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Old 08-09-2007, 05:09 PM   #1
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The City of Widows

A good example of how senseless it is to romanticize "the good old days" when women were raised to be dependent on one man for their sustenance.
Quote:
India's expanding city of widows

By Mian Ridge
Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 9


VRINDAVAN, INDIA -- Surina Devi, a matronly 70–year-old in a brown crepe sari, had a so-so life, she says, until her shopkeeper husband died four years ago. For reasons she is unable or loath to explain, the former housewife from a rural village near Patna, in Bihar, was left with "nothing, nothing." So Ms. Devi did what poor Indian widows have been doing for centuries: She packed a bag and made her way to Vrindavan, a holy town in northern India that is also known as the City of Widows. After a night sleeping on the pavement, she found a bed in an crowded ashram – a house of prayer – for widows, where she says she will spend the rest of her life.

But it's not much of a life. And this town where 16,000 women dress in white – the color of death – is growing, according to a new report. The survey, published last month by the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the Delhi-based Guild of Service, an Indian charity for widows, illuminates the harsh realities for Vrindavan's widows. It reveals that 40% of women here were married before the age of 12. [Illegal since Independence, but it still happens, though much less so than in the mid-20th century. --y.] A third were so impoverished that they traveled to Vrindavan without a train ticket. But perhaps the more startling fact is that despite India's economic ascension and its increasing exposure to global cultural forces, the report offers anecdotal evidence that the number of widows flocking to the town is on the rise.

According to the report's author, it is poverty and a lack of independence, not spiritual devotion, that has turned the City of Widows into a kind of boomtown. In many cases, the pressures of modern Indian life have exacerbated the brutality of tradition, as an increasing number of Indian children refuse to care for their parents, male or female, says Mittal Patel, manager of a government-funded ashram in Vrindavan.
"Children are less supportive than they used to be," says Ms. Patel.

If this is so, few of the mothers now living in Vrindavan will admit it. "Only yesterday, my son telephoned and said he is coming to fetch me," says Chavi Das, a tiny, elderly woman in a canary-yellow sari, as she squats on the courtyard veranda of the Aamir Bari ashram with a dozen other elderly women. Rukmani, who goes by one name and is "60 or 70," shakes her head vigorously when she says she has no children. But a moment later, she mumbles bitterly that she is a "hot-headed woman" and it is her fault that things went wrong with her daughter-in-law.

Widows have come to Vrindavan since the 16th century, when it became known as the place where Krishna, the blue-skinned incarnation of Vishnu, danced as a child. Here they pray that this most personable of the Hindu gods, often depicted as a cute, plump-cheeked toddler, will grant them moksha, or freedom, from the cycle of birth and rebirth. But more than that, they hope that the material benefits of Vrindavan, with its 5000 temples and numerous alms-giving ashrams, will allow them to survive a little longer in this life.

As poor as she is, Rukmani is comparatively well off. At Aamir Bari, the 110 residents are encouraged to wear the brightly colored saris of their former lives. They watch television, cook, and gossip. More important, Aamir Bari is the only ashram in Vrindavan that provides three meals a day. Elsewhere, widows must earn their bread by singing in temples.

At 3 p.m. in the center of town, more than 1000 women in grubby white saris shuffle into the dimly lit hall of a temple for the second of two lengthy hymn-singing shifts. First they queue up to receive a small plastic token from the temple. Then they sit in rows on the floor, facing a shrine to Krishna and Radha, his beautiful lover. Several women are lying down. One, with trembling hands, unfolds a sheet of waterproof plastic and carefully arranges it beneath her. And then the singing begins: 3-1/2 hours of Hare Rama, Hare Krishna to the roll of drums and clashing of cymbals. After the song, the women slowly rise and line up again, this time exchanging each coupon for three rupees from the temple's cashier. [Three rupees is about 7 cents. --y.] "It's a kind of torture, sitting there for hours," says Maduri Devi, a feisty white-haired resident at the government-funded Meera Sahbhagini Mahila ashram, where she sits on a charpoy, girlishly swinging her legs.

Though Ms. Devi and her 300-plus fellow residents are given a daily food ration, it is not enough to live on, says the widow of a homeopathic doctor from Patna in Bihar. "I have lived a much better life than this," she says proudly. "But many of the women here are poorer than me and for them, I don't think this life is so bad."
For widows who previously worked a farm with their husbands, this is less likely to happen, because then they'd at least have farming skills and--in most cases--legal rights to some or all of that land. For widows from upper class families, this is less likely to happen because they'd probably not only be literate (45% of Indian women still aren't, and that number rises with age and in rural areas), but quite possibly also have college degrees or higher, perhaps even some past work experience to draw upon, as well as greater likelihood of "connections" to profitable work through relatives. And of course turning out or abandoning a widowed daughter-in-law (or mother) isn't typical; most families continue to keep them in the home and perhaps try to find a remarriage match if they're not elderly, or a brother or nephew might take them in, or their own eldest son, as prescribed by tradition, might take responsibility for providing for them--although, as the article mentions, the latter system is slowly but surely breaking down in the face of changing socioeconomic realities. Still, this leaves hundreds of thousands of Indian widows (Vrindavan is famous for that, but far from the only place you'll see it) in the lurch. I've seen ashrams for widows with far worse conditions than those described in the article, but on the other hand, at least they're doing something.
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Old 08-09-2007, 07:13 PM   #2
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I watched a documentary on this relatively recently. It's quite heartbreaking. The ashrams only house a certain number of widows, while many others are left on the street to beg (or even join prostitution rings). These are women without a face, without a name, in a country of over one billion, who will die in complete anonymity.
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Old 08-09-2007, 08:26 PM   #3
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I heard about that city when I was in India. It is really sad that now, when I've just read about 5 realistic fiction and non fiction books on women in Afghanistan, I feel like the Indian woman are lucky for having a place to go when they are widowed.
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Old 08-10-2007, 08:01 AM   #4
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What do you do when the demand cannot be met, especially in a country with such a massive population living in utter poverty, too. It's always seemed a country which focuses on providing for it's children, at least those who can, but not so much for the ageing parents.
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Old 08-11-2007, 09:16 PM   #5
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^ Yes...there are specific cultural factors involved as well, but one way or another, they all boil down to the problem of what do you do with people who are a net drain on household resources and likely to remain so, in a country where so many are desperately poor.
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Originally posted by Varitek
I heard about that city when I was in India. It is really sad that now, when I've just read about 5 realistic fiction and non fiction books on women in Afghanistan, I feel like the Indian woman are lucky for having a place to go when they are widowed.
Did you come across any guesstimates of how many Afghan widows are homeless? I know the number of widows there is proportionately higher (mostly due to all the wars of the last 30 years), and of course that's a poorer country with much lower female literacy rates and a more conservative culture, but I haven't myself seen much data on the situation of widows there. In places like Herat and Kabul there are some widows' homes offering similar services to those of Vrindavan's ashrams, but I assume such places are rare to nonexistent outside the cities. (As they generally are in India, as well...and, as anitram mentioned, there are far too many homeless widows in India for the 'widow ashrams' to accommodate them all.) The two countries do have in common, as do most others in the broader South Asian cultural sphere, a traditional cultural taboo against widow remarriage--a sense that a widow is 'spoiled goods' or 'bad luck'--further complicating things, and my understanding is that that taboo remains quite pervasive and widespread in Afghanistan. Particularly among Brahmin castes in rural areas, this is not infrequently still a factor in India as well.
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Old 09-05-2007, 05:34 AM   #6
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India needs to trash it's caste system. It needs some kind of a cultural revolution or uprising. It would be cruel & kill millions, but is needed. Sorry I just had to say that.
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Old 09-05-2007, 06:37 AM   #7
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Why would it have to be a cruel and violent revolution?
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Old 09-05-2007, 08:20 AM   #8
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Do you honestly think it could be achieved without bloodshed? As for providing for children - in some areas having a female child is seen as a curse because of the dowry that has to be given at marriage.
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Old 09-05-2007, 11:00 AM   #9
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You bumped a month-old thread for that?

I don't see how it addresses the thread topic.
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Old 09-06-2007, 05:17 AM   #10
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Sorry but this board seems ridiculously obsessive & unfriendly. Bye.
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