By Madhusree Chatterjee
Gender has been a social talking point in South Asia for the last half-a-century in a milieu of greater freedom of expression with the opening up of economies prompted by globalization.
For the last 150 years – or to be precise since the late 19th century – gender inequity has been on the top of the roster of cultural, economic and social benders confronting the Indian subcontinent that was subject to conventional gender regimes for more than 1,000 years, especially with the colonization of South Asia by Muslims and then the British.
However, historians trace a deeper thread to the malaise, putting its genesis of the post-Vedic interpretations of Hinduism. In the early Hindu period, when the Vedas sired “a host of interpretative Purans”, women took on a subsidiary and a more subservient mantle relegated to running the hearths and procreating. Knowledge of the Vedic scriptures – which propounded gender emancipation, empowerment and equality- gradually moved out of the purview of women in Hindu kingdoms of south and southeast Asia loosely creating the notion of the second sex.
Society grew conservative and rigid as Hinduism morphed into the Bhakti movement – and religion became more complex. Rites like ‘Sati (committing suicide on the husband’s pyre), polygamy and dogmatic widowhood – repression of female sexuality – were declared mandatory, foisted on women by an insecure clergy class. In the 21st century, this bias has taken on macabre forms like gangrape, molestation, domestic violence, abuse, atrocities – both physical and psychological – isolation of ageing women and even killing in India and across the South Asian subcontinent. Rays of hope for a more progressive gender milieu often limited to cosmetic measures, the numerous gender battles notwithstanding.
Last week, a pragmatic yet innovative demand by a group of women activists from across south Asia to do away with the term “widow” and its stigmas – tarnishing the dignity and femininity of women with repressive rites – came as a breather. And surprise.
Here are some snapshots on gender from across the South Asian region.
“Not widows, We are Single”
At a South Asian conclave, “Ageing Women: Critical Challenges and Concern” hosted by Stree Shakti- A Parallel Force and Helpage India, leading Indian gender and social activist Ranjana Kumari said the nation should reject widowhood. “It brings along a social stigma that needs to be broken. The dishonor and the social persecution that a widow has to undergo are beyond our imagination. Why should women be put under the burden of widowhood? The society wants to isolate them, banish them to widow towns like Kashi and Vrindavan, deprive them of their rights and their sexuality is seen as a threat to families within the framework of patriarchal designs. We have to begin a campaign in the media to call them single and rename “Widows Pension Fund” as welfare fund. Agreed Rekha Mody, president of Stree Shakti, “If you study the concept of widowhood in India, you will see it rooted in history. In India, women have been traditionally empowered. They even married several times- but in the last 2000 years, women have been reduced to slaves. In the last 67 years of Independence, the decline has been rapid.”
Mody pointed out The Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme leaves out abandoned women and many women call themselves widow to avail of the scheme. The status of a widow does not make sense in an era when many women are opting to stay single or without steady male partners. A woman who has lost her male partner falls under the single category, technically.
Danseuse Sobhana Narayan believes that change in social nomenclature will come with change in social mindsets. Widowhood is another form of gender discrimination. “Can you call an artist a widow”.
Nepal shows the gender way
The Hindu nation, known for its widespread discrimination against the girl child and women, has scored a small victory in its fight against the “taint” of widowhood. Senior gender activist Lily Thapa has removed five discriminatory policies against widows in the last five years. “In our country, a widow had to be 35 years of age to inherit property, she had to take permission from male family members to sell rights to her husband’s property, young widows who had remarried did not have rights to sell first husband’s property, extra-marital affairs were frowned upon — we have changed all these with sustained and rigorous advocacy,” Thapa told this writer. The Nepal government has revised the term widow to “Ekal Mahila”- single woman to recognize their “independent status” .
In the villages, the “Ekal Mahila Sangathan” are the new catalysts of change, Thapa said. In the last 10 years, most of the single women have fled the villages because of Maoist insurgency, leaving the aged women and the widows behind. The men have taken to arms or are missing in action. The groups of these single women – older in years- have reversed the gender role in the villages of Nepal doffing the man’s shirt to earn bread, take care of orphans and abandoned kids, old men, secure village turf and sometime run the local administration to keep the rural apparatus ticking. Thapa has mobilized more 10,000 “Ekal Mahila” – single women (widows) in villages and the suburbs. Their acceptance as changemakers has increased in the last five years – giving them political leverage space in the Napalese politics. “All the major political parties come to me before the election for access to the Ekal Mahila Sangathan (Single Women’s Organisations of ‘widows’) in villages. They are a vote bank now and have the power to mobilize,” the activist divulged.
Thapa has been successful in overturning several discriminatory laws against the girl child as well- including a controversial statute in the country’s foreign travel law that a single girl (minor or adult – unmarried) had to seek permission and approval from a male member of the family to apply for a passport. “We have forced the government to revoke it,” she said. The activist runs “Red Colour Campaign” for widows as well to encourage them to use red as a colour in clothes, accessories and jewellery. Widows traditionally are barred from wearing red in Hindu sects.
Bleak gender shots from Afghanistan cauldron
Afghanistan freed itself from the shackles of Taliban barely 10 years ago and gender still remains very low on the priority of the new Afghanistan power regime. Violence has not ceased yet – and Taliban guerrillas continue to pound the capital city and the rest of the rugged nation, says one of the foremost women’s activist of the country, Massouda Jalal. The feisty award-winning food, rights and gender activist, the first woman to run for the Presidency in the country, says the status of women in her country continues to be low –especially those of widows and ageing women who have nowhere to go.
“Women have been deprived of their rights, opportunities and employment within the current contexts of Afghanistan. The level of poverty is oppressive and there is lack of security (for women) and poor representation of women in the government. Afghanistan may be the worst place for widows and aged women in the world to spend their twilight years. Welfare schemes are inadequate despite the fact the country has a large number of widows – who have lost their men to violence,” Jalal told this writer.
The average life expectancy of a woman in Afghanistan is 44 -45 years because of the harsh living conditions and low social standing, she said The activist is seeking support from gender empowerment groups in India to collate data on aged women and widows. “There is no statistics,” she said.
Power at grassroots in Bangladesh
Women in Bangladesh have bettered their lot at the grassroots compared to their peers in the rest of South Asia, where the gender empowerment movement is still dissipated – scattered in pockets where activists have managed to reach with their awareness modules. The root and the strength of the gender empowerment movement lies at the bottom of the social ladder – in the villages where the micro-credit revolution through the networks of Grameen Bank have benefited women- girls, housewives, widows and ageing alike to form self-help groups for employment and sustenance. The percentage of literacy among older women in villages has increased together with health consciousness.
“The bottomline, however, is to empower and the change the system from the roots. Discrimination against the widow persist,” says Shegufta Shamim, a young official of Helpage India. The number of widows in the country is high –at nearly 10 per cent of the total disadvantaged women, statistics cite.
For instance, in the mangrove swamps of the country bordering West Bengal in India, the Tiger Widow Associations are campaigning for self-sustainability with vocational skill modules. The members, whose husbands have been slaughtered by tigers, while working in the swamps as gatherers, are cursed by their kin as “bad luck” omen who bring misfortune on the family. The isolation has brought hundreds of these women under support platforms to break through the social wall. Statistics cite that approximately 200 forest labourers are killed by the Royal Bengal Tigers in Bangladesh every year. Several international organizations helping the women ensure safe drinking water, sanitation, education, protected homes and hone employment skills.
The government sadly does not recognize widows as “single women”.
Women waking up freedom edicts in Bhutan
Widows still live in relative seclusion in the Himalayan kingdom which has begun to open door to the notions of gender equality and empowerment – in society, home and at work. A monarchy till a few years ago, the king was free to marry multiple women, who were “essentially royal consorts” revered across the country. The average Bhutanese woman was the hardworking wife and the resilient matron, who bore the hearth on her shoulders. Widows were accommodated within this context. “There are a number of reasons why women fell behind men. Historically more boys went to school and women were kept back at home because they had to travel great distances to school. The country has not seen many female leaders in leadership positions because of the stereotypical gender ideology that women were not confident and they were weak,” said Lily Wangchuk, Bhutan’s lone woman leader of a political outfit Bhutan Social Democratic Party.
A cancer survivor and a Prime Ministerial aspirant, Wangchuk, who has been mobilizing Bhutanese women – across all social segments – in the grassroots – told this writer that monarchy called upon the women to play a more proactive role in 2008, when the king introduced democracy. “I could make an impact as a political worker. I wanted to break the gender barrier (against women) in politics,” Wangchuk said. Bhutan in the last five years has allowed a woman minister in the Cabinet. Activists say the country now can flaunt women filmmakers, rights activists, politicians, scholars, technocrats, hundreds of Buddhist nuns and a very proactive Queen Mother, who encourages them.
“It is difficult for a woman to carve out a career in a man’s world, but it has to begin somewhere,” says Bhutan’s lone woman taxi driver, who drives her SUV like a man everyday for a living.
The country is yet to look at its widows as a mobilizing force of single women.
P.S: In Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar, widows do not have access to special privileges barring a handful of welfare doles or cover under UN aid programmes. They are neither recognized as ‘single women” nor as “disadvantage groups”. The gender empowerment movement is still a fledgling in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Activists say the movement in Pakistan is still confined to conventional perceptions of feminism – power still lies in the hands of men though greater freedom of expression has seen a diversity of opinions and views being aired on feminism, equal opportunities and religious choices. Recall Benazir Bhutto! So much for guts!