My notes from Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India by Martha Chen.

The Commission on the Status of Women in India estimates that in 1931, 86% of the Hindu population belonged to castes, which not only allowed remarriage but also preferred it.

Since the census no longer provide caste membership, current estimates suggest the upper castes constitute less than 15% of the total population. Research information based on demographic models suggests roughly 33% of Indian (not Hindu) widows remarry.  Dreze thinks it could be lower.

The reality is much more complicated than the common belief that upper castes prohibit and lower castes allow remarriage. Chen concludes, “almost all (but not all) upper castes prohibit remarriage, almost all (but not all) lower castes allow remarriage, and many (not most) middles caste allow remarriage.”(83) There are conditions and exceptions and regional differences to every rule – as it is with almost every Hindu practice.

Perpetual MourningLevirate (practice of marrying the widow of a deceased brother) is practiced in the Punjab, Haryana, Uttaranchal regions and by communities of all castes – Brahmins, Rajput, Backward castes. Very few happen in South India, although it does happen.

Naturally incidents of remarriage is higher in the North than the South. In Chen’s sample of 550 women, 72 northern and 33 southern widows had remarried.

Who remarries?

Widows aged between less than 20 and 35. Nobody 0ver 35 had remarried in Chen’s sample.  Remarriage of widows over 40 is seldom considered, even by the women themselves.  This is not that different from reality for all women everywhere!

Caste: Some subcaste within a caste would allow while others disallow remarriage.  Practice differs between urban and rural areas.

Children: “Among all widows . . . the sharpest divide is between childless widows and widowed mothers.”  The remarriage rate for childless widows is almost double.  Next the divide is between those with only daughters and those with sons. With even one son, especially a teenager, a widowed mother is highly unlikely to remarry. Irrespective of their age at widowhood, widowed mothers with four or more children are very unlikely to remarry.

Property:  If her husband owned land and if she has a son, whose right to his father’s land cannot be challenged under either customary or modern law, a widow will seldom remarry. Still many widows with land do remarry because of levirate. Although many widows do lose their right to property, Chen says this explains why “fewer than expected had to forfeit their rights.” (86)

For Indian as well as non-Indian,  that Hindu widows are not “allowed” to remarry is the single most shocking idea and leaves a lasting impression. Not their poverty, not their powerlessness, but that they cannot marry, cannot wear colors, cannot wear bindi, etc. bothers many people as the most awful thing about widowhood.

Why do Hindu widows, when their communities sanction and approves it, and marriage proposals are brought to them, choose to remain single?

The reasons they gave Chen:  they did not desire any more children, they worried about the welfare of their children if they remarried, they wanted to retain control over their property, and nearly 33% expressed doubt that a second marriage would bring economic security or emotional satisfaction!

In a study of widows in Bangalore, over half the number expressed fear for the welfare of their children if they remarried.   Many men choose not to remarry for the same reason that a step-mother may abuse his children.

Some of the women “went on to explain that as a widowed mother they have an identity which is preferable to the identity of a remarried widow and they have security as their children, once they grow up, are likely to support and protect them.” (88)

Many expressed negative expectations of remarriage, having experienced a bad first marriage, “A husband only means trouble.”  They were also uncertain about its longevity.  Many remarried widows were widowed again.  In case of levirate the men often abandon them or take on a mistress. Sometimes the women, frustrated by their marriage, take on lovers or elope.

Why do widows remarry?

Most common reason is to have children.  If they had children and no land then the most common reasons cited were lack of family support and inability to find jobs.  Remarriage then is an opportunity to stabilize.

All said and done whether a community sanctions remarriage or prohibits it, there is a stigma attached to it. There is a perception of it being an inferior kind of a marriage, and there are several down sides to it. It these pressures were not there perhaps there may be more remarriages.  But I am not sure the widow who wishes not to remarry is also not finding her single status preferable, even satisfying, as long as she has some control over her life.

Source: Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India

Oxford University Press (January 25, 2001)