Turmeric, kunkum, bangles, flower garlands, gold jewelry – these are the traditional symbols of not just marriage but the unique state of being married, which is more important than marriage itself, in the Tamil Country of South India.  Cultural practices reward and honor the elderly married woman as goddesses.  Evidentlywedding sari her chaste monogamy and her skill, art, devotion, and destiny combined have provided long life for her husband.  Even upon her death, as long as she died in the state of marriage, she is revered and memorialized ever after at every important life-affirming event where her blessing is sought. Thus to live and die in the state of marriage is the greatest state of being for a Tamil woman.

If she is unfortunate enough to lose her husband, it is a catastrophe worse than had she died herself. Forever she will live the life of the unfortunate since her state is her own doing, due to some sin of omission or commission on her part. The only life event that widows are permitted to perform was to give a new widow her ritual bath which separated her from normal life.  The very sight of a widow being transformed this way can strike fear in a married woman’s heart as this can make her a widow herself, and so to be avoided.  And thus this ritual is performed in the darkness of night. If they are widowed at a young age they were suspected of promiscuity and often sexually abused.

Why this cruelty?

One factor, the easy answer, is that this systematic abuse is based upon ancient Indian texts that dictate these harsh injunctions for widows.  Great calamities can befall not only the immediate family but the whole community if they are flouted.  Fear drove the perpetuation of the practice.

Besides religious laws there was also a culture of fear and greed that perpetuated this practice. Remarriage of women can divide property; bring a stranger into the family. If she had no sons, her right to her husband’s inheritance is absorbed in to the joint family property. Property stays undivided and secure if the widow is deprived of all power and kept in perpetual state of anxiety. Even today, per Indian laws, if a man dies without a will his property does not pass to the wife but is equally divided between her and her children. Often a widow is pitted against her inlaws and her own children over property issues.

That explanation, greed and fear, does in fact hold good in all places, not just in India, where women suffer indignities to their bodies and minds.

Change

Things changed a bit in India starting with 18the century. In the 18th and 19th centuries women started writing. They wrote letters, they wrote fiction, essays, songs and poetry in which they documented the wretchedness of their existence, demanded reforms, education, a job, for a right to lead a normal life. Homes for young widows were established to give job training. Laws were passed that raised the age of marriage, opened up university admissions for women, granted them inheritance and property rights.  Yet there were powerful forces that made this practice persist for generations well into the 20th century.

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