Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Of Women, Widows, and Child Brides










Yesterday I had a truly delightful time with the faculty and students of the Department of Educational Technology at SNDT, the first women’s university in India. For the record, I googled the acronym SNDT (Shrimati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey) Women's University and learned that the university was founded in 1816 by Dr. Dhondo Keshav Karve in response to a crying need to educate women—specifically Brahmin widows—as the only way of escape from the degrading realities of their lives, a reality which still lingers in modern Indian society.

Widows? Why widows? Why were widows, in particular, in need of an education? Well…

I’m lately learning about widows in India—more specifically about widows in Hindu India. I’m reading a book by Uma Chakravarti about the life and times of Pandita Ramabai, an eminent Indian Christian social reformer and activist, especially concerned with the plight of Indian women who survive their husbands. The rules for widowed women are relaxing now, but in 1816, and still today in some areas of the country, a woman widowed may not—may not—remarry. She belongs to her husband even after he has died.

Now there are plenty of widows, including my mom who’s been a widow since my dad died in 1965, who don’t want to remarry after their husband has died. But at least my mom, in England, had some choice in the matter. Women in Hindu India had no choice then, in 1816, and many widows even in present day India feel like they have no choice now.

It takes a long time for cultural prescriptions to die.

The fact is that widows in India have been treated disgracefully in the past. They were forced, by Brahminical law, to have their heads shaved and to labor in the household of their dead husband where, essentially, they lived as a slave for the rest of their lives. Rather than face this miserable future, many a widow preferred the option of suti—immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Apart from the gross injustice of forcing anyone—literally or figuratively—to do something they don’t want to do, many a Hindu girl, in the old days, was widowed young. Brahminical law made this an inevitability.

In 1816, Hindu (i.e. Brahman) law required that girls be married off by the age of 10! The reasoning was that a girl married off by the age of 10 was unlikely to lose her virginity (read "purity") to anyone but her husband--a very important consideration when the goal was to maintain the "purity" of the caste system. But the outcome of this practice was that, inevitably, before medical science had advanced to the degree it has today, far too many women died in childbirth, including young women married to old men.

Indeed, it seems that it was not remarkable at all for a man to marry one, young, under-age-10 bride after another, until he died. Thus, when he did eventually die, he inexorably left behind a young widow.

In 1860, obliging British overlords, bent on legal compromise, fixed age 10 as the legal age for Indian girls to marry—not before! So I guess that’s progress. Did the British legislators condoning that 1860 decision have their tongue in cheek, or did they honestly think that this was OK?

We’ll never know.

By 1884, because of deaths of child brides as a result of too early sexual abuse at the hands of adult husbands, there began serious discussion to raise to 12 the youngest age at which girls were married off. Still today, as I read in The Hindu newspaper just last week, child brides are married off (sometimes to child grooms) in their early teens, though it is now, thankfully, the exception rather than the rule.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, men always married child brides, who were not older than 10. This is because there weren't any other women to marry. Every girl was married off by age 10. If a wife died, say, in childbirth, the man would marry again, and again it would be to a child bride. There were no other brides. All the girls were married by the time they were 10 because it was required by Hindu Brahmanic law.

Strange that widowers were allowed to remarry, but the same didn’t apply to widows. Oh, silly me. I forgot that men wrote the law!

It was not unusual for a man to marry several times before he died, which meant that his final marriage was at an advanced age. What was a girl to do when her aged husband died within a few years of the marriage, as was not uncommonly the case? The child bride became a child widow. She could not remarry; she was shunned by society; she was a slave in her dead husband’s home; she had to have her head permanently shaved as a kind of enforced castration.

What was a girl to do?

Suti, not surprisingly, was sometimes preferable to a fate worse than death. Thank goodness for men and women like Dr. Dhondo Keshav Karve, Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, and Shrimati Pandita Ramabai, who railed against injustices such as this and did what they could to right these egregious wrongs.

We, too, today and every day, should do our part to work, slowly, but surely, for a society where everyone—-male, female, black, white, homosexual, heterosexual, disabled, non-disabled, red, pink, yellow, sallow, brown, light brown, bald, hairy, whatever—-has an equal opportunity to enjoy the good things of life on this beautiful earth of ours.

4 comments:

Bineet said...

This Women's university got established in 1984 by Tamilnadu Government at Anandagiri. Its goals are learning and research with focus on women and their problems. Mother Teresa Women's university earns a distinctive place in the higher educational system as, the only university devoted to women's issues.

The University is of unitary type which offers monitory, consultancy services and research in the area of women's studies.Women University in India The university offers diverse courses whose academic programme is pivoted around women's studies in the discipline of Economics, Education, English, Human Ecology, and Consumer studies, Historical studies,Pshycology, Socioliogy, Tamil and computer science.

Sonoo Dhar said...

My Grandfather Pt.Ved Lal Dhar (Vakil) was the first kasmiri Brahmin who fought for the child widows of Kasmir valley. So much so, at the height of his campaign, he set an example by marrying my grandmother Leelawati Dhar who was a child widow herself. The year was 1933, before India got her independence, child widows in Kashmir started their independence movement thanks to Pt. Ved Lal Dhar.

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