Indian Widows Seek Social Acceptance

Indian widows seek social acceptance

   NEW DELHI (UPI) -- When 17-year-old Ram Murti's husband died while on
patrol with India's Border Security Force, her in-laws threw the teenaged
widow and their 1-month-old grandson out of the house, believing Murti
brought the family bad luck.
   Three years later, wearing the traditional Hindu red and gold bridal
dress, Murti and nine other young widows of Border Security Force soldiers
are trying to re-enter Indian society through a mass wedding ceremony that
breaks more than 4,000 years of cultural taboo.
   Prevailing superstition throughout India intrinsically links a widow
with -- and even holds her responsible for -- the death of her husband.
   Blamed for the fate of their husbands in an environment in which
remarriage for women is out of the question, widows in India are commonly
condemned to solitary lives of ostracism and misery.
   The security force, which since 1990 has lost nearly 600 men on the job,
is making small yet significant progress among its soldiers and their
families in changing attitude towards remarriage.
   The 180,000-strong paramilitary force responsible for securing India's
land borders has since last year found second husbands -- mostly within its
own ranks -- for 13 security force widows.
   "In traditional Hindu society, widows are treated as social pariahs, "
explained a reformist priest conducting one of the ground-breaking marriage
ceremonies. "They are not welcome to participate in family functions and
their mere presence is considered inauspicious."
   Such rejection is particularly typical in many poor rural communities,
said Bhagwan Malik, an officer in the security force's welfare department
and organizer of the widow remarriage program.  "Poverty and superstition
makes them inhuman," he said.
   "The taboo on widow remarriage stems from man's desire to monopolize all
the good things in life," Malik said.
   The tightly knit security force feels a life-long responsibility to its
troops and their dependents that extends well beyond the monthly $50 to $60
pension for widows, said Chandara Kala Arya, president of the force's Wives
Welfare Association, a private charitable group made up of the spouses of
security force officers.
   "We have pushed for remarriage to help the women find a place in
society," Arya said. "A single woman without her own family is open to
exploitation and harassment."
   While pensions and re-employment programs do make the widows financially
self-sufficient, marriage gives women the most control over her life, she
   "Often, when widows live with relatives, they do not have control over
their own money," Arya said. "The pension is at the disposal of the oldest
male member who can do as he pleases.
   "If a widow remarries, she has more control over the money because she
lives in her own house with her husband. She is no longer a dependent
relative," Arya said.
   By contacting widows every few months by letter, the wives' organization
finds women who want to remarry. Through its vast network, the security
force's welfare department identifies men interested in marriage and tries
to make a suitable match based on common caste, language and religion,
Malik said.
   The force discourages grooms from outside the group because it fears the
men's motives for marrying may not always be altruistic. Wives who remain
connected to the Border Security Force at least have an automatic support
network, Malik said.
   "The men may have their eyes on the women's pensions," he said.  "Within
the force we can ensure the widows are not ill-treated."
   The welfare department's work is slowly but perceptibly effecting
change. At its first mass wedding in November, only three widows remarried.
Five months later, 10 couples were married.
   These unions are still exceptions to the rule, however. Another 40
widows have rebuffed the force's suggestions of remarriage, Malik said.
   In some cases, it is the woman's family that prevents remarriage,
thinking that such a radical step would reflect poorly on the entire
extended family.
   "If I remarry," explained Shyamali, a widowed housemaid supporting two
young children in New Delhi, "no one in my community will marry my younger
sisters. My rebellion will blight my family forever."
   One woman's family, on learning of her plans to remarry, locked her in
the house and beat her until she agreed to give up the idea. "After God, my
husband is supreme," Dhanavanti now says, with tears in her eyes.
   Ironically, Dhanavanti's family, too poor to support her, had considered
sending her to live with a man three times her age in their Himalayan
   In a variation of a local tradition that permits a widow to have a
live-in relationship with her dead husband's younger brother, three widows
from the northern states of Punjab and Haryana married their
   "To keep the family honor intact and to prevent the widow from straying,
the village elders permit a young man to have a relationship with his
brother's widow," explained the mother of a son who married his
sister-in-law. "We call the system 'covering a widow with a veil.'"
   The tradition does not permit the couple to marry legally.
   Arya, however, pointed out that behind the facade of family honor, the
motives of allowing a live-in relationship within the family are largely
   "If a widow with children remarries or simply moves away, she is likely
to take with her a large chunk of the family property," explained Arya. "By
keeping the widow within the family, the elders ensure there is no division
of property."
   Arya said she was hopeful the security force's program will help break
the taboo against widow remarriage, but conceded the group's power is
   While the force's authoritarian culture cultivates a loyalty among its
troops that transcends regional and family influences, the vast majority of
India's 900 million people still vehemently oppose remarriage for women.
   The security forces-arranged marriages "have been possible because the
couples are linked with a uniformed force and have our protection," agreed
Malik. "In a traditional rural setup, there could be a threat to their

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