Sunday, July 15, 2007

Black ash and humiliation

I read this article this week about the practice of shunning widows because they are considered bad luck in Indian society.

The article says that this practice doesn't happen for religious reasons but rather because of 'tradition.' It doesn't go into a lot of detail of what that means so it's hard to say how much of this tradition is based on the Indian patriarchal society vs. something specific to the Hindu tradition.

Another article I found said:

Although the horrific practice of sati--requiring widows to throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres--was abolished in 1829, widows still undergo ritual humiliations. 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.

I also saw this editorial today, espousing the benefits of Hinduism, presumably as a better option to Islam or Christianity. I was struck by the contradiction between the editorial:

You can become a Hindu without converting to Hinduism. If you follow the life of compassion, love, respect for others and their religions, respect you family and stay away from sex before marriage and extramarital affairs, believe in having only one spouse, love animals, and above all practice forgivingness (sic) above revenge, you are a Hindu.

And the CNN article:

These Hindu widows, the poorest of the poor, are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition -- and because they're seen as a financial drain on their families.

They cannot remarry. They must not wear jewelry. They are forced to shave their heads and typically wear white. Even their shadows are considered bad luck.

Even if this practice isn't tied directly to Hinduism, I think India in general has to move away from superstition so that society can move forward. In general, I think Hinduism is one of the more accepting and open religions but with the amount of focus it places on astrology and superstition, it's not exactly an ideal option.

The problem of widow mistreatment may be caused by a highly patriarchal society but the traditional religions like Hinduism and Islam are not doing anything to actively move people away from that patriarchy and barbaric practices like this.

Some more information: