Love, Life Stories

Why are Desi widows still treated like social pariahs – even today?

Pakistan or India, female widows cannot seem to catch a break and be left to live as they wish while they grieve.

After painfully and very suddenly losing my father, I was not prepared for the expectations that came after death. The loss hurt for everyone in the family, but for my mother, it was a loss of an identity she carried for years and hoped to carry into retirement.

At that time, she no longer had to worry so much about being a mother, but with my father, she began to see her role as a wife evolving into something new. I began to see this new kind of closeness that came with being married for so long between my parents, a familiarity that involved an acceptance of the other person as they were and an acknowledgment of “We need each other and look forward to growing even older together.” I was lucky to have parents who won in married life, even with all of the obstacles in the way.

I was lucky to have parents who won in married life, even with all of the obstacles in the way. Click To Tweet

Unfortunately, when that came to a screeching halt, so did my mother’s world. Somehow, the cultural baggage of South Asia reminded her of it even more. For the record, I do not speak for my mother. I do speak for what I observed for the months following my father’s death though.

I observed my mother’s loss of power.

I observed her grief and inability to grapple what happened.

I also observed nosy people who somehow believed they needed to dictate what she should do after my father died. These people believed they were the most learned in the religion that we grew up with, Islam.

I observed my mother's loss of power. Click To Tweet

Based on their interpretations, my mother was supposed to engage in a tradition known as iddat. In Islamic tradition, iddat refers to a “waiting period” for female widows or divorcees. This waiting period lasts about 3 months for divorcees and a little over 4 months for widows. Afterward, the woman is able to remarry another man. Why is this a thing? Well, it was to ensure that a woman could make sure she was not pregnant, allowing for about three menstrual cycles to pass before she can marry another man.

I observed a loss of an identity that would take longer than some prescribed timeline to recreate. Click To Tweet

So while that tradition may not seem all that restrictive, I learned that South Asian culture decides to take it many unnecessary steps further. After a woman’s husband has died she is then expected to not leave her house during that time (for any reason). She cannot wear any bright colors, and she cannot be in front of any men.

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When these rules suddenly became something my mom had to think about, I was trying not to burn with fury. When people began to tell her that it was “mandated by our religion”, my mom would sarcastically respond with: “Of course, I just lost my husband. I am menopausal so can’t even get pregnant anymore, and I am in so much pain. It must mean that I am looking to marry a new man tomorrow.  As for not leaving the house, will you guys be coming over to my house in Dallas to make sure I have my groceries anytime my son or daughter is not around? I think not.”

In some ways, my mother was also further isolated, especially by “religious” men who felt the need to enforce these misogynistic rules of cultural baggage. One time a few months later when she was at a wedding, someone decided the best thing to say to my mother was: “Why are you wearing such colorful outfits after losing your husband?”

And then I remembered, even after death, men still hold the self-imposed responsibility of regulating a woman's behavior. Even after death. Click To Tweet

After that, for months, and even for my own wedding, I had to beg my mom to wear a nice and new outfit. I told her that what people told her did not matter, but it was too difficult. She internalized it, and for the sake of keeping face and not seeming “too happy too soon” after losing her husband, she stopped wearing bright colors. She tried to tone down everything about herself wherever she went. She was too scared to smile.

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I begged my mother to respond to these people. If she did not want to I would gladly do it for her. Unfortunately, I had to bite my tongue at her wishes, but it never meant that I agreed with any of this.

I never even knew before experiencing such a close death in my life that widows were treated this way because nobody talked about it. Click To Tweet

I never even knew before experiencing such a close death in my life that widows were treated this way because nobody talked about it. While I am not a person who wears religion on her sleeve, I knew that these traditions were an adulteration of what religious scripts actually say. These traditions are not outdated because they should never have been one in the first place. Not to mention, the intention of iddat was purely a functional one. Sometimes, I wonder which group of men sat together and made these rules, and frankly, why.

And then I remembered, even after death, men still hold the self-imposed responsibility of regulating a woman’s behavior. Even after death.

Saba Danawala

Saba Danawala

Writing yogi and traveler immersed in all issues public health and social justice. Transplanted to Pakistan by way of DC, New Delhi, and Texas. Seasoned in the game of questioning systematic gender and social norms. Pragmatically idealizes a world populated with more self-aware and empathetic human beings.

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