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October - November 2007


Editorial

Woman as widow Goddess in Distress

by Krishan Ralleigh


Diwali, as every Indian knows, symbolises the victory of good over evil. This is also the day when Goddess Laxmi – the goddess of prosperity is worshipped in every Hindu home. Why is it then that women in India – from childhood to old age, find themselves shackled by custom and prejudice to a second place at home, in society and place of work.

It may not seem appropriate to generalise this viewpoint when the most powerful politician in India is a woman and a widow. The president of India and the chief ministers of two states of India are women. Indira Gandhi ruled India for almost seventeen years; and she was a widow. However, we are talking about ordinary women at large and particularly those who are not educated There are some parts of India where widows can get married again without any fuss from their community.

Unfortunately, India is still home to various customs that denigrate women. From the custom of sattee (an old custom) to female foeticide (a recent phenomenon caused by modern technology). Dowry system and treatment of widows in the society is a bi-product of discrimination and old practices against women in society. These practices are contrary to the ethics of Hindu religion as pronounced in the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. Rig Veda says: Udeesharv nareeam jeevvlokum ‘Go up, O Woman! To the world of life’. (Rigveda X 18(8-9)

Rigveda exhorts a woman whose husband has died to start a new life where she can find a new friend and partner so that she can lead a life of ‘garheni’ (Mistress of the Household).

Sixty years after the Independence,of the country Indian woman has not yet found her rightful place in the Indian society. There is usually a big hue and cry in the media when a woman burns herself forced by her in-laws to bring more dowry from her parent, or when a case of foeticide comes to light in so-called educated urban areas of the country.

The life of poor, young widows with or without children has been highlighted in various films produced in Bollywood. But the government of India has singularly failed to tackle the problem. There are charitable organisations which endeavour to help widows who become poor and dependent by the demise of their husband, the sole breadwinner, in the family. But they are merely scratching the surface of a huge underlying problem termed as ‘gender inequality’ sanctioned by custom and prejudice.

It is time the United Nations takes a lead to highlight the injustice and misery caused to widows by outdated customs in different parts of the world. It is the basic human right of every individual, whether man or woman, to live with justice and equality. If any religious custom or national law discriminates against women, the United Nations must have the power to impose economic sanction on that country, or at least expose that country on the International Forum, viz. the United Nations General Assembly. Every member of the United Nations must be persuaded to make laws giving equal rights to women in matters of property inheritance, pension schemes and education.

Let India begin this task by enacting strict laws against sattee custom, dowry system and female foeticide. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the visionary prime minister of India brought the Hindu Code Bill which brought some justice to Hindu women. The Government , in the 21st century, should be bold enough to enact a civil law for all women, of whatever religion, to give equal pension rights, equality in jobs and free and compulsory education to girls. Just giving honour to woman in religious rituals does not get the goddess out of distress. The need is of a revolutionary change in attitude of men in all religions, whether they are Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Jews; and whether they are living in India, Saudi Arabia or the USA.

May this Diwali bring enlightenment to all. Let every woman in India have the first right to education, job and a pension in her old age.This will, in turn bring an end to female foeticide and dowry system. Remarriage of a widow will then become as normal as it is for a widower who ha no problem marrying a second time.

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