23 June is International Widows’ Day, which is a UN awareness day set up to highlight the plight of widows around the world. It was started by the Loomba Foundation in response to the situation facing many widows in parts of Asia and Africa - and the harmful, degrading and even life-threatening traditional practices as part of burial and mourning rites.
The charity WAY Widowed and Young is aware that these practices also have an impact on widows in the Asian community in the UK. To highlight some of these challenges, three widows based in the UK share their stories...
"The phone rang and I received bad news... news of losing yet another family member who was only 41. Father of twins who were just 10 months old. His devastated wife came on the phone and said to me (in Indian) 'mei bhi tere jaisi ho gayi' meaning ‘I have also become like you’. Like me, I thought to myself I wished she would have never become like me - a WIDOW in an Indian family. I could sense the fear of being a widow in her voice, like she was saying to me 'now I will be thought less of by people, like you were'.
Widow - still considered a very inauspicious and shameful status in Indian culture... Something that you are constantly reminded of by members of our society.
Widows are still accused of being responsible for their husband’s death and are expected to have a spiritual life with many restrictions, which can affect them - both mentally and physically. Although widows today are not forced to die in ritual Sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre), they are still generally expected to mourn until the end of their lives. They are thought to carry bad luck so are not welcomed at special occasions like weddings and baby showers etc.
Here are my thoughts and experiences of widowhood... I am a wife, whose husband is waiting on the other side. My husband crossed over to the next world 8 years ago, very suddenly, due to a cardiac condition we didn’t know anything about at the time. My world was content, happy and full of love; and then in a second, due to my husband’s passing, it became a dark dungeon of sorrow and grief.
I was widowed at 29 years of age... Forced to be separated from my husband due to God’s will. Something I never wanted or dreamt of. That was the point I realised how hard it is to be a widow in Indian society. I was looked at as damaged goods. Someone who is worthless just because my man wasn’t by my side now.
In Indian culture, a widow is shunned and old traditions (that make no sense in this day and age) are still somehow enforced on us. Grief of losing the love of your life is hard enough, but to then having to deal with traditions of not wearing a certain colour or sitting in a room full of people where every single judgmental eye is watching you. It is hard.
I feel that our society needs to change their attitude towards widows. Us widows are still humans and have all the feelings/emotions like every other human being breathing on this planet, even though our husband has died. Rather than telling us what colour to wear, what events to attend or if you attend then stand back from which ceremonies or how to act because people will be watching us, treat us with respect that you give to any other human. We have lost enough in our lives to then be told how to live the rest of it a certain way. That’s the last thing we want after losing our soulmate.
In these seven years, there have been times where I have been made to feel less than everyone else around me but that has made me stronger. I remember attending a wedding ceremony of a close family member. I stood there waiting for my turn to apply henna on the bride and when I stepped towards the plate to pick henna up, I heard a voice in the background saying, 'Oh no, now is she gonna do that too, she isn’t meant to, she is a widow.'
Or at another ceremony where I didn’t even touch anything and just stood there with other family members who were performing the ceremony, I saw this older woman (who is also a widow) staring at me with frowns on her forehead saying to the others 'why is she standing there, does she not know, she shouldn’t be there it’s bad luck.'
There have been occasions where I have been told that it would be better if I don’t wear make up because some people attending the wedding will frown at me for being too dressed up.
I have planned to go and meet old friends but before I left the house to go I was given advice 'make sure you don’t talk too much and too openly and freely or loudly and full of life, you don’t know what they will think of you. Make sure you are calmer especially because it’s after your husband's death.'
Time and my experience have personally made me grow a thicker skin to not be upset at comments thrown at me without consideration of my feelings. It’s taken me time to understand that it’s not that I am not welcome at special occasions, it’s just some people’s perception. I have realised that if one person is superstitious in the room and feels that my presence on a special occasions brings bad luck, then that is one person's thought and not the reality. I need to rise above that thought process and live my life as any other human being.
I have been able to do that with the help of lovely people I have met through WAY Widowed and Young, a charity that believes in peer to peer support while we are all grieving. My WAY friends have made me feel alive again and made me understand my feeling are valid and I do matter.
Today, to mark this occasion of International Widows' Day, let's hope that our culture becomes more accepting of us widows and we are no longer looked at as damaged goods. I just hope and pray that I never hear fear in someone’s voice ever again that she has become like me. I hope our society can give courage and strength to someone who ends up becoming like me. That our society understands that all widows needs at that time is their love and support not judgement and rules or arguments or insults thrown at us.
Understand that a widow has not only lost a primary person that she was closest to in her life - her soulmate - but when she loses her husband, she also faces loss of faith, loss of dreams for the future, loss of identity, loss of general sense of security, loss of confidence, loss of income, loss of support system, loss of financial security, loss of intimacy, loss of social status and circle, loss of parenting partner, loss of best friend and a confidant, loss of health, loss of routine, loss of normal, loss of decision help, loss of her biggest cheerleader, loss of youth, loss of expected future, loss of shared dreams and plans, loss of the greatest emotional support, and in some worst cases even loss of home and or job and so much more. Think, next time before anyone tries to enforce a meaningless tradition or judgement on a widow let’s think and let’s respect and support a widow!”
You can hear Sweena share her heartbreaking story on WAY's Instagram Live series to mark International Widows' Day here...
Nisha was widowed in October 2017. Her husband died of cancer at the age of 32 when she was six weeks pregnant. As well as facing the challenges of being widowed young and pregnant, Nisha found that she faced cultural expectations around being an Asian widow too. She was expected to dress plainly in honour of her late husband.
"Historically there has always been a lot of stigma attached to being an Asian widow," says Nisha. "Women have been expected to live a very plain life... no glamour, no make up, no participation in auspicious events. And moving on into another relationship was – and in some cultures still is – frowned upon."
"My mum lost her husband (my dad) when she was 29 and, despite her young age, she faced a lot of these issues," adds Nisha. "Although my dad passed away 30 years ago and attitudes have somewhat changed, there are still many Asians with these old-fashioned attitudes. Family and friends raising eyebrows at widowed women who try to live with a more 'Western' attitude can make an already difficult life even more difficult and they often feel trapped."
In 2018, Nisha decided to set up a closed Facebook group to offer a place where Asian women facing these issues could come together and share their feelings with others who understand. This group currently has 46 members.
"It's a place for others who, like myself, don't agree with old-fashioned ways," she says. "It's a place to encourage other women to be strong and stand up for themselves, to live freely, the way they did before their husband's passing, and to pave the way for the future. It's also just a group to rant, laugh and make friends."
Please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to find out more about the group Nisha has set up.
"Being a widow is hard enough, but it is made even harder when you a widow of South Asian origin, even in the UK. Three months after my husband died, his parents took out legal action against me for my house, my shop and my husband's life insurance money. They did everything to cause me maximum pain and heartache.
After his death, they acted as if everything that was my husband's belonged to them. They wanted every asset that he had and wanted to leave me and my children homeless. It took me over three years to fight them and costs me tens of thousands of pounds to sort out. Eventually I had to pay them off so they would leave me alone. I wasn't given the opportunity to grieve for my husband because I had a massive legal mess to sort out, as well as being a single parent, working full time and keeping a roof over our heads. I am so grateful that I became widow in the UK - if I was in India, my fate would have been far worse through the bad treatment of women and widows.
As an Indian widow - and especially as a young one - I have faced stigma whereby you are seen as a bad omen and the bringer of bad luck. I haven't been invited to weddings because people think that I will curse the couple and the bride will lose her husband and become a young widow. Another cultural thing is that widows are not expected to get married again - especailly if they have kids.
I am so fortunate that my family is very modern and we don't believe in treating widows as third-class citizens. I have the freedom to do what I want, date who I want and am not expected to wear white. I now have the freedom to make a beautiful life for my children and myself."
Please note that some names have been changed in these stories in order to protect people's identities.