July 06, 2009

Markers of marriage

Meena Kandasamy

RECENTLY, I PARTICIPATED in the launch function of a documentary film Pottu about the hardships and social humiliation faced by widows and deserted women in Tamil Nadu. Produced by the Kalangarai Trust which works among the widows in the southern district of Nagappattinam (particularly in Vedaranyam, Sirkaali and Poompuhaar), the 50-minute documentary attempts to describe the torture that widows are forced to undergo in the name of tradition. The documentary started off with a young girl’s story: the gaudy ceremony surrounding puberty, her early marriage (to prevent the chance of the family name getting “spoiled” if she were to be left “free”), the dowry that her parents are forced to pay, the hard work that she is forced to do in her husband’s home, his alcoholism and domestic violence, his death and finally, her enforced widowhood. Although Pottu seemed to make of every cinematic cliché, some issues highlighted by the documentary deserve to be taken up for debate.

Bangle-breaking ceremonies (where all the symbols of marriage: the red kumkum mark (pottu), the thaali (mangalsutra) are removed) are notoriously common in Tamil Nadu’s southern villages. In fact, these ceremonies are conducted before dawn, when even the gods are supposedly sleeping, because such a merciless sight is capable of disturbing even them.

Not only is a woman forced to undergo emotional agony because of her husband’s absence, but she is also forced to face social humiliation. The things that society puts forward as symbols of femininity and desirability are snatched away overnight. Widows are systematically kept out of social functions (celebration of menarche or marriage), they are stigmatized and heaped with abuse and they are denied all decision making at the family level. They are also denied civil rights–commonly-held beliefs discriminate widows by virtue of their being considered “inauspicious”. Tamil proverbs say that to see a widow early in the morning effectively ruins a day, and so on.

Yesterday, the women who were the driving force behind the documentary Pottu, got together and announced that soon they would be hosting the first international conference of widows, destitute and deserted women. They have two demands: laws to prosecute people who abuse widows in degrading terms and social, economic, legal rehabilitation for the widows.

There are several reasons why such a project has emerged from Tamil Nadu. According to a statistics by the Kalangarai Trust approximately 10% of the households in the state are headed by widows, and that 24% of the widows live alone. Majority of the widows are mothers of the head of the household. Their study also shows that the highest concentration of widows (8.06% of the general population) in Tamil Nadu arises from two categories of widows particular to the southern-coastal districts of the state: Tsunami widows and widows of men who have succumbed to HIV/AIDS. A large number of them work as daily wage labourers.

Tamil widows face a particular problem because of the manner in which their language subjugates them. The English word widow has an equivalent masculine form widower (which might carry fewer negative connotations may be, but at least a word exists). There’s no equivalent masculine form for the word vidhavai (widow) in Tamil. On the other hand, in popular practice, a just-widowed man is humorously referred to as the pudhu maapillai (new bridegroom)–perhaps enshrining the fact that he would soon be married to someone.

Widowhood is also becoming a problem that cuts across cultures. No longer are Hindu widows alone subjected to such torment. Even a religion like Islam, where there’s no bar on widow remarriage, is being influenced by local practices. At the documentary release function, a Muslim woman lamented how her own community was now following these meaningless practices which has historically plagued the Hindu religion.

The efforts of William Benetick and Raja Rammohun Roy put an end to the Sati system in 1829. The Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856. Another hundred years later, the Child Marriage Restraint Act came into place. Every reformer and every revolutionary on the Indian soil has voiced about the condition of widows: Phule opened a home for widows and abandoned children, Dr. Ambedkar traced the roots of the sati system in the necessity to maintain/preserve the endogamous caste structure, Periyar argued for widow remarriage. Even a middle-of-the-road traditionalist reformer like Gandhi condemned the practice of widowhood in no uncertain terms. Pandita Ramabai became an icon by speaking out against the heinous nature of imposed widowhood.

Today, as women fight against gender injustice and social indignity, they are forced to confront several challenges: how to oppose cultural facets that alienate widows, how to create alternative cultural symbols that don’t differentiate between women, how to develop a policy framework not only for widows but also for single women in India and especially how to fight against a hypocritical system where the oppressor is not someone from the outside, but one’s own blood, one’s own family? Perhaps this is one area where there is no dearth of Hindi/Tamil films that describe the plight, but there is a paucity of public debate and discussion.

(p.s.: Women members of this organization demanded (rightfully of course) that they should be allowed to wear bangles, wear flowers, and above all, wear the pottu. However, every ‘invited’ speaker pointed out that all women should unite to throw away the markers of marriage and/or femininity such as the bangles/flowers/pottu/thaali and so on? All of us might agree that these are decisions which women should take as individuals, and not just as a category, but then, what’s your take on this?)

16 comments to Markers of marriage

  • apu

    Great piece, Meena! I hope the film gets wider coverage. In this context, the highly retrogressive portrayal of widows in much of Tamizh cinema is worth noting. I remember the famous scene in that super-hit movie, ‘Chinna Thambi’, where the villain gets back at the hero, and how? By splashing kumkum on his widowed mother’s forehead, which of course is the ‘ultimate disgrace’, whereupon the hero comes in and redeems her ‘honour’ by erasing the kumkum with a splash of dirty water! Movies keep helping to perpetuate the idea of what a widow is ‘meant’ to be… eternally sorrowful, only interested in her children and never of course the possibility of a life of her own…

  • Ilina

    Nicely written and does bring to light the plight of many widows.
    Just wanted to point out, in hindi also a widow is called vidhwa, and it has a masculine equivalent- vidhur. I dont know about tamil though. Anyhow, masculine equivalent or not, life for a man is not forcibly stopped if his wife dies.
    Media is so powerful-cinema, theatre, television… I hope all these are utilised in a positive way to strengthen this fight and not demolarise as apu gave an example in his comment.

  • life after the husband’s death becomes so tough that even the word widow sounds abusive and more like a swear word to me. what is most disturbing is that many women support such isolation and disparaging treatment.the impose it on themselves. and its not only in families with a problem of alcoholism or illiteracy. it exists even in the urban familial set up. i think its important that we realise that our freedoms are independent of the spouse, and his death cannot deprive us of dignity.

  • Apu, yes, that scene is still etched in my memory, and it’s something that I do really hate. That particular scene was also played out on another level actually–pottu vaipatthu, keeping the pottu, is supposed to be a sign of consummation of a marriage, hence husbands bestowed the right to actually ‘mark’ a woman. In this case, the villain turns the same into an ultimate disgrace. And thanks for pointing out about the retrogressive portrayal of widows in Tamil cinema. Director/ filmmaker Lenin who spoke on that occasion said that Tamil people picked up the “right procedures” of the bangle-breaking ceremony (or even the highly cinematic “first-nights”) only by watching movies which do no small amount of harm by popularizing practices which rob women of their dignity.

    Ilina, yes… Perhaps Tamil too had a word which fell into disuse and is no longer used. There’s a word for widower in Tamil too (but not in the higher/written gloss, but in everyday slang).

    Nivedita, agree wih you. 100 percent. 🙂

  • Revathi

    Very good article.We have come a long way from the burning or even head shaving days. However, their situation both economic and social context is pretty precarious. I am proud to say that my sister, a widow overcame great barriers to assist all the functions of her daughter’s wedding. Cinema is, in my opinion is pretty retrograde-tamil cinema in particular that is so male dominated. Muslim women should come out and use the freedom that islam has given them in terms of divorce and remarriage.

  • Anindita Sengupta

    Nice article, Meena. Besides the fact that it reflects how women are not considered worth anything without their male guardians, this also ties back to the status marriage has in society, as the ‘default’ desirable life state. I wish we’d outgrow this obsession with wanting to neatly pair up the world.

    At a totally different level of suffering (but suffering all the same), my mother keeps facing this annoying thing where various companies (Country Club, timeshare etc) call her up with offers or gifts and when they hear she is a widow, they say “Oh sorry, then you cannot benefit from this. It’s for couples.”

  • Prabha Krishnan

    Media is certainly powerful, but what about religious types who “uphold” collective morality. Decades ago when the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham head visited, my widowed mother demanded to be taken to visit the function. I asked her why she would want to honour a man who dishonoured all women and she said I wouldn’t understand. I did escort her and spent my time outside the venue waiting for the function to be over and for my mom to recieve his “blessings”.
    Currently the serial Ballika Vadhu is raising issues in a dramatic vein, but given its popularity and generally engaging storyline, it might do some good. Some of us are bringing out a book on the ideology of motherhood in India. Among many good papers,C S Lakshmi’s paper on Tamil films is worth a read. Shortly to be published by Taylor Francis.

  • S.R.Srinivasan

    I remember seeing old ladies in Madras some 50 , 55 years back wearing brown , 9 yds sarees with no jewelery with shaven heads.
    But when my father died we did not even think as mentioned about our mother. She continued as she was always.
    But then we are neither traditional or modern!

  • ‘all women should unite to throw away the markers of marriage and/or femininity such as the bangles/flowers/pottu/thaali and so on? All of us might agree that these are decisions which women should take as individuals, and not just as a category, but then, what’s your take on this?)’
    For the last several months, mostly due to my utter disgust with rising fundamentalist thought, I consciously stopped wearing my bindi/pottu. Here’s the link to what I had to say:

  • Revathi, yes, it takes a lot of courage to overcome these barriers. Once widows had to fight for the right to life, now they are fighting for the right to live with dignity.

    Anu, stupid people these clubwallahs are. They must brush up on their English really, and offer these offers to every woman–haven’t they heard of the phrase “merry widow”–there’s really no such merry married-woman-with-husband-alive..

    Prabha, glad that you wrote of what the Kanchi seer had to say. Really retrograde views about widows, and working women. As if being footloose and fancy free was all that they could be.. And even in that case, I still refuse to understand how that can make them any less “religious” (since that’s what his area of his interest should be)..

    Srini, I hate to disagree, but I live in an area where there are too many elite upper castes, and one of my neighbours does where that saree, with a shaven head. People don’t really change their practices so easily. And this lady stays with just her son, but god knows why he wants to keep seeing her in that state of suffering?

    Dipali, yes, no bindi does make a great statement… i gave up wearing one a long time back much to the chagrin of my relatives. One of my aunt remarks that my forehead resembles a cremation ground, that’s its really barren and so on.. and i compliment her on her imagination. wearing a pottu/bindi is also a part of protectionist discourse. Some well-meaning (?) women have advised me that if I wear a pottu a guy cannot look into my eyes and hypnotize/mesmerize me, because the red dot will distract him… But then, that’s so stupid, ‘coz why wouldn’t I want to be not mesmerized by a handsome man?

  • Rekha Sameer

    That was excellent read. However, some of the the so called symbols of marriage that you have described are in my opinion not necessarily so. We all wear bangles , pottu, flowers from the time we sprout hair as little girls. But for the thali, the rest are worn to celebrate our femininity isnt it?..The fact these are adornments to the ultimate celebration that of being a female.
    What one tends to forget is that Indian society relies a lot on symbolism and signals. One must understand i am not trying to condone these practices but trying to look at the practicle reasons why such practices came into use in the first place. Indian society is a consevative one and we all rely on visual signals for us to take the decisions. The ceremony that takes places when a girl matures and the dress code she needs to abide by is surely a way to tell the society and the cummunity to treat her now as an mature adult? The symbols such as thali that come with marriage signify a change in the status of that girl who is now a responsible householder? The fact that widows dont wear certain symbols is again a way for them to tell society to treat them with a certain propriety? If we all went to the temple, these symbols indicate to the priest how to treat the women with the respect they deserve. He wont offer the kumkum to the widow just by glacing at her forehead and thereby save her embarrassment in the communal place such as the temple.

    I am of course full of admiration of women who see themselves as individuals and not as extentions to their husbands and therefore have the confidence to live their lives in their own terms. Women should be given the choice. This awareness of course will come with education. Indians seem to give hig scores for someone who is highly educated but i feel this sort of education is one which has the horses reins over their eyes! Education must not be just academic but needs to be applied to all aspects of soceity especially the social aspect. Education is not just about material pursuit of A,B,C,D,MBA,CA,MBBS,BE and is meaningless unless applied to circumventing taboos and inhuman social practices and focus on solving social problems that beset our soceity.

  • Rekha Sameer

    Actally many years ago when i went to see the first kanchi swamigal, I was in the room when a well heeled gentleman introduced himself to the guru and swamigal asked hi a few questions about his business, about his brithers death and about the will of the brother. This guys said that his brother died without a will and the family had taken over everything. He was wearing thick gold chains and looked very properous. Swamigal then asked him what was the state of his brothers widow? What had he done to ensure her well being? Was she consulted in the discussion about her future? Did he do his duty to her and give her the respect she deserved. The hall by now was full of stunned people and deathly silence! the fact i still remembered it now after 25 odd years!!!.The man left the hall with his head bent in shame!!!
    It was afterwards i heard that the family had totally disregared the brothers wife and she was treated as a servant in the household and every asset incldg the jewellery she got from her mother was taken away from her!
    Its not disease or poverty that is the mail malais for indians; its avariciousness!..I know within my own family how money/land/property/houses/jewellery has split borthers and sisters and broken up families!

  • Selvi

    Oppressed Brahmin widows are wailing in the land of periyar. See here:

    Brahmin men and women singing manusmrithi in temple. See here:

  • excellent article… cities started changing… may be it may take longer for the rural sectors to change.. my home town is very small village in trichy, my own anni (who is called as MALADI, by all other so-called-mothers) experience various humiliation, I hate going to village for this.. whenever there is a function she stands alone outside, she never enters in… may be my brother is a good person, he never bothers about this, but the society – i mean our villagers even dont agree upon adopting a child.. its like a crime…!!!! this small village is called VAYIRISETTIPALAYAM… may be it takes 2 or 3 decades for them to change…

  • Jab

    so what exactly does 16 petri perumvalvu valga means? what 16 things?

  • Well written, sensitive, & fairly eshaustive article.
    .. But it talks about the issues more than how they are presented in the actual film.

    Though not the technical details like camera work, structure of the film… I would have liked it more if only you had mentioned only two scenes which illuminated these issues, the scenes that took a grip over you.

    For Example: You remeber: in Benegals ‘Ankur’ when a young feudal lord beats the dumb husband of his maid, with whom he has a sexual relationship. And the end when a boy throws stone and breaks the window of this young feudal lord.

    Or in Girish kasarwali’s film ‘Thaisaibha’, when the woman of the house steps out for the first time in her life when her husband is arrested.

    Or in Adoors Mukhamukham When a communist revolitionary who returns dis-illusioned, and a drunkard. He has become defunct.

    At the end he is murdred. ( though it is kept intentionally vague, we understand that a young man who had adored him most; has done it for his idol. etc.

    I know that it is not a film criticism… yet.

    Maybe the people who commented on your article had already seen the film and obviously are well versed in your language and cinema.


    Meghnad Kulkarni

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