Monday, April 26, 2004

Widows, Merry or Not

Widowhood is a sorry state. Just think of expressions like "the widow's weeds" (clothes for the mourning period) and "the widow's mite". At least in our cultural heritage a widow is someone to be pitied; poor thing, she has lost the mainstay and love of her life. This is of course often true, but why is my image of widows also tinged with poverty? Why do I instantly think of begging and of women perpetually dressed in faded black?

In other cultures widows wear white. In India, laws banned sati, or the self-immolation of widows, in 1829, and other laws in the nineteenth century gave widows the legal right to remarry and to inherit. Yet, Indian widows are still often expected not to marry or to demand any inheritance. When this is combined with child marriages for girls, frequently to a much older men, it is possible to have very young widows with no employment skills and nobody willing to take care of them. Add to this the fear of widows by the rest of the society:

After the death of a husband, a woman is shorn of her bridal ornamentation; her head is shaved by the local barber and her body is wrapped in a stark white sari so she may not arouse carnal pleasures in other men.
The bright red sindoor, the red smear that a married woman wears in the parting of her hairline, is substituted by a vertical ash smear from the top of her forehead to the top of her nose. Her very presence is considered so inauspicious that even her shadow may not fall on a married woman lest her terrible fate befall the other woman.

and it's not surprising that most of these unfortunate women survive as beggars near religious shines:

When they arrive at Vrindavan and Varanasi, the widows find shelters that were built almost a century ago for local ashrams or religious institutions. Today, the cramped, leaky spaces--administered by local government officials--accommodate about three women each, who sleep on torn sacks.
They receive meager rations of rice and lentils only if they spend six hours singing devotional songs at the ashram. Young widows are often lured into sex in exchange for more food or money

The future looks a little brighter for these women, as several organizations and the Indian government have started paying attention to their plight.

But what is it about widows that would have caused such ill-treatment of them to begin with? And not only in India; the widow's lot has not been much happier in many other countries. Is there something about widows that reminds us of death, that ever-present silent menace always there, always waiting for the smallest amount of carelessness that will allow it to swoop and catch us? If there is, isn't the same threat equally hovering around the shoulders of widowers? Yet no culture that I know of treats the widowers with such harshness as widows have traditionally provoked. No, this explanation doesn't suffice.

I find a more promising one in economics or, perhaps, in simple human greed, combined with sexism. If a wife is regarded as a belonging of the husband, something that he is responsible for and alone can use, then his dying first is comparable to someone leaving all their property littered around for another person to pick up and care for. What is to be done about the poor widow? How can the other heirs get their maximal inheritance while also somehow escaping the stigma associated with someone who mistreats widows and fatherless children? Or, to put this less cynically, how can widows be provided without destroying the value of the estate for the later generations?

One solution is to provide for her legally, and this is the most common traditional solution. Widows in the twelfth century Sienna were entitled to their dowries and any 'morgengabes' their husband had given them, and in most of medieval Europe a widow had some legal claim to her late husband's property, though the widow's inheritance share was often rather small.* This is all on paper, of course. It is much harder to find out how widows were actually treated, though some at least must have been lucky or successful, given the frequent medieval image of widowhood as a happy time of life for independent-minded women (for the first time, these women were free of male guidance). Still, having to support the widow reduced the available inheritance for other heirs and must have caused pressures to leave her as little as possible, especially if she had no adult sons to fight for her share.

In some African societies, a man's inheritance went to his brothers. This included his widow. Thus, she was taken care of by being married to one of her erstwhile brother-in-laws, though I doubt that her opinion on the desirability of this match was an important consideration to anybody.

Another solution already referred to is to remove the stigma attached to any mistreatment of the widow. When this is successful (as it was in the sati-tradition), the remaining heirs can divide the whole pot. I'm not discounting the other reasons for sati, including religious fervour and true devotion on the widow's part, but neither am I convinced by their sufficiency, given that widowers were not expected to reach the same peaks of religiousness and love.

None of these solutions are very good from the widow's point of view, and ultimately they fail even the other heirs who are made to act in all sorts of unbecoming ways. Much better to circumvent the whole problem by declaring women and wives and widows as full human beings, by training girls in trades and occupations and by allowing for the sorrow that the loss of a spouse can cause in both widows and widowers without making either one into some everlasting symbol of grief.

*See The Marriage Bargain. Women and Dowries in European History, by Marion A. Kaplan, pp. 69-73.