Widowhood – the loss of a companion – could be one of the most traumatic incidents in someone’s life.
“But oh for the touch of a vanished hand;
And the sound of a voice that is still….” seems to be an apt description.
Since the dawn of civilisation, innumerable thoughts, beliefs, and rituals grew up around this phenomenon. All major religious faiths of the world clearly spelt out specific codes of conduct and ethics regarding their views and attitude towards widows.
For instance, Islam explicitly forbids the mistreatment of widows. This sounded the death-knell of pre-Islamic Arabian culture wherein great emphasis was laid on procuring virgin brides. On the other hand, widows and their children were shabbily treated. After the divine revelation of the Holy Quran, the issue of widows came to the forefront. Owing to the numerous wars fought between the Muslims and the non-Muslim Arabs (whose bastion was Mecca) thousands of soldiers (a bulk of them were married men) were martyred. As a result, there was a spurt in the number of widows and destitute. According to the Hadith, Prophet Mohammad believed, “The one who looks after and works for a widow and for a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah’s cause.” Islam permits widow remarriage. However, there is a rider. A widow must observe Iddah a period of mourning lasting four months and ten days. This is time enough to detect pregnancy if any. Once this period is over and no pregnancy detected she is free to take remarry. The Prophet had married a number of times and interestingly at least two among of his wives happened to be widows.
Unfortunately, while orphans inherit their father’s wealth, a widow does not inherit her husband’s assets.
In the ancient patriarchal world of the Bible, widowhood ushered in hardships and penury since women of those times were not financially independent. Throughout the Bible an undercurrent of compassion is palpable. Widows’ remarrying was commonplace. For instance, Abigail a prominent Biblical character wed the legendary king David after her husband Nabal’s demise. Judith an affluent beautiful and childless widow, after her husband’s death prayed fasted and lived a saintly life. Naomi who lost her spouse along with her sons found solace in her daughter-in-law Ruth, whom she later persuaded to marry a youth named Boaz, and pick up the threads of life once again.
In the (Exodus 22:21-3) of the Hebrew Bible, there is a stern warning ‘You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans The Midrash states that as per Jewish tradition, sympathy for the condition of widows cuts across social strata applied widows rich and poor as well. Unfortunately, while orphans inherit their father’s wealth, a widow does not inherit her husband’s assets. However, there exists the scheme of ketubah (a pre-nuptial bond). This monetary settlement takes care of a widow’s finances until she remarries. At one point Prophet Isaiah says: Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. ‘Fight for the rights of widows.'”
Now the flipside. In a Talmudic passage (Pesahim 111a-b) Rabbi Akiba advises Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai: ‘Do not cook in a pot in which your neighbour has cooked.” He further advocates, ‘not all fingers are alike’. The logic: Constant comparison between the two spouses might make things difficult for a widow. Though there were instances of eminent individuals refusing to marry widows, the overall mindset was permissive. However, remarriage was prohibited for widows of martyrs. Judaism has two unique features, concerning widowhood, One, Levirate marriage, wherein the brother of the deceased husband can marry his widowed sister in law, and beget offsprings to perpetuate his dead brother’s lineage. Two, Halitzah wherein, at a public ceremony both the widow and her brother-in-law candidly declare that they are unwilling to enter such a relationship. Thereafter the lady is free to marry anyone else.
Far more outrageous was the “Widowing ceremony” prevalent until a few decades ago.
In ancient India (read Vedic age), women were held in high esteem in society. They enjoyed the right to education, and freedom in the choice of spouses (swayamvar). Regarding widowhood too, the norms were flexible. A widow had multiple options: sahamarana, that is, ‘voluntarily’ joining the husband on his funeral pyre. There was Niyog a procedure through which, if she so desired, a widow could conceive another man’s child, and thereafter spend the rest of her life rearing him Alternatively she could opt for Brahmacharya (rigid celibacy). Finally, she could find another husband. A handy option was her late husband’s sibling. Perhaps that is the reason why in Sanskrit/vernacular a brother-in-law is termed as Devar (Dwi=second + Var=husband). This was permissible since their offspring would be of the ‘same stock’.
During the later Vedic age and the early medieval era, the lofty status of women went on a downslide. Blame it on the later Vedic and post Vedic literature including Shastras (code of ethics/manuals) and Puranas. The biggest culprit appears to be the Manusmriti (circa 1250 B.C.-1000 B.C) ascribed to a mythical figure named Manu. He is the archetypal man, the progenitor of mankind. In modern parlance, he appears to be a misogynist par excellence. This manual virtually curbed all the liberty heretofore enjoyed by women, making their existence strait-jacketed and Spartan. Advocating that a widow must live under her son’s custody, it prescribes austerities for widows: “At her pleasure [after the death of her husband], let her emaciate her body by living only on pure flowers, roots of vegetables and fruits. She must not even mention the name of any other men after her husband has died.” Revolting isn’t it?
Far more outrageous was the “widowing ceremony” prevalent until a few decades ago. Umpteen novels short stories and films have vividly depicted such barbarous practices. No sooner did a man die, than womenfolk (senior widows) descended upon the hapless widow and got active: smudging the vermilion dot (bindi), smashing all types of bangles-glass coral, conch shell, and discarding the metal ones. They would offload all jewellery, mangaalsutra included, from her body (as if wearing them was criminal now). The colourful attires yielded place to stark white ones (ochre/maroon in the west & south India). With the husband gone, shouldn’t all colours be drained out of her life? Then followed the removal of the vermilion mark from the parting of her hair. This activity was generally staged on a riverbank or poolside. The women would rub and scrub vigorously until the tiniest speck of colour disappeared.
However, the greatest torture perpetrated upon the new widow was tonsuring or chopping off her tresses at random. So, what finally emerged was a grieving woman all shaven & shorn, dull and lacklustre. Hitherto her life would be dark and bleak. What an irony! In a cultural milieu where women were equated with goddesses, why did hundreds of thousands of innocent, bereaved women, have to undergo such brutal, inhuman treatment?. Perhaps the goddesses in Heaven above may have an answer. Who knows?
Featured Image Source: BBC