Here are inspiring stories of four women who didn’t have the means but still fought against all the obsolete traditions that they were expected to follow after the death of their husband. From fighting AIDS to helping other women become independent, these widows represent the true strength of a woman.
In a traditional patriarchal society, where the identity and value of a woman is determined through her husband, widowhood is about much more than losing a husband. From changing the way she dresses to being treated with contempt by family members, especially in her marital home, there is a lot that she has to bear, often without complaining.
The trauma doesn’t end there. She becomes a social pariah barred from participating in family events and is often denied property rights. Humiliation, harassment, loneliness, abandonment… there is nothing that a widow in India does not have to encounter. However, when the going gets tough, there are those who rise up to the challenges, whatever the odds.
Vinita, 25, who hails from the small town in Belagavi, a district in northern Karnataka, is one such inspiring young woman.
Vinita, who is HIV positive, lost her husband to AIDS.
“A few years ago, when I found out that I was expecting I went to the local government hospital. The doctor in-charge recommended HIV testing. Shockingly, I tested positive. I had contracted the virus from my late husband, who was gravely ill at the time. However, we hid this reality from our families and only broke the news to a close friend. Although both of us started treatment [during which we had faced discrimination from the hospital staff], he died soon after. Unfortunately, our son also passed away within a year,” shares Vinita, speaking at a recent meeting in Bengaluru, facilitated by Swaraj, a state-wide network of organisations, groups and individuals that champion the empowerment and advancement of socio-economically disadvantaged women.
Despite the tragedy, Vinita made up her mind to forge on, raising a foster child all by herself. And although she has had minimal emotional and financial backing from her natal or marital families, she has admirably managed to carry on with her life.
Incidentally, Vinita has no savings as she hails from a lower middle income family and was not employed when her husband was around. At present, though, she is working as a school teacher who takes out time to specially counsel young girls and women to study and work and say ‘No’ to early marriage. And she does all this while on intensive anti-retroviral therapy (ART), which involves commuting to the ART centre every month to collect her medication and undergo examination.
Like Vinita another HIV positive survivor, Jayamma, 38, has learnt to live life on her own steam.
“We were in Chennapatna, a town close to Mysore, when my husband, who passed away a decade ago, found out that he had AIDS. He passed on the virus to me but since it was diagnosed at an early stage, I have been able to access ART and benefit from it, even though enduring discrimination at the hands of health workers comes along with the treatment. As I was ostracised by my natal and marital families as well as all our friends and neighbours, I decided to relocate to Bangalore,” recalls the outspoken woman.
Once in the city, things changed for the better when she heard of an NGO that assists economically marginalised HIV positive women and transgender people access ART and gain counselling. “When I approached them for help I liked the kind of work they were doing and I offered my services as a volunteer. The initial few years in Bangalore were full of emotional and socio-economic struggles and overcoming these has made me stronger. Right now I am a peer counsellor with the same NGO, a job that has helped me provide for my four children, three of whom are still studying, while the oldest is employed,” elaborates Jayamma, with a wide smile of satisfaction.
Even as Vinita and Jayamma continue to courageously bear the dual stigma of being widows and HIV positive patients, Jyoti, 23, a social worker from a village in Kollegal taluk of Mandya district in south eastern Karnataka has successfully fended off all attempts by her conservative marital family to tie her down in the shackles of regressive traditions and societal norms.
Generally, after a woman loses her husband, as per Hindu religious customs she is made to give up wearing bright clothes for white attire, remove ornamental symbols of her marital status and become strict vegetarians. But Jyoti shunned these “old fashioned” beliefs. Says the confident mother of a three year old boy, “I come from a financially backward family and was compelled to give up my education after middle school. Subsequently, I was married off while still in my teens to a daily wager. He was an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis.”
Her real trials began after he passed away. She narrates, “My parents-in-law, who are agricultural labourers, wanted to confine me to the house and perform religious ceremonies, which, in my opinion, are demeaning to women. So I flatly refused to give in to their demands and, in fact, tried to convince them to stop the unnecessary rituals. Later, I managed to talk them into allowing me to take up some work so that I could become independent and augment the family earning, too.”
These days, Jyoti is employed at a local non-profit organisation that assists women in distress and is ably supporting herself and her son. “We both continue to live with my husband’s parents and have adjusted with each other,” she adds.
Of course, if Jyoti, a Hindu, had to fight stringent traditions to live on her own terms then Sabeha’s experiences have not been any different.
According to this feisty tailor from Bijapur in northern Karnataka, sexism and patriarchal notions prevalent among some Islamic clerics and men in the community compel Muslim widows to follow in their Hindu sisters’ footsteps even though it is not mandated in their religion. “I am coming across practising Muslim women who choose to wear plain clothes, refrain from participating in social occasions, and do not want to remarry or have another relationship after their husband has passed away. Islam only prescribes ‘iddat’, a three-month period of mourning for widows and even that is not mandatory as per the Quran,” she says.
Sabeha, who is the founder-cum-leader of a group of women who reach out to others experiencing gender specific harassment or violence, decided to remarry after her first husband deserted her when their child was very young. Currently, though, she stays independently with her two sons – the elder one runs a grocery store, while the younger is studying in high school. Her husband stays with his first wife although he visits Sabeha, who is around 40, regularly and contributes to the household expenses.
Vinita, Jyoti, Sabeha and Jayamma are gutsy women who have faced tragedy and fought hard to make a place for themselves in society. They ultimately hope to inspire this change in others who are alone and striving to live with dignity.
(The names and location of the women have been changed to protect their identity.)