We claim to be modern and enlightened; so why do we continue to ghettoize widows?
You know what annoys me more than the insistence that women sport some sign – bindi, sindoor, mangalsutra – of their ‘married’ status? It is the insistence that widows should not be allowed to sport any of these signs. That they should put away their red saris and bangles, and restrict themselves to sober colours, which are in keeping with their new status. The subliminal message is clear: a woman’s life revolves around her husband; she derives all her status in society through him. She dresses up for him; she pretties herself for him. Once he passes, her life is over as well. So, what use can she possibly have for the ‘shringar’ that is the preserve of married women?
Well, I am happy to report that some women are now summoning up the courage to say no to this kind of obscurantist nonsense. Over the last month or so, I have had the pleasure of meeting many such women, who refuse to be defined by their widowhood. Some of them are old, others heartbreakingly young, while others are middle-aged. Some of them are careerwomen; others are housewives. Some of them are rich, others middle class, and some struggling to make ends meet.
But whatever their surface differences, all these ladies have two things in common. One, all of them loved their husbands immensely and miss them enormously. Two, they see no value in the ‘tokens of widowhood’ that the rest of the world sets so much store by.
Take Hema Deora, for instance, who lost her husband, the politician Murli Deora, a few months ago. When I met her recently, she was still wearing her trademark red and white ‘shakha and paula’, traditionally worn by married women. She still had her bindi in place. This is the way her husband loved to see her, she said to me. And to change her appearance after his passing would be a discourtesy to his memory.
Meeting her put me in mind of Kavita Karkare, the widow of 26/11 martyr, Hemant Karkare, who recently passed away, six years after her husband. In all her appearances in the media after her husband’s death, Kavita always had her bindi and mangalsutra in place. Her personal bravery aside, with that single gesture, she sent out a message to every widow: her personal loss may be immense but a woman’s status should not change just because she no longer has a husband.
And yet, even modern, educated, enlightened folk seem to expect widows to withdraw from the world, to retreat into their private world of grief, and let others get on with the task of living. And such is the societal pressure that most women feel compelled to give up on all the small pleasures of life rather than be seen as transgressing the norm. It takes a special sort of courage to step up and reclaim the life that you had, and to ignore all those looking askance.
Namita Bhatia, a media professional who lost her husband a couple of years ago, told me of the time when she first put on a red sari and a bindi to attend a family function after being widowed. As she emerged from her room, her always-supportive mother asked if she was sure about going out like that. “What will people say? What will they think?” she asked her daughter. Namita’s reply was clear: it did not matter what anyone else thought or said. Her husband would have been happy to see her like that. And that’s all that mattered to her. Her mother, to her credit, immediately saw the point.
The good news is that more and more widows – both young and old – are beginning to think like Namita. The bad news is that not everyone is blessed with such a supportive environment.
And sadly, the conventional wisdom still remains that widows are not entitled to look attractive or even (God forbid!) sexy. Once their husbands have passed on, they should put away the ‘shringar’ that is the mark of the married woman, and remain in mourning for the rest of their lives.
We may pat ourselves on the back as to how modern and liberated we all are. But scratch the surface and the old obscurantism raises its ugly head. We may not send the widows of our families to Vrindavan – where it becomes a big story is they are even ‘allowed’ to play Holi with colours – to languish in ashrams, where they remain out of sight and out of mind. But we still ghettoize them in subtle but insidious ways: don’t wear bright colours; don’t wear a bindi; don’t laugh too loudly; don’t dance at weddings. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t. The list just goes on and on.
It’s time to change that. It’s time to accept that a woman’s life does not end just because her husband’s has. She still has the right to look good and to feel happy. She can still rock a red sari and a big bindi. She can wear whatever jewellery she pleases. She can both look and feel sexy. And no one has the right to tell her any different.