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..