Sunday, April 11, 2021

A courageous act shrouded in silence

Vice President MV Naidu asked a very pertinent question “If a man can remarry, why can’t a woman?”, on the occasion of International Widows’ Day, organised by the Loomba Foundation, Delhi, while calling for a change in the mindset towards widows. The Vice President reportedly said: “There is a problem in the mindset of the people; we need to change this mindset”. One cannot agree more with him because here in Nagaland we didn’t even know that June 23 was International Widows Day. In fact, very few even in the national media made a mention of this day, a dedicated observation of which could make a huge difference to widows in a patriarchal country like India, not least the very patriarchal Northeastern states. No, this day wouldn’t attract any hype because widows in this country are made invisible by society and the corporates know their market only too well. Consider the volume of hype Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day generate months before the event ~ there is money to be made on such days, after all. But a Widows’ Day ~ who will spend even five bucks on her? More importantly, who remembers a widow ~ except when she is needed? It is not as if all widows are helpless women totally dependent on society and state’s charity and largesse. Millions of widows across the globe are doing very well and contributing to society and state, politically, economically and socially. Culturally, well, that is where the problem lies because culturally a widow is perceived to be a non-person ~ which was the essence of our Vice President’s message. Widows are also not victims because of the tragedy of her spouse’s demise ~ but she is perceived to be and made a victim by the society; in fact by her own family. Besides, no widow “plays the victim” because she doesn’t need to ~ please understand that although her loss is irreparable, she is made a victim by family and society because neither wants to take responsibility of a woman, who was, in a good number of cases, economically dependent on her husband. The primary connotations and calculations of her changed status from a wife to a widow are economic, which was the principal reason for the terrible practice of Sati. It is also economics that don’t appeal to society, state, the corporates and the media to hype the International Widows’ Day. Besides, even the United Nations doesn’t seem to be all that keen to acknowledge widows’ existence and direct all member-nations to observe it. Let’s now return to our Vice President’s very pertinent question: “If a man can remarry, why can’t a woman?” History stands witness to the reforms that were initiated, fought for and won for widow remarriage since the 18th century in India. But enacting laws is one thing and rigid mindsets another. So across the country there probably are more widows than widowers ~ indubitably, this must be the same in Nagaland too because we know of widowers re-marrying within months of their spouses’ demise but we don’t hear the same of widows. Besides the attitudes and mindset towards “used good’, there is once again the issue of economics. Most widowers are financially independent, most widows aren’t. Besides, she comes with dependents. The issue isn’t only about who is going to pay for her children but also who gets to inherit the step-father’s property if he adopts her children as his own. In a society like ours, inheritance is such a huge issue vis-à-vis our Customary Laws that it is simply not possible for a widow to think of re-marriage ~ not when even her own family or that of her late spouse’s demur to take care of her and the children. No, widow re-marriage is, as much as our Vice President would like to encourage, simply not possible because of “mindset”, which he rightly pointed out. Then there is the economics of it all ~ which again is about “mindset”. Of course, that margin of widows’ unwillingness to remarry is always there but isn’t really the main hindrance to widows’ remarriage. These aren’t the last words on the issue but what comes as a pleasant surprise ~ and a shock actually ~ is that somebody has dedicated a day for widows, a courageous and laudable move indeed but how would widows feel valued and cherished when so much silence shrouds this act of mainstreaming them?