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On the rights of widows

Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy was an early and consistent advocate of widow remarriage. The excerpt that follows is from an article published in August 1926.

Intelligent people will agree that the creator has not endowed men and women with different faculties. Is it possible to find any difference between men and women, setting aside the physical features, in sharpness of intellect or in qualities of courage and heroism? It is not possible at all.

There are, in both men and women, intellectuals, courageous people as well as stupid and cowardly people. While this is the case, it is unfair and wicked on the part of the haughty male population to continue to denigrate and enslave the female population.

Among the atrocities perpetrated by the Hindu male population against women, here we have to consider the treatment meted out to widows alone.

Even a very old man who is already satiated with worldly pleasures tries to marry again, as soon as his wife is dead. He also selects a very beautiful and graceful maid to be his bride. But, if a girl loses her husband, even before knowing anything of worldly pleasures, she is compelled to close her eyes to everything in the world and die broken-hearted. What a great injustice!

It is extremely  cruel on the part of the Hindu brethren to witness the gradual destruction suffered by one half of their society, without taking any action.

In the past, it was customary for a woman who lost her husband to jump into his funeral pyre. When efforts were being taken to stop this practice of self-immolation, called Sati, the orthodox people indulged in a great agitation saying that Hindu religion was in danger and the orthodoxy was getting destroyed. But in course of time, the agitation died out and the practice of Sati also stopped altogehter.

Now, the practice of preventing widows from marrying again is a partial and cruel one. Allowing an old man who has lost his wife to marry again and preventing even a young childless widow from getting married again, this attitude is far from impartial and just.

It is reasonable to say that the remarriage of a widow interferes with her chastity. Widows lose their chastity and get destroyed only because we don't get them remarried. Some young widows who seek to satisfy their physical passion become pregnant and seek to destroy the child in the womb.

To whom will this sin of infanticide go? It will go only to the parents who compel young widows to continue to be widows and not get remarried. Leaving alone the young women who do not wish to marry again, it is always good to get other young widows remarried.

When some friends read such ardent advocacy of widow remarriage, they may wonder if my support of this proposition is only verbal or if I have taken active participation in any widow-remarriage. Jut to clear this doubt at least, I wish to record what I have done in practice.

I belong to the Karnataka Balijavar Community. The women of my community are [not] permitted to marry again, in case they become widows. The family in which I was born was extremely orthodox and regorously devoted to Vaishnava religious principles.

In spite of this family background, from my seventh year onwards I was ridiculing the artificial distinctions between the high and the low in society and also the practice of not eating any item of food touched by others. Not satisfied with this, I broke these bans deliberately and touched anybody and ate food from any house.

For these reasons, I was prevented from entering our kitchen and excepting my father, nobody used any vessel touched by me, without washing it. Those who were envious of the rigid orthodox practices in our family, derived some comfort from my rebellious attitude.

They used to remark, 'Naicker has been blessed with a son for his orthodoxy and he is a gem of boy!' From my sixteenth year I attributed to male arrogance the special training given to girl children and the restrictions imposed on them.

In these circumstances, my sister died, leaving a male child and a girl child. When the girl, whom we called Ammayi, was ten years old, we celebrated her marriage on a grand scale. Sixty days after the marriage, the husband of the young girl died of Cholera. He was only 13 years old then.

When Ammayi heard about his death, she ran up to me crying bitterly, 'Uncle, did I ask you to get me married? You have thrown a boulder on my head!'  and fell violently at my feet injuring her head. 600 to 700 men and women who had come there for condolence looked at me and the girl alternately and shed tears profusely. I too cried uncontrollably. And when I lifted the prostrate girl from the ground, I resolved to get her married again.

A year after the girl came of age, my brother-in-law and I took steps to arrange for her marriage. As soon as this news reached my parents and others, they were upset, thinking that their community was in great danger, and made the parties whom we had contacted withdraw from the talk of marriage alliance.

Finally, we selected the brother of my brother-in-law's second wife. The young man and the girl were secretly taken to Chidambaram, and their marriage was conducted in the temple. I did not go to Chidambaram, simply to keep our relatives off the scent, regarding our plans.

I was afraid that if those people got the least suspicion, they would force the bridegroom to withdraw from the alliance. As a result of this remarriage for the girl, there was division among our relatives, communal discipline was enforced for some time and later our relationships became normal.

The boy and the girl lived together and begot a male child. But, unfortunately, after some time, my niece lost her second husband also. Now, the mother and the son are living together fairly comfortably. Still, in my community there are some widowed girls below 13 years. It is a touching sight to see the parents of those widowed children treating them like untouchables.

Whenever I think of the lot of widows and when I witness their sufferings, I come to the conclusion that it is the law of nature for the strong to dominate over the weak and ill-treat them.

We are tempted to think that when Hindu society came under the domination of some people, there was neither religion nor any kind of discipline in that society, that some kind of discipline arose among them and that the strong shaped that discipline to suit their self-interest.

But, whatever may be the reason for the present state of the Hindu society, my firm belief is that the low position given permanently to widows may prove to be the reason for the utter ruin of the Hindu religion and the Hindu society.

I crave your forgiveness for my frank statement that most of the people who claim to be involved in politics, social welfare, social reformation and the improvement of women's lot are working only for the improvement of their lives and for building their own reputation, and not for the causes to which they claim to be devoted.

Further, even if in these spheres there is some improvement, most of those who appear to be working there are actuated not by convictions but only by a love of popularity. Those who speak about the improvement of the status of women keep the women in their own families under 'purdah';   those who speak about the remarriage of widows, keep the widows in their own families well-guarded and protect their widowhood carefully.

There is no connection between that they preach and what they practice. If we try to find the reason for such conduct, we will have to conclude that they instinctively feel that women are slaves, subservient to men and that they must be kept under control. That is why these people treat women like animals.

They seem to feel that giving freedom to women is equivalent to committing a very serious crime. The result of this attitude is that there is no independence or freedom to one half of the human race.

This wicked enslavement of half of the human race is due to the fact that men are physically a little stronger than women. This principle applies to all spheres of life and the weaker are enslaved by the stronger.

"If slavery has to be abolished in society, the male arrogance and wickedness which lead to the enslavement of women must be abolished first. Only when this is achieved, the tender sprouts of freedom and equality will register growth."

- Original Source : Kudiarasu, 17 August 1930

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