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Life after the partner – Being a widow in Pakistan

 http://tns.thenews.com.pk/life-partner/#.WqJpYehubIU

Today a widow is not ready to accept her traditional role in society of being dependent on others for everything in life

Life after the partner

Every family had a few such widows — some young and others older. Their presence was not considered auspicious, and they were supposed to lead listless sedentary lives devoid of any hope for a better future, waiting for stipends and hand-me-downs, with a looming sense of guilt as if that woman was somehow responsible for the death of her husband.

More than a decade and a half since we entered the third millennium, the widowed women of Pakistan find themselves a little ahead of where they once stood on the social ladder yet are still entangled in some deep-rooted traditions, stigmas and restrictions.

More than a decade and a half since we entered the third millennium, the widowed women of Pakistan find themselves a little ahead of where they once stood on the social ladder yet are still entangled in some deep-rooted traditions, stigmas and restrictions.

Farah Kamal, an education and development consultant, describes her journey decade by decade: she grew up in the 80s, got married in the 90s, and became a widow in the new millennium. “For those girls who grew up when I did, we were not raised to lead independent lives. When I became a widow, I suddenly found myself alone. And independent. Thus, for me, the societal attitudes posed the biggest challenge, more than the financial challenge as I was already a working woman and could support myself financially.”

With the loss of her husband, Farah was encouraged by people to start living with her parents and siblings or to get a relative to live with them, a suggestion she did not accept. “We have the stereotypical image of a widow. She should be depressed, subdued, dressed in sober clothes. But today’s widow is not going to sit in a corner dressed in white, dependent on others to give her charity.”

Read also: Journey to legal rights

It is not just the woman who has lost her husband that suffers the impact of social stigma that surrounds a widow. It is also her children. While Ahmer Ali was an adult when he lost his father five years ago, his experience and observing as a son what his mother has gone through has taught him a lot about the plight of a widow. “For my mother and my siblings, both finances as well as the emotional trauma were huge challenges, as were the social taboos. Take a small example that in our society a widow is supposed to dress as soberly as she can. My mother loves to wear bright colors but after my father passed away I observed she begun to avoid clothes of colour. However, I ensured that she wore what she liked,” he says.

Commenting on social attitudes, Ahmer confesses that if the prospect of his mother remarrying would have come up soon after his father passed away, he may or may not have been able to accept it. “Five years down the lane, I say to myself ‘why not?’. People need to understand that widows also have a right to lead their lives as they wish, and have a right to start afresh if they like. In Islam, there is no obstacle in a widow’s remarriage; it is in fact encouraged. The clergy needs to spread awareness about this. But instead of encouraging the widow to move on with her life, people make the one who is mourning cry more. Social attitudes towards widows need to change. It is time.”

For Nazia* (name changed on request), the experience was not entirely negative when it came to how people acted towards her after she lost her husband. “My friends and family were quite empathetic and helpful when it happened,” she says, but adds that the experience has been mixed, “Because on my husband’s first death anniversary, my relatives, and that too close ones, called and expected me to be crying and be really sad. Incidentally, my daughter got engaged two years later on the same date that my husband had died, and even my closest of kin said, ‘why did you do it on the same date?’ I got tired explaining that the boy’s sister was leaving the next day so I did not have an option,” she says. “To date, I feel people observe me intently, and expect me to be sad and depressed,” she adds.

Yet, life has not allowed her that liberty. Gaping challenges faced this mother of two when her husband passed away, leaving them in the midst of financial challenges. “I didn’t really get any time to mourn. I was out of the house on the fourth day for the death certificate. Who else was there to support me and my girls?” As her family did not own a house, Nazia had to arrange a place to live soon after becoming a widow, and started working full-time to support herself and her daughters. “I heard comments like ‘haan haan tum to buhut independent ho, tumhain kisi ki zaroorat nahin (You are a very independent woman, seems you need no one)’.” But she did what she had to in order to survive. “In so many ways, I have become a stronger woman since I lost my husband,” she says.

Another social attitude is the assumption that widowed women are on the lookout for a man to remarry. “My male colleagues stopped visiting me [even for work] because their wives did not want their husbands to interact with me,” says Farah. She poignantly describes the experience of being widowed: “It was like being off-loaded on a dark highway in the middle of a journey.” Her being a financially empowered single woman has proven to be another challenge, as men see such a woman as a lucrative prospect.

Advising young girls, Farah says girls need to be independent and educated to be able to support themselves if such a situation in life arises. She is also of the opinion that girls should weigh carefully factors like health and lifestyle of a man before marrying, because unhealthy lifestyles or diseases of a man may result in his prematurely leaving this world, and the widow being left to suffer.

“I hate when in the ‘marital status’ column, I am asked to write ‘widow’,” Farah says. “This status does not identify who I am. I have also realised that my happiness is my own responsibility, as is my survival. This trial has made me stronger as a woman.”

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The sin of being a widow in this world

Hamida (R), widow of Pakistani fisherman Nawaz who died in an Indian jail, sitting at her house in Rerhy in the outskirts of Karachi. PHOTO: AFP

We live in a country where, when a journalist calls the Chief Minister House and asks if they have any special events for International Widows’ Day, the reply you get from the concerned person is,

“Widows’ Day? Is there one?”

But then, considering two things, Pakistan might not be the only country.

Firstly, it was just four years ago that the United Nations General Assembly declared June 23, 2011, as the first-ever International Widows’ Day, so it is a relatively new event. Secondly, the women being celebrated are on the lowest tier of the social pyramid, and their problems are not given the importance they should get.

There are some 258 million widows across the world. Of these, at least 115 million live in dire poverty and 86 million have been physically abused. If a widow has an average of three children and six other family members, this is an issue that affects nearly one billion people – a seventh of the world’s population.

But how does one even calculate the figures for Pakistan, where a big chunk of the population is not even registered? Registering widows is an even more neglected priority.

So when a woman’s husband dies, what is life like for her? Hellish, in the experience of most widows. There are two major issues that widows face – the falling from grace in terms of social status and inclusion, and economic vulnerability and poverty.

Widows are often considered bad omens and are excluded from all auspicious events. A classic example is only the saat suhaganain (seven married women) being allowed to put henna on the bride’s hands. While things may have started changing in more educated or aware social setups, women still confess that they would not like their sons or brothers to marry widows. Even if the superstition is ignored, another major issue is that widows are flung out by in-laws and they land back in the homes of their fathers or brothers.

If it is married brothers, they are not given the respect and support they deserve. If the widowed woman is not economically empowered or educated, she is in for trouble. Poverty and economic struggles await her. And if she decides to step out to earn for herself and her children as she must, a big bad world awaits her. She remains an easier target of sexual harassment without the proverbial roof over her head, and is often considered easy prey for the predator.

It is not just the widow but also her children and dependents who are affected. The fact that1.5 million children whose mothers are widowed are expected to die before reaching the age of five says enough. Whatever the husband left behind for her, whether he officially transferred the property in her possession or left behind in the form of inheritance, is often not given to her and the orphan children. Children of widows often have to forgo their education to earn for their families. They are more vulnerable to child labour and human trafficking.

The UN publication Women 2000: Widowhood: Invisible Women, Secluded or Excludedstates that,

“In Pakistan, destitute widows are reported to be supported by a small pension or zakat. But, as in India, the allocation system is often corrupt, and the many needy widows are frequently neglected.”

The publication rightly points out that Pakistani widows are often deprived of their rightful inheritance by a male relative.

A major chunk of widows remain elderly. A visit to the Edhi home or any centre for homeless women shows how these elder women are ostracised from society. However, increasing incidence of armed conflict and acts of terrorism in Pakistan have resulted in many young women also being widowed and displaced. Many security personnel lose their lives owing to the violence and strife. While they are promised compensation, it is not enough.

On one hand, rights of widows need to be brought to the fore on all forums. Awareness needs to be raised regarding their plight. But most importantly, the young women of this nation need to be self-empowered enough to be able to support themselves and command the respect they deserve if they find themselves in such a situation.