A few months ago, I saw the pictures of Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi which they were not allowed to do for many years. An organisation caring for these women brought this change to bring about larger shifts in people’s attitude towards widowhood in many parts of India and abroad.
I have been widowed for the past 22 years. I am from an educated, upper middle class South Indian Brahmin family where girls have been college-educated for the past two generations. Still, I find that widows are discriminated in subtle and overt ways during many auspicious occasions.
During weddings, widows are banned from performing many rituals, even if it happens to be for their own daughter, son or grand children! Widows are supposed to be inauspicious. To give you an example, there is a tradition in the Brahmin community to worship women who have died before their husbands, glorifying them by a ritual called Sumangali Prarthanai. This function is done before a marriage celebration or any happy occasion, remembering the dead. But why do we only worship women who died before their husbands? Is it their choice to die so?
When they perform this ritual, the daughters of the family are invited to join a feast. These women must be living with their husbands (sumangalis). They are invited, and given gifts for being sumangalis. Widowed daughters are not allowed to participate in this ritual, being considered amangali. They cannot sit together and eat with their sisters. They have to eat only after the sumangalis have eaten. Imagine that—they do this to their own daughters. I felt terrible when I attended a wedding where I was excluded from these ceremonies.
As generations change inter-community and intercaste marriages happen. The daughters of the family, who have married this way, even if they have their husbands alive, meaning they are sumangalis, are not allowed to participate. And, divorcees are definitely excluded.
Surprisingly, these taboos are perpetuated by educated women of the family. And, I see that the same customs are being followed in America as well. In the name of tradition, why do we allow this to continue?
Saroja Viswanathan lives with her children in the United States and is an active member of her community.
First published in August of 2017.