There is at least one bright spot in an otherwise devastating record and trail of tragedy left behind in its wake by the wretched Covid pandemic. On May 4, just four days short of Mother’s Day, widely celebrated for mothers and mother figures in the US and worldwide, a modest, previously unknown village in Maharashtra state in India catapulted to fame.
Located in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, about 150 miles from Pune city, Herwad village took the historic step to ban all discriminatory socio-cultural practices aimed at oppressing, punishing, and isolating widows, freeing them from humiliating and dehumanizing socio-cultural norms and mandates.
Breaking away from age-long social customs alienating widowed women from life’s basic amenities and dignity, requiring them to behave in prescribed ways, members of the Herwad Gram Panchayat (Village Council) voted to end the evil practices traditionally imposed on widows.
Those proscriptions include requiring widows to forgo the use of kumkum or bindi, which only married women with husbands alive have been permitted to use throughout India’s history. Today, the exception for unmarried girls to use the red dot is more a product of modernity than of religious conviction, which has permitted unmarried girls and women to use the bindi for its cosmetic effect and not as an emblem of marital status.
Across India, and across centuries, immediately upon the husband’s death, the red-powered bindi or kumkum in some parts and sindoor in other parts of the country are wiped off the widow’s forehead, and from her hair parting, her long tresses are chopped, her bangles smashed, her mangal sutra (necklace signifying married status with husband alive) broken and snatched away.
Other painfully punitive behavioral dictates include widows being forced to wear only prescribed colors – white in most of India, maroon in Maharashtra; forego various kinds of diet; stay in quarters away from the main family; be confined to the home, have none or severely restricted mobility, and in extreme cases, prevented from any and all outside interface.
In all conventional societies – especially India – widowhood has always been burdensome and problematic. A widow’s sexuality and her re-emerged single status are feared for their attractiveness or sheer vulnerability, which could be a source of temptation and entanglement for men within or outside the family. A younger or attractive widow especially poses a challenge to and risks the stability of households by tantalizing men, or conversely, by her being tantalized by men.
Right up to contemporary times, in most societies, property ownership and inheritance by widows was and has always been perceived as a constant threat to a family’s assets. The dead husband’s family, having lost their son, has no desire to lose his assets to a woman who has no blood relationship to them and does not share an intrinsic bond, but instead, is open to manipulation by outsiders.
The norms and constraints, often enacted as laws in many countries, are therefore principally aimed at restricting a widow’s sexuality, attractiveness, and desirability and suppressing her eligibility to remarry or to inherit property. Despite efforts at legal reform dating back to the colonial period, the rigorous conventions governing widowhood have continued.
The momentous decision to undo those age-long taboos was taken in a Gram Panchayat (village council) meeting held on May 4, wherein it was resolved to abolish all the discriminatory practices traditionally followed upon the death of the husband. The resolution, which had the unanimous support and approval of the entire Panchayat body, stated, “In our society after the death of husband during last rites there is a practice of wiping off sindoor, breaking of bangles, removing of Bichiya (Toe ring), etc. Widows are also not allowed to attend any type of social and religious events in the village”.
According to the resolution, every citizen has the equal right to live with freedom as per the law. But these evil practices have taken away women’s rights in contravention of the law and the constitution. Noting that “every widow of this village and the country has the right to live respectfully,” the resolution declares that “all the practices related to widows are ended with immediate effect.”
Simultaneously, the resolution asks that the village should carry out an awareness campaign to inform people of the newly passed resolution.
The Village Council Head, Surgonda Patil, proudly notes, “The purpose to bring this resolution was to empower widows of our villages, who were traumatized because of these practices. During COVID time in our village, 12-13 men between the age of 30-50 lost their lives. The wives of these men had to endure all these evil practices. It was painful to see those women who were already suffering from the loss of their husbands to undergo further suffering. So together, we decided to end all these terrible practices”.
“We have set an example before the country to come forward and erase these ill practices. We want to appeal to the government also to make a law against it,” says the village Chief.
Significantly, this historic decision to ban widow rituals and restrictions was taken in the death centenary year of Shahu Maharaj, Kolhapur’s first Maharaja and a revered iconic ruler.
The suggestion to take this progressive measure came from Pramod Zinjade, a social activist and founder-president of a voluntary organization, who took the initiative to convince the gram panchayat to pass the resolution to ban the “insulting” way to drive home to a woman that she was now a widow.
Strangely enough, what inspired him to take up the cause of widows was also linked to the dreaded hated pandemic Covid. When one of his associates died following a Covid infection, he witnessed firsthand the cruelty of the smashing of bangles and mangal sutra and the erasure of kumkum from the heartbroken widow’s person.
Moved to action at this cruel amplification of the widow’s sorrow, he determined to help end the malpractice. He aired his views publicly to convince others to join him and approached village leaders, panchayats, and women, some of them widows, to work to end the unjust practices.
To set an example, he registered a signed pledge saying after his death, his widow would not be asked to undergo any such ritual. Soon, others followed and signed a similar commitment, which in turn inspired the Herwad gram panchayat to inform him of their decision to pass a resolution, making Herwad the first and a model village to tackle these gross unjust injunctions on widowed women.
The grassroots pro-widow reform movement is showing a cascading effect. Its advocates and supporters are contacting other gram panchayats to pass similar resolutions, convening workshops to inform and sensitize people to these unjust and unconstitutional practices, and approaching elected representatives to enact a suitable law. They are also inviting widows to serve as role models by not following the unfair dictates restricting their personal grooming and social interface.
That effort has inspired some courageous widows who have reached out to him to share their tragic experiences and their readiness to become social change warriors. Some have collectively petitioned the state minister to enact a law to ban these oppressive practices.
To keep women bonded and enslaved historically is common in most societies with inherited disparities still undercutting women’s rights, entitlements, and status – compared to men. But widowhood has been an especially compelling mark of shame, oppression, isolation, alienation, deprivation, destitution, and humiliation in the Indian culture and legal tradition.
Sati or self-immolation and other deathly rituals and practices aimed to suppress, suffocate, and kill women – married and widowed – and prevent them from being appropriated by others. For long, the woman was not just an adjunct but a property of the male.
Ironically, it fell to Covid to arouse the conscience of a dormant rural society.