changing Attitudes

Manu Smriti (Laws of Manu) is often quoted and misquoted to justify our treatment of widows. Manu, in fact, enjoined a son to look after and protect his mother after the death of her husband. He advised a quiet and simple life for the widow devoted to prayer and the scriptures. The idea would be to let the mother-in-law take a back seat, and not interfere in the running of the home and the lives of her daughters-in-law! Manu has also given permission for the widow to remarry (if she so wished) and also beget a child from a relative of her husband by special permission.

The situation now is, thankfully, changing. Reformists, activists and women’s groups have been highlighting the plight of widows. Recently, the Supreme Court of India passed an order asking the UP government and Mathura authorities to provide proper food, medical facilities and clean toilets at four government-run shelter homes at Vrindavan.

The most important thing is to change the Indian mindset about daughters and sons. Equality between brothers and sisters as well as respect for girls and women has to begin at home. Secondly, girls should be encouraged to become emotionally and economically independent and confident. Our society on the whole needs to develop a more compassionate and caring attitude.


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