For many of us growing up in Pakistan, one of the first memories that introduced us to the concept of widowhood of a woman came through some aunt who had lost her husband, and other aunts, dressed in vibrant reds and pinks, ushered that one aunt dressed in white or the dullest of colours away from the stage on mehndis and other wedding functions, as a widow was considered a bad omen.
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.
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.”
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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.”