PUCL Bulletin, March 2002

A monograph

Muslim Widows
A Case Study in Delhi

By Neelofar Haram



March 2002


Contents

Lament - By Y. P. Chhibar
Widowhood - A curse

I

Cross-border commonality in distress
Indian perspective
Case of Kashmir: efforts for a support system
Pakistan, no different
The Afghanistan case
Bangladesh, the same story
Nepal: Again the same
Srilanka: Story repeated
Bhutan - the uncommon case
Obliterated Borders, Uniform Sufferings

II

A case study in Delhi
Plight of the families of the widows interviewed
Role of the State agencies
Government schemes

III

Statistical appendices
*Age Distribution *Age At which Widowed *Widowhood Span
*Husband's Occupation * Size Of The Family *Sons and Daughters
*Children's Education * Work Status *Income Structure
*Health Problems *Social Problems *Aspirations

IV

Select Bibliography

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Lament
By YP Chhibbar
General Secretary, PUCL
March 23, 2002

This is a mini monograph put together by the PUCL as a pilot to see whether such problem specific and area specific studies are possible and feasible.

We are aware that at the conceptual level the Conferences, Seminars, and Discussions concerning women and widows re-discover the obvious. In this area pioneers like Ram Mohan Roy discovered it long ago. On ground we have not been able to build any support systems locality-by-locality or city-by-city. Also, there are no area specific or locality specific facts at our disposal, which may prove handy for organising programmes of training, employment, or the like.

The present study done with the help of Neelofar Haram is intended to be the first step in this direction.

In the meanwhile the widows out there are toiling and suffering agonies that we cannot fully comprehend.

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Widowhood - A Curse
It is necessary to examine the concerns of our society about widowhood, the plight of widows, and the problems that they have to face. The vernacular phrases, idioms, and slang shape the common person's attitude in an unconscious way. The popular movies are an important medium for reflecting and affecting the popular psyche. Here, one is constrained to say that there are rarely novels and stories in Hindi or Urdu that generate the ideas and opinions of understanding and sympathy for the widows: the Bollywood films are a big culprit. They, as if, are always trying to compete in glorifying the state of 'Suhaag'. "Mangalsutra", nose pin, and jewellery, i.e., the signs of "suhaag" is always a grim reminder to the widows of their 'degraded' social status. This is not all; the society is not prepared to listen to the plight of widows even if somebody takes the cudgels to bare it all (the case of shooting of film Water is very recent in one's memory). The most neglected are the poor widows, even if the society has a help mechanism.

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1 Cross-border commonality in distress
The life of a widow and the social practices surrounding widowhood in the countries of the Indian Sub-Continent show a cross-border cross-cultural uniformity. In every culture or religious group widowhood is inauspicious. The life of a widow is marked by suffering and social exclusion, if not destitution. Some cultures have some institutional support systems but, by and large, these support systems also fall prey to misuse and corruption.

Most pathetic is the condition of widows who have to live on their own. The condition becomes worse if they also have some children to support, especially daughters.

The cultural or religious differences surrounding the life of widows and widowhood was brought out in a conference organised by the Guild of Service on 'Capacity Building of Marginalised Women: Widows' from 1st to 3rd February, 2002 in Delhi.

It was the first South Asian conference on widows, and delegates from neighbouring countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka had come and voiced the problems faced by women, particularly widows in their respective countries. It turned out to be a good background to this study.

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Indian Perspective
India is important not only because it has a large population, but also because this renders India as home to many religions and cultures. Muslim population in India is second largest in the world, more than that in Pakistan. A broad perspective of the plight of Hindu widows serves as a case study of widows. Many littérateurs, historians, and religious authorities have dealt with the customs, and practices followed in the society

The former Supreme Court Judge, Sujata Manohar, addressing the conference, specially mentioned the practice of Suti, a significant element of Hindu customs pertaining to women/widows. She, discussing the status of widows in India in the above named Conference, related how the practice of burning of newly widowed woman live on the funeral pyre of her husband was abolished after a campaign by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1829 in Bengal; when it culminated into Suti Regulation Act of 1829. Bengal, during the period 1815 to 1828, recorded a total figure of 8135 widows burnt alive as Suti. The Dayabhaga system of Hindu law, which prevailed in Bengal, she said, conferred on widows the right to succeed to the landed property of the deceased husband. Changes were effected in Tenancy laws in favour of women. In order to prevent widows from inheriting a share in the land, this inhuman brutality was perpetuated on widows with the ulterior motive of depriving them of a share in land granted by law. So, we have in the 18th and 19th century Bengal, exactly the converse of the anticipated result in giving women, who are otherwise totally deprived, a right to inherit land.

Citing statistics she informed that in India the proportion of widows to the total female population was about 9%, or more than 40 million. Among women above the age of 60, the proportion of widows rises to 64%. And yet little attempt has been made to study this disadvantaged segment of women.

She also talked about prevalent tradition of considering widows as inauspicious and the social stigma they carry with them. She gave the example of Maharashtra where on special occasions like marriage, welcome of a newly wed bride, or wishing a happy and safe delivery to a pregnant woman, five married women whose husbands are alive perform an aarati. There are, in orthodox families, customary ceremonies performed at the time of husband's death, which are cruel and verge on the barbaric. Breaking glass bangles, tearing apart the mangal sutra from her neck, and in some sections, even the older customs of shaving off the head and wearing a single piece of rough white cloth dhoti prevails.

A widow cannot wear kumkum nor can she wear nice clothes or ornaments and that she must eat only very frugally the plainest of food so that her senses are under control. These are attempts at controlling sexuality of widows though this does not prevent their being exploited sexually by unscrupulous family members or others. In West Bengal widows, in the name of religion, are abandoned by their families and left at places of pilgrimage such as Varanasi and Vrindavan, ostensibly to lead an austere life in the worship of God. There are approximately 3000 such widows in Vrindavan and surrounding areas alone. The NHRC is actively involved in their empowerment and creation of programmes to prevent abandonment of widows by their families.

In some parts of northern India there is the custom of getting the widow married to the husband's younger brother or she may even be given to a cousin, she said, who has a right to sell her once she has been wedded to him. There are well known novels, stories to depict the plight of such women In the agriculturally rich States, a widow remarried to a younger brother-in-law keeps the land and the worker in the family. "The status of a widow in the family has been closely linked to her illiteracy, her incapacity to earn, and consequent dependence on the family for her livelihood and maintenance; social compulsions in a patriarchical society have ways of keeping a woman's sexuality and property under patriarchical control" she said.

Prior to 1937 the Mitakshara system of Hindu law prevailed in a large region, except Bengal. Under this a Hindu widow had no right to inherit her husband's property. With the Hindu Women's Right to Property Act coming into force in 1937, the law created what is known as a 'widow's estate'. The law gave to a widow the right to a share in her husband's property equal to the share of his son, but she could hold this share only during her lifetime. On her death her share would revert to her husband's heirs. She also got a share in her husband's property on partition of the joint family.

Sujata Manohar also mentioned the property rights of Muslim, Christian, and Parsee widows. With the principles of equality & non-discrimination finding acceptance in the Constitution, some important changes were brought about in Hindu law. The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made a widow's estate the absolute property of the widow. The share of the deceased husband / father in case of the property of the joint family came to the widow / or the daughter under this law. Yet the old practice of only males being coparcener, holding a share in the joint family property, continues. Only in two or three States in this country the law has been changed to give a daughter the right to a share in the joint family property by birth. A Muslim widow under the Shariat Act 1937 got a share in her husband' s property. Yet the social conditions determine the extent to which she can enjoy this right. The same was true of Christian women, but the Christian society offered a better social space to a widow. Christian and Parsee widows also had a right to inherit under their inheritance laws, though some of the local laws were less favourable in case of the Christian women. The greatest problem in this area is in respect of a woman's right to inherit family lands.

The Hindu Succession Act is subject to any customary law to the contrary. Most of the customary laws prevent a woman from inheriting a share in the land. Thus the court upheld a tribal custom that prevented the widow and daughters of a tribal from inheriting land. Similarly tenancy laws in most parts of northern India prescribe an "order of devolution where four generations of men in the main line are preferred to the widow and the daughters". Even for Muslims in undivided India, Shariat Act left out agricultural land from its purview, the inheritance of which was to be governed by local customs and tenurial laws. These laws were highly gender unjust. After independence the Southern States amended the Shariat Act to include agricultural land and thus reduced inequalities in male and female shares. But the law in North India remains highly gender biased.

Justice Manohar mentioned that gradually the world has awakened to the human rights of women and now human rights are rights of women and children as well. This is reflected in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and various other international instruments dealing with Human Rights in all varieties and all their manifestations. Yet in the Convention that deals directly with discrimination against women, there is no direct reference to the condition of a widow, possibly because the severity of discrimination against widows is an Asian problem not sufficiently articulated in the world fora.

She was of the opinion that the basic catalyst of change was education, followed closely by economic empowerment, which is also crucial.

Meera Khanna, Joint Secretary, Guild of Service, also spoke about widowhood in India. She made the point that widowhood was viewed, not as just a phase in the life cycle of a woman, but as a personal and social aberration, to be totally eradicated. There are deep social, cultural, and even economic implications of widowhood. In Indian psyche, there is acceptance of the inevitability of the death of a person. But in the case of death of the husband this fact is often glossed over. This inherent contradiction motivates the cultural non-acceptance of widowhood. Hence the blessings given to a woman are replete with suggestions of eternal wifehood. "Akhand saubhaagyavati bhava" (may your saubhaagya, i.e., Life with husband, never terminate), 'sadaa suhaagan raho' (May your husband live for ever). She rightly emphasised that though the death of a spouse, or of any person, for that matter, is an inevitability, there is a taboo and a hesitation to discuss it between husband and wife and even between parents and children. This leaves anyone including widows unprepared for the change in status and the consequent adjustments to be made in life.

In her opinion widowhood was both a crisis and a problem. In the suddenness and in the sea change that it wrought in the life of a woman, it was a crisis. As the woman tries to cope with the implications it becomes a problem. Yet, very few women are prepared to face the crisis and even fewer are mentally equipped to grapple with the problem. Above all, "a widow is doubly traumatized as a woman and as a widow. She is victimized as a woman and because she is a woman she is marginalised as a widow". The system makes the widow a hapless victim of degrading deprivation.

She mentioned the fact that the widow in some parts of the country is called raand while a prostitute is called a randi. The derivative relationship of the two words reflects the degradation ascribed to widowhood. It also indicates that social psyche. A widow's sexuality becomes suspect and a source of menace once her husband is no more. And also once she is a widow it is a small step to become a randi from a raand. Both words are used as common abuses. The colloquial saying in parts of Haryana "Jawaan raand to boorhaa saand" (a young widow would turn even an old man into a stud) is a crude allegation of a widow's supposedly wayward sexuality.

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Case of Kashmir: Efforts for A Support System
Dr. Hamida Naveem mentioned the special conditions prevailing in Kashmir. The gross violation of human rights at the hands of the extremists and the State both had resulted in 25,000 orphans, and 20,000 widows, besides other devastating consequences

There was now beginning a movement to build a support system. There used to exist an organisation known as Hilal-e-Ahmar (Red cross). However Hilal-e-Ahmar ceased to exist as most of its members were harassed and arrested by the State. After Hilal-e-Ahmar fell, Kashmir witnessed the rise of Public Relief Trust (PRT) that in fact preceded the making of the separatist alliance of 22 parties, the All Parties Hurriyet Conference (APHC), almost on the debris of 13 parties Tehreek-e-Hurriet-e-Kashmir. Unlike Hilal-e-Ahmar, it operated in the countryside with a grand network of known faces. The Government did not allow this too to function for more then three years.

She said that one Abdul Rasheed and some other friends of his floated Human Effort for Love and Peace (HELP). This orphanage offered regular financial support to widows.

In 1993 the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation started functioning. It started financial help on bi-annual basis. But it abruptly stopped functioning after sometime.

Initiative for Women and Children was started in 1997 by Dr. Hamida along with some friends to cater especially to the needs of orphans and widows. They provide immediate help to widows and orphans informally.

She emphasised that there was an unbroken chain of widows in the lanes and by-lanes of the valley that needed and deserved selfless help and care from both, the social institutions as well as the Administration. She described Kashmiri society as a conservative one, ridden with hypocrisy. Conventionality places chains on a widow's personal liberty; she loses the freedom to interact with males as she is held in suspicion. Though she is not an outcaste, yet the "sin" of being a young widow follows her everywhere. She is not normally accepted in marriage because of social stigma attached to her widowhood. It was an albatross round her neck, as if she was an accused. The condition of those who became a widow within a few days of marriage or before the consummation of marriage, is much more heart rending as the force of social stigmas is so strong that they cannot get re-married to the right persons but, at the most, could be thrust on some unwilling or undeserving man to support her. In border areas like Baramullah young widows have been given in marriage to men who are old enough to be their father and who already have many children by their first wife. Widows with children are hardly accepted in marriage and alas this happens in a society of Muslims whose Prophet had married mostly widows and divorcees to set an example for his followers and instructed them time and again to be kind to orphans in word and deed and to give a respectful place to widows by preferring to marry them.

She pointed out that the appalling problem of growing number of widows was so grave that even if the State government seriously launched rehabilitation projects, these will not be able to make much of a difference.

According to Muslim Personal Law if the father-in-law of the widow is alive, neither she nor her children can claim any share in the family property and there are numerous instances where widows have been thrown out along with children from their husband's house. Half the widows do not know how long they have to wait to get religious sanction to re-marry.

According to religious scholars and clergy, the wait period varies from four years in Malikia school of thought to ninety years in Feghai Hanfiya (religious laws of Hanfiya school) although now even Feghai Hanfiya in India has decided to adopt the Malikia practice of allowing re-marriage after four years' wait.

She said that women whose husbands have disappeared have to live in constant trauma and uncertainty. They have to try to locate the disappeared husband, which is an uphill task in the prevailing circumstances. On the one hand, they live in constant pain of the separation of the husband and on the other hand, they do not know whether he will return at all.

In Kashmir, she explained, there were villages where majority of the men folk had been killed; interestingly one among these villages, Sheikh Mohalla, was in the Chief Minister's constituency of Ganderbal. The ten family strong hamlet had 11 widows, 31 orphans and just three men. They have yet to receive any ex-gratia amount as relief, which accrues to the wife of one killed in militant fire.

Another village is in Bandipora where at least 70% women have been widowed, and 90% orphaned. They feel so scared as night approaches that they leave their homes for safer abodes where there are men folk around. These women are forlorn and have nobody to depend on; their homes have turned into hell for them as these are devoid of any sense of security as well as any comfort.

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Pakistan: No Different
Rukhshanda Naz and Salma Murad are two prominent activists of the Pak-Afghan region. Rukhshanda Naz, putting forth the ideas of Salma Murad, observed that a widow is usually avoided in any social gatherings as she is considered to be a threat to the other wives. She usually loses most of her friends of her husband's time and she has a hard time warding off the advances of other men. She finds herself completely insecure and usually has to look for new friends. If she is young she would like to dress up well or use a little makeup but she hesitates to do so for fear that it would be a cause of adverse comments. If she goes to work she is looked at suspiciously. In the work place she is usually faced with sexual harassment. "Majority of Asian women are found in jobs with low security, lower pay, low conditions of work, low status, having no bargaining power in a narrow range of occupations". Fear of loss of job, loss of source of livelihood, or a feelings of shame, inhibit their expression of natural reaction to exploitative attitudes.

Many men try to make advances to divorcees or widows considering them to be easy targets. There is no law or rule to check issues of harassment of women in Pakistan. It is proposed that either a law should be devised or clauses be incorporated in service rules to check such immoral practices. Launching a media campaign is also necessary to change the mindset of the people. Men also try to offer their help to widows for ulterior motives. She is treated as public property; if she does not work, she is told to go and earn a living.

Either way she is not left in peace. All the happiness in her life is dampened. Some widows, out of desperation, take their lives and their children's, or they take to degrading activities, such as prostitution, alcoholism, or drug abuse.

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The Afghanistan Case
Rukhshanda Naz spoke about Afghanistan also. The condition of Afghan widows is no different from that of widows in other neighbouring countries to the East and South, no matter whether they are in Afghanistan or in camps inside Pakistan. They are supposed to have a share in property (as decided by Islam), but the common practice is like the one prevalent in Pakistani Pakhtoon society where people deny every right to their daughters and sisters. In case of marriages, women do get property under dower, but men exercise the ownership right. The issue of second marriage also depends on the tribal custom. In some areas (the settled areas), particularly in the educated middle class, women can remarry. The condition of the Afghan widows in camps is alarming. In the Jalozai camp alone, it is alleged, their number stands at 5000. In the same camp, there are said to be more than 2500 widows in one ward alone. Most of them have been found disabled. The problems start appearing for them when they reach the Pakistan border from their country. On the border, they first encounter the officials of the administration before crossing over into Pakistan. The males on duty fleece widows in return for enabling them to enter the country. They are forced to pay the border guards even for the entry of their male family members. When in camps, for most of the time, they are exploited by their own family and community male members in the form of sexual harassment, bonded labour, and trafficking. The men misuse the widow's identification cards to get rations.

As for the Loya Jirga and participation of women in decision-making, they have no role. Loya Jirga is an assembly of elders who are called to decide specific issues and whose decisions are binding on parties in conflict. In a situation where there is no written or formal law the importance of such an assembly is crucial, especially in preventing the situation on ground from collapsing into anarchy. The Jirga regulates life through decisions ranging from the location of a mosque to the settling of conflict within sub sections to larger issues such as regulating foreign relations, relation with other tribes, and even conveying decision of the tribes to the Government. Decisions are based on a combination of Islamic law and push to custom. The participation of women in public life or mainstream politics is not new, nor are women of Afghanistan confined to house, as shown in Western media. They had a history of Loya Jirga and women organisations, although in private sector (NGO) there is no such model like South Asian Women's movements.

All in all, Afghan widows today are not much different as far as their social status goes.

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Bangladesh: The Same Story
Traditionally, in Bangladesh society also, girls are married off at an early age. Regional, pre-partition, as well as historical Urdu literature, depicts such a societal picture. In the traditional Hindu literature one comes across males getting more than one or two wives. According to Salma Ali, a Bangla activist, in many cases it is found that there is a wide difference in the ages of the bridegroom and the bride. The bride is younger by a wide margin. But, this is probably more due to poverty and male dominant attitudes in the society. Naturally, the number of widowed women was much higher in the traditional societies of the sub-continent. Bangladesh constituted an important part of this region. Ruled by various regimes in the past, Buddhists, Hindus, Sultans, and Mughals or Muslims, the historical record shows a grim picture of women's state in the region. Particularly, the condition of ancient Hindu widows was simply unspeakable. The custom of Shaho Moron (burning alive with the deceased husband) was deemed to be a great virtue for her. Barriers to remarriage were another restriction imposed upon a Hindu widow, which still persists in some parts here also. In the Muslim communities, widows were treated as dependent on their sons. Though their conditions were not as bad as that of the Hindu widows, they too came under heavy burden of societal, familial, and other restrictions.

As far as the ground situation today goes, a Muslim widow's status in the society defrauds her of many elements of empowerment. A Muslim woman's right to inheritance is observed more in breach than in compliance. In most of the cases, daughters are not given their due share in father's property. What generally is practiced is that the brothers give her a token amount as 'generous gift' and insist that she will not claim for her lawful share in father's property. The paradox lies here. The sister hardly goes in for litigation against the brother(s) for fear of losing a cordial familial relationship. Maintaining such relationships is always the responsibility of the 'weaker' party (read sex). She, however, claims her share in crisis moments or in cases when the husband demands dowry, and approaches her brothers. It is only the sweet will of the brothers that they allocate a little share to the helpless sister as of 'mercy'! Studies reveal that 48.24% of the widows were knowledgeable about Sharia Laws that provides them the right to inherit parent's and husband's property. But in reality women do not claim share from such property.

In the case of widows, it is harder and sometimes impossible to claim their lawful property rights when they are without any adult male to provide them the social, moral, and economic support. Thus widows lose their right to property and land, even when a proper application of the law would have protected them. Widows at a time of loss and grief, are vulnerable and cannot counter traditional barriers to seek legal help outside the family.

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Nepal: Again the Same
Lily Thapa, Chairperson, Women for Human Rights, Nepal agreed that the Nepalese society is also a male dominated society where men make all decisions and choices and women are viewed as household workers and child bearers. There is widespread lack of education and knowledge. This worsens after a Nepalese woman is widowed. The society divides women into married and widowed. Married status confers a certain social recognition where as widowhood is a state of deprivation. A widow is pitied. There are strict social norms and values. In most of the families, widowed women are held responsible for the death of the husband. It is common for living relatives of the deceased husband to view the widow as an ill omen.

It was a revealing fact that in a recent survey, out of fifty young widows interviewed, very few preferred parental home in comparison to their late husband's family despite their troubles. Some may entertain a hope of a share in husband's property, but not all.

Widows are denied rights on their own body in that wearing red and bright clothes and to put on make-up is frowned upon. In some parts of Western Nepal widows are forced to shave their heads and wear white clothes. In most parts, widows are made to eat vegetarian food and have some restriction on spices, etc. Widows have to cook for themselves and cannot eat food touched by others. Due to these rules and their weak economic status widows are denied a healthy life. There is some dilution of these attitudes in urban areas.

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Srilanka: Story Repeated
Sunila Abeysekra repeated almost the same scenario from the Srilankan society - discriminatory practices against women, more so against widows. In Tamil and Muslim communities, there are a number of rituals of seclusion and purification that widows must go through before they can be reintegrated into the family and the community. Srilanka is also a society in which a woman without male 'protector' is seen as abnormal. Unmarried women are considered to be unlucky and a burden on their families. A single woman or a widow is especially vulnerable. Many women who have been widowed by the on going socio-political conflict have complained of the problems of sexual and other harassment they have to face. As young and single women, they are seen as 'available', and subject to all types of undue advances when seeking help in government offices, banks, etc.

As for the role of religious bodies it was observed that these have played a marginal role in providing support for widows. It appears that since social stigma and level of public ostracisation of widows is less in Srilanka than in other South Asian countries, there has been no real focus on the issue as a priority. It is only within the Muslim community that through the Baithulmal Fund there has been some support extended to widows. However, the problem of widows has not yet received the priority that it should, it is increasingly clear that there are a large variety of problems facing widows that need to be addressed at many different levels - legal, administrative, social, cultural, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. In particular the issue of widow remarriage remains as a very critical one in Srilanka because of the large numbers of young women with very young children who are widowed and left dependent on family goodwill as a result of the ongoing strife. Many of these women fear remarriage because they feel the children of the first husband would be neglected or ill-treated. Widows of men who served in the armed forces are granted benefits only if they do not remarry. This pressure not to remarry in turn creates a range of situations in which such young widows are exploited economically and sexually by men who enter into relationships with them and harass them for any number of reasons.

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Bhutan - The Uncommon Case
Pem Wangdi from Bhutan was proud that her experiences as an activist in matters of rights of women in Bhutan, especially those of widows, were different from many of her compatriots from across the borders of her kingdom country. In the midst of listening to so much narration about the pain and anguish suffered by women, particularly widows, Bhutan stands out as a case where the scenario appeared different. Women in Bhutan seem to enjoy social, economic, and political equality with their male counter parts. They are spared the numerous burdens and afflictions, which women normally endure in other societies, in countries to the South and Southwest.

The position of widows in the family and society was strong. They are protected and remarriage of both widowed and divorced women was accepted. There is no loss of status for a remarried woman.

Women in Bhutan partake in every sphere of community life and enjoy a high degree of freedom and rights. Besides fulfilling their traditional roles as wives and mothers, women also constitute a great supply of work force especially at the farm level. And although Bhutan belongs geographically to South Asia, its society, social structure, gender relations, and attitude towards women all combine to make it very different from every other South Asian nations.

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Obliterated Borders, Uniform sufferings
The above detailed narration from different countries brings out one fact: in this entire region, by and large, the scene is the same. There are differences but these are differences of degree. Hindu, Muslim, Baudh, Tamil, Singhal, Pathan tribal all cultures and sub-cultures have same attitudes towards women, especially women who have lost their 'life partner'. One thing, however, has to be noted: these remarks do not refer to the Christians. Christianity as a separate regional culture does not figure in this area, though the number of Christians in India and other countries is not small. The status of Christian widows needs special treatment.

The plight of widows seems to have obliterated international borders. There is a uniformity of suffering.

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2 - A Case Study in Delhi
Founded by Mughals, it is an area in Delhi where time seems to have stopped. One would find herself back in the Middle Ages if one goes to the lanes and by-lanes of Chandni Chawk.

Caught up in the vicious circle of poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment it's the story of about 400 Muslim widows who sometimes do not even get the bare necessities of life. Each widow has a heart-rending tale to reveal.

Living in the shadow of Jama Masjid, these women do not have any source of steady income. Some of them do get Rs 200/-per month from the MCD with the help of the Municipal Corporator, Shagufa Azhar. Some of the widows try to make a living by doing odd jobs like washing and cooking in the neighbouring houses, but most of the people living there are not in a position to employ domestic help.

One of the widows is Jamila Begum. With tears rolling down her cheeks, she reveals her story. Referring to financial aid, she said, "Kissi ko paisey lene mein khushi thodi milti hai." (We are taking this charity out of a necessity otherwise who feels happy in accepting money like this?). Another widow, Bano, says that her in-laws had thrown her out of the house immediately after her husband died and sent police at the time of her iddat (the time period during which she cannot meet any male). She says, " They filed four suits against me, may be because they thought that I would ask for a share in their property." Asked about her rights she says, "I'm not a woman who would fight back, I prefer to remain silent" and then she confided, "Who has money to spend on legal battles." She further adds, "We remain hungry the whole day and take a cup of tea and meal just once in a day "… aur guzaaraa ho jaataa hai." (Somehow we survive on it).

Thirty-five year-old Nusrat says, "Four years have passed since my husband died. With eight daughters I don't know where to go; nobody from my in-laws comes to see our plight, my son brings in twelve hundred rupees a month and we are living on it."

Another victim pleased by the fact that somebody had come to see the suffering and agony she was going through says, "beti ye akhbaar mein to chhaapegaa naa? Kissi ko pataa to chale". (I hope it would get published so that somebody would come to know about this).

Although the persistent tendency of people out here is to give religious sanctity to customs which don't allow women to go out and work, Hajira, a Qur'an teacher, says, "I teach Qur'an and its no where written in the heavenly book that women can't go out and work but its people all around who do not want to change their mentality."

Majority of the widows are suffering from ailments like back ache and eyes problems (most of them work as labourers on daily wages in fields like embroidery, makesh, etc, and too much stress results in the loss of eyesight.) One of the widows was suffering from paralyses; another had tumour in the stomach. There are other health problems also.

Many of the women have been victims of domestic violence. But with illiteracy and ignorance all around, a large number of them do not even know that they possess certain rights. Asked about Zakat (the fifth pillar of Islam which says that those who can afford must part with two and a half percent of their income to the poor.) Noori says, " I have never heard this term before and no body has ever come to help us out". Living with her three sisters, all of them unmarried, she says local people are apathetic towards us and look down upon us for remaining single. One of them said that if somebody asks me about the reason of living single, I simply say that 'Allah kaa hukum jo meri shadi nahin ho saki'. (It s God's wish that I am still single.)

Not only this, its not easy for the most of these women to go out and work because neighbours call them names and if a widow is young its all the more worse. Customarily women are imprisoned in household chores and cannot imagine life outside their doors. With male dominated society constantly imposing restrictions on them, the question is how would they earn a living? Or do they have a future?

The local Corporation member, Shagufa, says that earlier these widows used to get Rs. 200/-per month as pension and on persistent demand it has been increased to Rs 300/-, but it's too merge an amount. She blurted out "its like, Oont ke munh mein zeera." She demanded the setting up an NGO to take up such a big task.

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Plight of Families of the Widows Interviewed
This is not meant to be an exhaustive study. It is a preliminary attempt to see if such a study, on an expanded scale, is possible in a Muslim dominated area of Delhi. It has been conducted at a mini-scale in Chandni Chowk as a case study, selecting Muslim Widows at random. It covers 37 widows.

The case study is confined to two areas in the Walled City, i.e., Jama Masjid and Kucha Pundit. The study attempts to cover the socio-economic conditions of Muslim widows residing in these areas. The interviewees were chosen at random.

It turned out that some respondents called themselves as widows although they later revealed that they were divorcees. It was due to social stigma that they preferred to be known as widows or single women rather than divorcees. However, they have not been included in the study.

Our first visit was to Jama Masjid area. It is a very thickly populated area with a large network of lanes and by lanes (chattas). It is a difficult task to search for the concerned houses unless one is familiar with the place. The best way is to ask from the nearby shopkeepers or catch any other gray haired person and make inquiries.

We found during the visits to the houses of the widows here that most of them were living in families jointly with widowed daughter, grand children, etc. The houses were mostly congested with each family having one room of their own and a common loo or bathroom to use, with no proper kitchen. It was noticed in many families that the stove was kept on the floor of the living room and the side-shelves (taaq) used for kitchen equipment (tea leaves, cups, etc). Majority of these houses had broken floors and smoke-stained walls, these can be better described as overcrowded hovels, thick with grime.

Visits to some of the respondents highlighted the miserable living conditions, individual compromises with them and the bleak future of the families. The individual pattern was repeated case after case, compelling us to conclude that there were only shades of difference. An aged or a little younger woman with daughters at home and male, if any, out for work. No facilities for a sheltered bath, in some cases even no water in the room of habitation or nearby. Most of the women were not clear about the years or dates due to illiteracy and old age. Daughters were found to be slightly vocal, though they also appeared to be suppressed. In some cases where there were no males, the families were victims of harassment from neighbours. We also got the impression that a widow and her family were always under observation and lived in an atmosphere of suspicion, though sometimes they were eager to say that the 'neighbourhood was good'. We had a lurking hunch that may be they did not want to make any negative comment about the neighbours. There was no family that told us that the neighbours were helpful, though there were hints that sometimes, especially during Ramazaan, they received help.

The overall impression gathered during the visits to this area was that these were the widows belonging to the poorest urban sections. Neglected, deprived, and condemned to a life of penury, with droplets of aid from the State. Other relatives came into the picture here and there. In almost all the cases, the in-laws, if living, were never mentioned as being a helping hand. It was as if they had turned their back on the daughter-in-law after the death of their son.

Our next visit was to Kucha Pundit, another very thickly populated area. Like the Jama Masjid area, this area and its surroundings are also crowded with a web of lanes and by-lanes. Though divided into different gulis, the entire area is connected and one can enter from Lal Kuan, and emerge near Ajmeri Gate. This sprawling area is very thickly populated and congested. An old woman resident of Ballimaran told us, on inquiry about the residences of some widows, "Beti tumhein kis sey Milnaa hai? Yahaan to bhari hui hain." (Dear, whom do you want to see? This place is full of them).

In this area we discovered that there were smaller areas organised into 'Committees'. A Committee is a type of neighbourhood Panchayat and embraces all the residents of its territory. This Committee sits in decision on disputes concerning the members. Its membership is probably restricted to males. There was a case where one respondent's married daughter was living with her mother as sometime ago when she had delivered a son in the hospital, her husband had taken away the newly born infant and this girl had to come back to her mother as she had some chronic health problems. In this case, the local Committee met and forbade her from filing any complaint. In another case a widow told us that her grown up son was living with her and it was he who had the control of finances and family affairs and she had no idea of income, etc. Whenever she needed money for household affairs, she had to ask her son for it.

We felt one difference between the widow residents of the above two areas. The respondents of the Jama Masjid area were more forthcoming and vocal as compared to those in the Kucha Pundit area. Otherwise, in the living conditions, in the surroundings, in the level of poverty, education and illiteracy, etc., there was no marked difference between the two areas.

However, we came across one question repeatedly, i.e., "Why are you conducting this survey? Are you going to help us?" This almost made one feel guilty of raising false hopes in their hearts.

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Role of State Agencies
Since Delhi has a support system for widows introduced by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, details of the schemes were sought from the Corporation office. Two prominent Municipal Councilors of the area, one male and one female, were also contacted. It was found that the monetary support is distributed through the elected representatives. They were supposed to keep their own records. It was observed that these two were not always willing to make available their records; the female councilor though was more forthcoming on many counts. The male councilor either did not take the investigator seriously or had no interest in the working of the scheme.

As far as the government functionaries in the offices were concerned some of them did not seem to be familiar with the schemes or with information in their files. They did not appear to be involved in their work with a sense of responsibility. We might emphasise here that this type of responsibility requires a human and helping mindset.

It may be a good idea to involve people's representatives in a work that aims at welfare of the constituents. How much interest they would take depends upon their orientation, attitudes, and pressure from the beneficiaries. The fruitful working of a democratic system depends upon the commitment to the essence of democracy on the part of the people's representatives. The bureaucracy cannot be expected to replace the people's representatives in such a schema. As far as the universe studied is concerned, the beneficiaries of such schemes have to be made aware that they are not getting alms from the State or from the people's representatives. It is the duty of the State to look after them and to provide for their welfare. When they start understanding this, they will become conscious of their right and they may become vocal, and may not lose their self-respect by receiving such help from the State.

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Government Schemes
The Municipal Corporation of Delhi started the scheme of old age pension in February 1964. This grant of stipend began at Rs 25/- per annum to persons of the age of 65 and above, who did not have any support nor any source of income. Certain conditions were also prescribed for the purpose of giving this stipends to persons residing in Delhi who were 65 years old and above.

However, the amount has been revised by the Corporation over the years and the increased amount now stands at Rs 200/- per month with effect from April 2001.

This old age stipend or Wazeefa includes not only people who are above 65 years but also blind persons, widows, insane persons, crippled persons, and widowers irrespective of their age.

Certain guidelines have been issued regarding the distribution of this stipend in different wards and the necessary submission of application forms. Usually it's the area Councilor of different wards who looks after it. Earlier, a numerical quota of 300 persons per ward for receiving the Wazeefaa was fixed but presently the number has been increased to 400 because of the constantly increasing demands.

Recently the amount has been further increased to Rs 300/-, as was reported on 25th January 2002 in the Asian Age's Delhi Age supplement. It was reported that the Delhi Social Welfare Minister, Raj Kumar Chauhan, has announced that senior citizens with an individual income of Rs 22,000 per annum and who were getting Rs 200 per month by way of old age pension would benefit from the increased rate. It was reported that the pension for the fourth quarter would be remitted in the bank account of the pensioners at the rate of Rs 300 per month at the end of March. The minister said that the eligibility criteria for old age pension of individual income have also changed.

Another recently published report in The Hindu clarified that the Delhi Social Welfare Department had taken a new initiative with regard to disbursing old age pension. Social Welfare Minister, Raj Kumar Chauhan informed that from the next financial Year onwards, forms concerning the Widows' pension and those relating to financial assistance given to widows for the marriage of their daughters would also be distributed through the MLAs. Earlier, the Department issued the forms and it often led to allegations of bribery and corruption. It was alleged that these officials often took money to issue the forms In order to eliminate this element of corruption; it had been decided to issue the forms through the MLAs and Members of Parliament from Delhi as per the report.

To sum up, this turns out to be the story of the poorest urban segment of Muslim widows in Delhi. Forsaken, deprived, neglected, and may be even despised and looked-down upon, they are some of the Muslim widows of Chandni Chowk living a life of darkness.

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3 Statistical Appendices

Analysis of tables

1. Age Distribution
Beginning with the age distribution of interviewees, the statistical picture shows that the highest number of them, i.e., 29.7% was in the age group of 51-60 years whereas the lowest number, i.e., 2.70% was in the age group of 81-90 years.

A very high number, 25 out of 37 were between the ages of 30 to 60 years.

Table 1: Age distribution of wodows

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2. Age At Which Widowed
As far as the age at which they became widowed is concerned, the typical age covers the age groups from 31-35 and 46-50. The majority of the surveyed women were widowed between the ages of 31-50 years, with the highest number (21.6%) in the age groups of 31-35.

However, the picture depicts that 5.4% of the respondents were the youngest as they fell in the category of 20-25 years of age.

The above two sets of figure are important to asses the number of years they have to live in future as widows.

Table 2: Age At Which Widowed

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3. Widowhood Span
The moment a woman is widowed all her dreams shatter and it seems as though her life had come to a standstill, particularly in a type of society where she remains indoors due to a number of social factors, or alternatively. she has to spend the rest of the life toiling and suffering. Barring a few, who out of fear of God help them, hardly anybody comes to see what they are going through. Whether the span of widowhood is one year or thirty years, it seems a long sentence to hard labour and only time helps in healing the pain and agony.
In this study majority of respondents belonged to low-income group, mostly being labourers, their woes further increased on being plunged into widowhood.

The table below shows the widowhood span of 37 respondents, i.e., the life they had already spent as a widow at the time of the interview. Starting from less than one year to above thirty years' span of widowhood it is noticed that the highest number of respondents, i.e., 16.2% had been widowed for the past 3-4 years and 13.5% of respondents had been living as widows for the past 15-16 years.

Tables 2 and 3 together give us an idea of the span of years that these widows will have to spend without any support and also will have to try to make a fruitful life for their children. Their difficult years are going to be long.

Table 3 :Widowhood span of 37 widows interviewed

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4. Husband's Occupation
In the Indian families even in the 21st century generally the male member is the sole earner and therefore its entirely the husband, father, or brother on whose income the entire family depends. And death of anyone of them means beginning of hardships.

Although nobody has mentioned that their husband had more than one wife yet it cannot be definitely stated that they did not have any.

The following table No 4 presents the husband's occupation of the thirty-seven interviewees. The picture shows that majority of the respondents (56.7%) husband were labourers. It is noteworthy to know that none of the respondent's husband was in service. However, 8.1% plus 5.4% were engaged in some kind of business. 2.7% were engaged in small jobs, independently or otherwise. It is to be noted that 'business' and 'small business' were actually misnomers. No one had a shop for a business. Small business meant chhabri, or rehari, etc.


Table 4: Husband's occupation

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5. Size Of the Family
Family planning is not encouraged in poor families because every additional pair of hands can become a source of income and also because of the traditional belief that children are the gift of God. Yet in this study it is observed that the size of the family was not very large. Following Table 5 clearly shows that the highest number of respondents (35.1%) had 5-6 members in the family, whereas the lowest number of respondents (2.7%) had members in the range of 11-12 family members and also 5.4% respondents had 1-2 family members. Moreover, 27% of families had members in the group of 3-4 and 16.2% had 9-10 family members. 13.5% had 7-8 members in their family.

Table 5; Size of family

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6. Sons And Daughters
The previous Table included children and mother in the family.. The table here shows only the number of sons or/and daughters. The table is divided into three columns for this purpose. The first column titled as children's group consists of the number of children and columns second and third show the number of families with sons and daughters. It is noticed that majority of the families had sons in the children's group of 1-2 compared to daughters who fell in the category 3-4 of children's group. I t is also noticed that none of the families had sons in the group of 7-8 however, comparative to this, minimum number of families had daughters in this group. One should not read much in these figures, as the gender of the child is independent of human decisions.


Table 6: Sons and daughters

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7. Children's Education
Education is an important aspect of ones life, especially in a developing country like India where uneducated means remaining penniless. Although various literacy programmes have been introduced for educating masses yet only few are privileged to get this opportunity. This is what the data regarding children's education shows or can it be assumed that the message of spreading education has not yet reached out to the respondents, who are living in the heart of Delhi?

The Table 7 below reveals the educational structure of the respondents' families. It is seen that the highest number of sons took education till only 2-5th standard but comparative to this, it is found that largest number of daughters studied till Higher Secondary. It is important to know that few of them did reach B.A. (Final) but only 1 respondent's sons had done M.A.

It is also noteworthy that female literacy rate is higher as compared to that for males, which is clearly depicted by the row of uneducated/not studied at all. We found here that a larger proportion of the respondents' sons fell in this category, compared to daughters. Daughters appeared to be more upward bound in the field of education. Eleven out of thirty-four sons, and nine out of forty-one daughters did not go to school.

Table 7: Children's education


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8. Work Status
Our entire life revolves around employment work, this is the only way of securing income. However status of work as per the above table shows that highest number of respondents was engaged in stitching/handicraft whereas second highest number of them had no work, either due to non-availability of work or because of old age and health problems. As a result it was the children of these respondents who helped them at a younger age, in earning a living. Maximum number of respondents' daughters were involved in handicraft/ stitching, and embroidery, etc. As for the work status of their sons, it's found that majority of them were engaged in service/labourer category.

Table 8: Work status

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9. Income Structure
One significant thing, which needs to be highlighted here, is that 10.8% of the interviewees had no steady income at all. They were surviving on whatever food, clothing or pocket money they got from their close relatives or others sources. The table also shows that the slightly less than one third of the widows had incomes in the range of 101/- to 1000/- (32.4 %); another 13.5% were in the range of Rs. 1000/- to Rs. 1500/- per month (i.e., 45% of the widows interviewed were living with a monthly income ranging between Rs. 101/- and Rs. 1500/-).

Table 9: Income structure

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10. Health Problems
While discussing socio-economic problems, it is necessary to mention health. The data regarding health problems that we obtained in the survey shows that the bulk of the respondents had eye problems. Second highest number of them had backache problems. The third highest number reported chronic headache. Next came chest pain described as TB or pneumonia. An equal number reported circulatory problems described as Heart problem or BP. Others reported anaemia, leg pain, etc. In most cases the basic health problem seemed to by poverty and widowhood. The poor rarely enjoy good health. The younger generator seemed to enjoy better health.

As far as respondent's children are concerned, it is found that an equal number of daughters were anemic and had eyes problem; also equal number of them had backache and chest pain problems. However, a large number of daughters did not have any problems or probably they did not want to reveal it. But compared to them, sons had lesser health problems, may be because they are not generally confined to the four walls of the house. It is noteworthy that we came across families where in one case the son was suffering from dwarfishness and in another case the son was prescribed complete bed rest due to some other problem. The table below gives a complete picture.

Table 10: Health problems

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11. Social Problems
Illiteracy and over powering pressures of poverty seemed to make them say that their social problem was future. They did not seem to be mentally tuned to think of any other 'social problem' Only six of the respondents answered the question, that too on being prompted by the children, especially daughters. It is the daughters that seemed to be aware that the future was going to be a long period of struggle.

Table 11: Social problems

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12. Aspirations
The study serves no purpose if we do not visualise the future pattern and structure of the hopes and aspirations of respondents.

The following table clearly demonstrates that almost all of them had no time to indulge in building castles in the air. Worrying for source of livelihood and getting the daughter married seemed to he their highest aspiration. Some were convinced that their children had no future.

Table 12: Aspirations & view of future

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Select Bibliography
Chhibbar, Y.P. From Caste to Class, 1968

Davidson, Lawrence. Islamic Fundamentalism: Guides to Historic Events of the Twentieth Century. Greenwood Press, 1998

Guild of Service. Widows: Victims of Discrimination (Year not mentioned)

Gupta, Vineeta, Dr. World bank funded health care: A death certificate for poor-Focus on Punjab, 2001.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. State of Human Rights-An interim report 1993

Tadros, Marlyn. Rightless women, Heartless Men: Egyptian Women and Domestic Violence, 1998


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