BENGALURU — In a traditional patriarchal society, where the identity and value of a woman is determined through her husband, widowhood is about much more than losing a husband. In India, from changing how she dresses to being treated with contempt by family members, especially by her in-laws, there is a lot that a widow must bear, often without complaining. The trauma doesn’t end there. The widow becomes a social pariah who is barred from participating in family events and is often denied property rights.
Humiliation, harassment, loneliness, abandonment — there is nothing that a widow in India does not encounter. However, when the going gets tough, widows rise to the challenge, whatever the odds.
Vinita, from a small town in Karnataka state, is one such inspiring young woman. Vinita, who is 25 years old and HIV positive, lost her husband to AIDS. “A few years ago, when I found out that I was expecting, I went to the local government hospital. The doctor in charge recommended HIV testing,” she said. “Shockingly, I tested positive. I had contracted the virus from my husband, who was gravely ill at the time. We hid this reality from our families and broke the news only to a close friend.
“Although both of us started treatment, he died soon after. Unfortunately, our son also passed away within a year,” said Vinita, speaking at a recent meeting in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) facilitated by Swaraj, a statewide network of organizations, groups and individuals that champion the empowerment and advancement of socioeconomically disadvantaged women. Vinita said that she and her husband, a middle-income couple, had faced discrimination when they sought treatment for HIV.
Despite widowhood, Vinita made up her mind to forge on, raising a foster child by herself. Although she had minimal emotional and financial backing from her own family and her late husband’s, she has carried on. She has no savings and was not employed when her husband was alive. Now she works as a schoolteacher who takes out time to counsel young girls and women to study and work and to say “no” to early marriage. She does all this while undergoing intensive antiretroviral therapy, which involves commuting to a treatment center every month to collect her medication and undergo examination.
The traditional mistreatment of widows was the subject of the powerful film “Water,” by a Canadian, Deepa Mehta, a decade ago. Though the story is set in 1938, the film is still regarded as a classic portrayal of the perils of widowhood in India — a social curse still being challenged by the women who face it.
Like Vinita, another HIV-positive survivor, Jayamma, 38, has also learned to live life on her own terms. Her husband died a decade ago of AIDS, but because she received a diagnosis early she was able to get treatment, “even though enduring discrimination at the hands of health workers that comes along with the treatment,” she said. “As I was ostracized by my natal and marital families as well as all our friends and neighbors, I decided to relocate to Bangalore.” Once in the city, her life improved when she heard of a nonprofit group that assists economically marginalized HIV-positive women and transgender people in gaining access to antiretroviral treatment and counseling. She offered her services as a volunteer.
“The initial few years in Bangalore were full of emotional and socioeconomic struggles, and overcoming these has made me stronger,” she said, with a smile of satisfaction. “Right now, I am a peer counselor with the same NGO, a job that has helped me provide for my four children, three of whom are still studying, while the oldest is employed.”
Jyoti, a 23-year-old social worker, also bears the stigma of widowhood, but she has fended off attempts by her late husband’s conservative family to tie her down in shackles of regressive traditions and societal norms. Generally, after a woman loses her husband, Hindu religious customs require her to give up wearing bright clothes for white attire, remove ornamental symbols of her marital status and become a strict vegetarian.
The mother of a 3-year-old boy, Jyoti shunned these “old-fashioned” beliefs. “I come from a financially backward family and was compelled to give up my education after middle school,” she said. “I was married off while still in my teens to a daily wager. He was an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis.”
Her real trials began then. “My parents-in-law, who are agricultural laborers, wanted me confined to the house to perform religious ceremonies, which, in my opinion, are demeaning to women.” She persuaded her in-laws into allowing her to work “so that I could become independent and augment the family earnings, too.” Jyoti is now employed at a nonprofit organization that helps women in distress and is ably supporting herself and her son.
If Jyoti, a Hindu, had to fight stringent traditions to live on her own terms, Sabeha’s experiences have not been too different. Sabeha, a tailor, sees how sexism and patriarchal notions prevalent among some Islamic clerics and men in the community compel Muslim widows to follow in their Hindu sisters’ footsteps, even though it is not mandated in their religion. “Islam only prescribes ‘iddat,’ a three-month period of mourning for widows, and even that is not mandatory as per the Quran,” she said.
Sabeha, who founded and leads a group of women who reach out to others experiencing gender-specific harassment or violence, decided to remarry after her first husband deserted her when their child was young. Currently, though, she lives independently with her two sons — the elder one runs a grocery store, while the younger is studying in high school. Her husband stays with his first wife, even though he visits Sabeha, who is around 40, regularly and contributes to the household expenses.
Vinita, Jyoti, Sabeha and Jayamma are gutsy women who have faced tragedy and fought hard to make a place for themselves in society. They hope to inspire this change in others who are alone and striving to live with dignity.
The names and location of the women have been changed to protect their identity.
(© Women’s Feature Service)