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The Lonely Woman.

Byline: Samina Wahid

In a patriarchal and male-dominated society like Nepal, where women are systematically discriminated against, widows (often referred to as ' single women ' given the agony and humiliation attached to the word 'widow' in the country) remain the most marginalized and abused section of the population. No sooner is a Nepalese woman widowed, she is looked down upon and often perceived as a burden on the family.

The death of her husband means a lonely and quiet life for her regardless of how old or young she is. A young single woman (widow) is viewed as an adversary and the family often taunts her as being responsible for her husband's death. Widowhood in Nepal begins with the primary mourning period known as kriya which means 13 days of fasting, bathing and prayer. Women observing kriya are not allowed to touch anyone and can only be dressed in white clothes that have no seams. They are also required to prepare their food without salt. Often, the family also takes part in this primary mourning ritual, preparing their meals without salt and wearing white, so that their mourning may be publicly recognized.

It doesn't end here - widows in Nepal, like their counterparts in India who also practice the same customs, are required to commit to lifelong chastity and loneliness. They become vegetarians, stop wearing bright colours (especially red) and often face hurdles when it comes to matters of inheritance or obtaining travel documents, both of which require male signatures. As it is, women in Nepal do not have any rights over their children since they are thought to belong essentially to the father and his family, and this does not change even after the latter dies. Widows are also not permitted to remarry and it is mandatory for them to observe sarad on the anniversary of their husbands' death. When it comes to festivals, weddings or any cultural event, they must attend as widows, wearing white or light coloured clothes without makeup or jewellery so that the community is aware of their status.

In fact, in the ancient Sanskrit text Manusmriti, a work considered important to Hindu law, it is said that widows should only eat fruit and make themselves lean and thin and should not even utter the name of other men. Similarly, another religious book, Aagiras Smriti, says that if a woman wears colourful clothes after the death of her husband, the couple is doomed to hell.

Widowhood in Nepal can only be understood if one understands what it means to be a Hindu wife. Nepalese women marry into their husband's families and are adopted into the latter's multigenerational homes. Inheritance of land or property happens through men since Nepal is an agrarian economy where land means wealth. Spiritually, Hindu scripture essentially recognizes the fullest expression of a woman's religious life as her role as a wife and mother. Critically, this setup provides security as long as a woman stays within it. A husband is responsible for his wife's well-being, and if a woman is widowed at a venerable age, she is cared for by a son who inherits the household, in which she has become a respected matriarch. Widowhood customs at their most conservative, therefore, can be seen as reinforcing a secure social and spiritual identity for women, limited as that role may be. And for old women in rural areas, these customs are often meaningful as such.

However, a young widow in Nepal does not fit into society's preconceived notions of the woman's role and position in society. For instance, a widow who is childless or has only female children basically has no rights. No one is obligated to provide for her or her daughters - the in-laws do not take care of them because the woman did not provide the family with a male offspring while the birth family pretty much conveniently signs off its rights over the woman once she is married. These women often depend on the kindness of strangers but withdrawing one's support to them is not perceived as socially unacceptable.

Add illiteracy and an agrarian economy that does not offer much opportunity for people without land or family, and the young widow faces a cursed fate if her in-laws are unkind. Seen as unlucky, she may be shunned, isolated and barred from celebrations, too.

Despite the 1990 revisions to the Ne-palese Constitution, which guarantees women the "right to equality" in regard to inheritance (including the daughter's claim over a father's estate), such laws have not been enforced. Widows, daughters, ex-wives, divorcees and rape victims are routinely denied inheritances. Recognizing this, the Nepalese government has taken the initiative to enforce its constitutional promises. One such initiative is the Country Code (11th Amendment) Bill of 1997, which grants widows unfettered access and authority to the estate. The Bill has also removed the age restriction placed on widows, allowing them to claim property and even live independently of their husbands' families after their death. However, a weakness of the Bill is that the widow must return the remaining inheritance to the late husband's heirs if she remarries.

While these legal changes seem hopeful, tradition trumps law. The media has been arguing heavily against the new inheritance rights laws, alleging "The Nepalese society is not yet prepared to embrace equal property rights. Nepalese social structure would be badly disturbed by equal property rights and Hindu religion would be wounded if equal property right is given." The media has also stated that domestic violence and divorce rates would skyrocket as result of power struggles between the two heads of the household.

Even so, cultural expectations for young women are slowly changing. The literacy rate among women in Nepal has risen steadily, going from 15 percent in 1981 to 75 percent in 2011. The agrarian economy is changing, offering more opportunities for independence. Cell phones and social media have become ubiquitous, connecting women to each other and to information. And with thousands of young men migrating abroad for work, there are more young women at home alone than ever before. 'Single' women in Nepal may not be as oppressed as they were two decades ago but they are still required to live a life of quiet desperation and loneliness.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:Feb 29, 2016
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