Monday, September 27, 2010

Can widowed women wear gajra?

Lijit shows interesting statistics of searches that land people on my blog.

Can widowed women wear gajra? (Gajra = small floral garland worn in hair)

Several questions come to my mind when I come across similar seemingly trifle choices that are burdened with societal or religious stereotypes. I had written a post on the subtle social insistence of Nirmamish* food for widows in Bengal in some educated, forward families even today, in a post titled The Politics of Food. Now, when I read the keywords of this search, I asked myself:

1) Who is this reader?

2) Whom is he/she trying to find the answer for?
a) A relative b) Herself?

3) Why does the person seek an external justification / denial?

4) Who is qualified to answer the controversial 'Can' of the question?

a) Religion? b) Society? c) Family? d) an unknown blogger like me???

5)Is there any specific mention in a religious text to deny a widow such trivial pleasures?

6) If any such mention has been interpreted from the texts, is that fair? Or still applicable in the present context?

6 a) Can't human rationality question certain antiquated religious/societal diktats?
7) What significance do flowers and a gajra carry in an Indian woman's life?

8) Do flowers convey any specific romantic or spiritual message that makes daily life more enjoyable?

Many of the above questions are subjective and will have a different (and justifiable) solution each depending on each individual's set of beliefs... My concern is what happens when we stop making distinctions between personal thoughts and societal parameters. When we are unable to pinpoint our real feelings about a certain issue in juxtaposition to the 'accepted' social or intellectual norm...

Let me try and understand the rigid regulations imposed on widows in an early social context. Imagine India in the 1800s.

Girls were married off before 10, became mothers as early as 13 or 14. The British, whatever their imperial oppressions may be, did try and modify some such counterproductive social structures. I was shocked to read that Lokmanya Tilak vehemently opposed the progressive 1891 Age of Consent Act arguing that the British had no business interfering with an accepted "Hindu" practice. Today, intercourse with a 10-year-old girl is considered an unspeakable, loathsome crime.

So dejected was Raja Ram Mohan Roy when his reformist articles in Sambad Koumudi were booed down by the powerful Brahmin lobby, that he gave up publishing his newspapers. Though he was monumental in getting the *Sati ban implemented in Bengal, the practice continued for many years to come.

Every society hides skeletons in its closet. Because of the grace of social and religious sanctions on many immoral and unfair past practices, we are uncomfortable discussing the injustices meted out to Hindu widows. In my understanding, food restrictions for widows were meant to restrain a widow from eating 'tamasic' food that might rekindle her worldly desires. Drab clothing and tonsured heads served to make her look as unappealing as possible. Seclusion ensured that she was not violated. All these measures to safeguard a vulnerable woman from the lust of society and predators even in the immediate family invariably failed. And so the *Sati system. There is logic in each of this restriction which is a consequence of the previous. But in general, all such restrictions boiled down to this : One less mouth to feed, one more woman to manipulate. A simple solution was widow remarriage and this reform took gargantuan efforts by a brave few to be socially relevant.

Jyotiba Phule and his wife were ostracized and abused when they tried to educate girls in the mid 1800s. And yet, the seed of reform Jyotiba and Savitri sowed was instrumental in slowly removing orthodoxy from Maharashtra's lower and middle-class, as opposed to the state of affairs in Bengal where intellectual stimulation, debates and reform largely remained a prerogative of the elite.

Discussed above was a larger picture of society and how it dealt with widows in the 1800s. Coming back to 2010 and the specific question of wearing a gajra. In those times, a widow thinking of wearing a gajra would have been beaten black and blue. My surprise is that you, my dear reader, are prodding the question almost 200 years later, in an age virtually suffocated by individual freedom. What is wrong with you??

Let me put it thus: Flowers, kumkum, colourful sarees, ornaments are all a woman's means of expression of happiness, vitality, joy and hope. Mirra Alfassa even believed that flowers are a means of delving into a divine, spiritual nature. When a woman is widowed, it is but natural that her grief causes her to reject these on her own for the immediate period of loss. But should her initial expression of sorrow continue to dominate her life ever after? Who has the right to decide what manner of grieving is suitable and accepted for a widow? Not me and you, not at least in this time and age.

Regulation and restrain is central to a civilized society that must function smoothly. But equally important is freedom of thought and deed. A woman is infinite times more vulnerable than a man and so she needs infinite times more understanding and support from the society. Within the ambit of the topic of this post (gajra or not) I think it's high time that we shake ourselves off from the hangover of irrelevant social and religious codes of conduct.

If you ask me, yes, a widowed woman can wear a gajra. For even if she is a widow, she doesn't stop being a woman. And like my father once said, to look beautiful is a woman's birthright...

* Niramish: Food made without onion, garlic and non-vegetarian ingredients

* Old custom of a widow immolating herself (with consent or forcefully) on the pyre of her husband. As many as three Sati cases were reported in India after 1987, the latest as recent as in 2008.

Edited to add on October 10, 2010

Have you seen Water (2005)?

An attempt by Canadian filmmakerDeepa Mehta to portray the inhumane restrictions on Hindu widows in this film met with stiff resistance from Hindu political activists. Following violent protests, the filming was banned in India. The production was delayed for five years. Mehta persevered and shot in Sri Lanka instead of Varanasi. Lisa Ray, John Abraham and Srilankan child artiste Sarala Kariyawasam essayed the characters beautifully. The result was a poignant depiction of stark, painful reality that many wanted to ignore like an ostrich.

What I want to say is this: Our religion is too open, beautiful and vast. Acceptance of such bitter truths won't in any way reduce its glory..


Anonymous said...

Your dad is very wise man! Sadly I dont know any widows who wear gajra's.

Anonymous said...

It is incredibly sad that this unknown woman feels obliged to ask this question- which should be one of mere personal preference!

As you have asked- why does she seek external justification?

Kamini said...

What a wonderful post! I am sure the original seeker for the answer is more than happy.
It was appalling, the way widows were treated not so long ago in our country.

Gauri Gharpure said...

@homecooked that he is.. :) yes, even i have seen few myself..

but then again, looking for others who do so, is in a way seeking a justification, isn't it.. to use my favourite sociological term, something like promoting a spiral of silence.. many may secretly want to break traditions, but stay quiet in absence of external proofs of support..

Gauri Gharpure said...

@manjujoglekar and @Kamini

i was intrigued and a tad unsettled to see a person who can read english, has net and can use it sufficiently well is troubled enough to actively search for an answer.. that is what really egged me to write this huge post..

and Kamini, like you, i too hope that if he (she) surfs again and lands on this post, he at least gets something to ponder on even if he may not readily agree with that I have written..

In issues like these, a concrete conclusion is not the end, but the debate and discussion that opens new channels of thought is..

for example, me and my parents disagree on several such points, but our dialogue makes each party a little less stubborn by the time we have had our tea.. :)

Indrani said...

A very well written post. Excellently replied. Strange answers people search... really!!!

Gauri Gharpure said...

@Indrani Thanks.. :)

digant said...

Hi ....
Nicely written...:)
I have also observed...During many auspicious occasions...widows are not allowed to wear gajras..( i have actually seen Avoiding widow lady in the house and asking everyone else for gajra)..
And i didnt knew about the As in why the sati?? and stuff
and thank you for lokmanya tilak's explicit description

digant said...

Who might have asked...
He might be a teenager like me who might have asked after seeing this incident somewhere...
or might be for his widowed mother...
Net can be best place..Anonymous ...saved from the autrocious soceity

Gauri Gharpure said...

Dear Digant, I am so happy to see you voice your opinions here.. really..

yes, it's sad how we sometimes leave out widows out of such trivial joys, like gajra or mehendi, so that even if they want to break the tradition, they have little encouragement to do so.. this often came to my notice too.. but then we were small and our curiosities and questions easily snubbed and silenced.. now, we must not leave any chance to voice our opinions in such matters politely but firmly..

and i never thought the person seeking the answer might be a teenager.. tht's a sensitive way of looking at the issue and you opened my eyes towards being more open, less judgemental..thanks!

again, so happy to see you here, do keep reading and commenting..

Ash said...


Unknown said...

I watched Water a long time back..a very touching movie.
And its sad how demise of the husband suddenly makes others the masters of a woman's life,still,in today's world!
What she can wear and eat has to follow a rule book?

Gauri Gharpure said...

@Ash Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment..

@Saraagree with what you have said.. you have put the essence of this long post so beautifully..

water served to reveal the seriousness of the issue many times more pressingly compared to what i had heard or read before..

sm said...

very well written
if u think carefully one will understand religion has killed more than any criminal

Gauri Gharpure said...


not religion, but rather the misinterpretation of it..

Thanks Sm for dropping by after a long time.. hope you have been good..

sangeeta said...

Hi Gauri... while your dussera post looks delicious i choose to read this one and comment here...

Gajra is just a symbolic instrument , we see even now when a widow is ostracized in a different manner . You wrote it so meaningfully...One less mouth to feed, one more woman to manipulate ...yes it comes down to this harsh truth.

I know a family who seemed to ne generous when i came to know that they have their widowed sister n her daughter living with them . After a few months when i realized what is going on........both the mother daughter were treated like maids and they had to pay for the shelter n food being provided by doing household chores...isn't it manipulation?

Looking beautiful and wearing gajra is not the question actually ...isn't our religion ( or religious practices for that matter ) responsible for manipulating the lesser privileged ??

Having said that , i feel really sad and startled sometimes when i see weird search keywords on my blog 'homealone'....

Gauri Gharpure said...

Dear sangeeta

i understand what you are trying to say.. and such manipulation is still very vogue..

however, one regret i have when i write such posts is that they somehow overshadow the relatively few (but significant) instances of people who go against the tide.. am sure there would examples of some families who went ahead and got widows of their families educated or remarried.. maybe, we should also try and document such cases.. guess i will take this as my homework:)

also, I read your Homealone for the first time.. very touched..

sangeeta said...

Yes Gauri ... very well said .
All those people who ride against the tide and come out a winner are exemplary for the courage they show. Especially because this courage has to work against their own people , their own surroundings ...

I have been wanting to write about a few courageous people i know but that will involve writing about all the nasty people too who cause pain and discrimination in such a scenario ..i have yet to find the right way to write a complete truth ...

baruk said...

my question would have been: what's with poems on eye donation?

but seriously. i think of religion/culture as evolving with time. while some people/families evolve faster, some do so slower, or do not need to do so. my favourite example is how it was ok for my great grandfather to go head-hunting, but not ok for me. (i am not saying that this evolution is necessarily for 'good', just that we evolve). maybe years down we will look back at our behaviour today with this much horror!

Gauri Gharpure said...

bang on abt the evolution of culture, you have explained it quite well! yes, things were so different.. my great- great-grandmother was widowed in her early teens but fortunately her father and brothers took good care of her. Aaji talks a lot abt her, and maybe i should write it down sometime..

btw, such searches on eye donation are very regular, i am glad someone wants to read up and is landing here!!