The sin of being a widow in this world

Published: June 24, 2015

Hamida (R), widow of Pakistani fisherman Nawaz who died in an Indian jail, sitting at her house in Rerhy in the outskirts of Karachi. PHOTO: AFP

We live in a country where, when a journalist calls the Chief Minister House and asks if they have any special events for International Widows’ Day, the reply you get from the concerned person is,

“Widows’ Day? Is there one?”

But then, considering two things, Pakistan might not be the only country.

Firstly, it was just four years ago that the United Nations General Assembly declared June 23, 2011, as the first-ever International Widows’ Day, so it is a relatively new event. Secondly, the women being celebrated are on the lowest tier of the social pyramid, and their problems are not given the importance they should get.

There are some 258 million widows across the world. Of these, at least 115 million live in dire poverty and 86 million have been physically abused. If a widow has an average of three children and six other family members, this is an issue that affects nearly one billion people – a seventh of the world’s population.

But how does one even calculate the figures for Pakistan, where a big chunk of the population is not even registered? Registering widows is an even more neglected priority.

So when a woman’s husband dies, what is life like for her? Hellish, in the experience of most widows. There are two major issues that widows face – the falling from grace in terms of social status and inclusion, and economic vulnerability and poverty.

Widows are often considered bad omens and are excluded from all auspicious events. A classic example is only the saat suhaganain (seven married women) being allowed to put henna on the bride’s hands. While things may have started changing in more educated or aware social setups, women still confess that they would not like their sons or brothers to marry widows. Even if the superstition is ignored, another major issue is that widows are flung out by in-laws and they land back in the homes of their fathers or brothers.

If it is married brothers, they are not given the respect and support they deserve. If the widowed woman is not economically empowered or educated, she is in for trouble. Poverty and economic struggles await her. And if she decides to step out to earn for herself and her children as she must, a big bad world awaits her. She remains an easier target of sexual harassment without the proverbial roof over her head, and is often considered easy prey for the predator.

It is not just the widow but also her children and dependents who are affected. The fact that 1.5 million children whose mothers are widowed are expected to die before reaching the age of five says enough. Whatever the husband left behind for her, whether he officially transferred the property in her possession or left behind in the form of inheritance, is often not given to her and the orphan children. Children of widows often have to forgo their education to earn for their families. They are more vulnerable to child labour and human trafficking.

The UN publication Women 2000: Widowhood: Invisible Women, Secluded or Excluded states that,

“In Pakistan, destitute widows are reported to be supported by a small pension or zakat. But, as in India, the allocation system is often corrupt, and the many needy widows are frequently neglected.”

The publication rightly points out that Pakistani widows are often deprived of their rightful inheritance by a male relative.

A major chunk of widows remain elderly. A visit to the Edhi home or any centre for homeless women shows how these elder women are ostracised from society. However, increasing incidence of armed conflict and acts of terrorism in Pakistan have resulted in many young women also being widowed and displaced. Many security personnel lose their lives owing to the violence and strife. While they are promised compensation, it is not enough.

On one hand, rights of widows need to be brought to the fore on all forums. Awareness needs to be raised regarding their plight. But most importantly, the young women of this nation need to be self-empowered enough to be able to support themselves and command the respect they deserve if they find themselves in such a situation.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of marketing and corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets on @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at chaaidaani.wordpress.com/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Raghu Reddy

    Widows are often considered bad omens and are excluded from all auspicious events. A classic example is only the saat suhaganain (seven married women) being allowed to put henna on the bride’s hands.

    supersitions in Islamic society exists. They just dont want to show it as India tackles in its movies everywhere. All evils are hidden in Pakistan.
    Everything about India or hinduism exists in Islam and muslim societies. They ust dont look into it.Very easy to point fingers at hindus. Widows position is pathetic in every poor society. Recommend

  • Rajesh Mehta

    This article would be true for a Hindu widow as well, which once again underscores the fact that both India and Pakistan share the same cultural traits despite the religious divide.
    for example, the author remarks”saat suhaganain (seven married women) being allowed to put henna on the bride’s hands”, is akin to hindu marriage rites where seven married women or ‘sumangalis’ adorn the bridewith coral and shell bangles or in another words they act as the bridesmaid , so it would seem cultural continuity is observed here.(In vedic cultural sphere number 7 is sort of considered auspicious, probably because of 7 rsis or sages mentioned in rgveda)
    Also,Hindu society by tradition has considered widows ‘pollutant’ when it comes to auspicious ceremonies and hence the presence is debarred,which seems to be practised in Pakistan as well, one would find widows being left on their own in Vrindavan in UP state of India.
    In my mind this probably is due to the fact that South Asian society pays premium to concept of virginity ,as the idea is associated with “purity” ,hence a widow in these part of world are basically shunned or even a divorced woman.
    Such ideas are well entrenched in the ethos and psyche of the culture,probably stemming from few thousand of years and wont be replaced easily.
    Though some trolls would try to debunk me using religious scriptures, they probably would ignore the diffusion of cultural debris shared equally between these two societies ,and hence more or less the same plight of women/widows in general.Recommend

  • US CENTCOM

    It saddens me to read the harsh reality of being a widow. At the least, many women are faced with hardships and challenges after the death of their husband. I hope more programs are initiated to provide care and support to the widows who are in need of help.

    Ali Khan
    Digital Engagement Team, USCENTCOMRecommend

  • Raghu Reddy

    where is my comment?Recommend

  • SH

    This is why it is extremely important to educate girls. Educate your girls and let them become independent. Give them confidence, raise them to be strong individuals, let them work and make a living for themselves before they get married. If God forbid they are divorced or widowed later, they will not have to depend on anyone at least.Recommend

  • Gus, USA

    Having lost my 32 year old wife few years ago I know how difficult life is for a widow, men or women . You raise you kids alone and always excluded from friend circle. This difficulty magnifies in rural India and Pakistan, as article rightly pointed out.Recommend

  • Kamath

    Both messers Mehta and Reddy are right in their views and reflect my personal views. These practices among non-Muslims go back over so many centuries. It is just barbaric. Pakistanis just forget they were dropped from skies or Martians in today’s Pakistan. But we’re converts from earlier faiths like Hinduism, Jains, Buddhist, etc. hence have retained so many good as well as ugly, cultural or social and religious customs which must be erased completely.

    In India, most reformers among Hindus tried very hard to bring modern education to girls, remarriage of widows etc by working with ruling British Raj. The practice of Sati : burning of widows in many part of the country was abolished in 19th century. Raja Ram Manohar Roy was a great leader was pionee. There were many women were also in this efforts.

    So let us not draw a line between Hindus, Muslims or aethists etc. but destroy these Evelyn customs!Recommend

  • Ahmad Khan

    how about invest and educate your men who are pillars of the house. make them aware of the sunnah of the Prophet pbuh. He married widows, clearly we dont have to come under shame or guilt in modern times. Maybe instead of letting our muslim women roam free outside let the boys become men and fulfill their duties and purpose according to Islam. Ofcourse there is no harm in educating the women, especially in deen knowledge so that each boy grows up to be a real man. CANT BUY ANY MORE WESTERN PROPAGANDA OR IDIOLOGY….Recommend