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."

The Constraints of Marriage

The excerpt from the feminist, or proto-feminist, writings of E.V.Ramaswamy speaks of the burdens placed on women by that most durable of human institutions, marriage.

The married life of a man and a woman in our country is very bad; in no other country it is so bad. The marriage principle, briefly, involves the enslavement of a woman by her husband, and it is nothing else. We conceal this enslavement under cover of marriage rites and we deceive the women concerned by giving the wedding the meaninglessly false name of a divine function.

Generally speaking, not merely in our country, but in almost all countries of the world, as far as marriage is concerned, women are subjected to unnaturally harsh treatment. This will be accepted as true by all impartial people. But, in this, our country is far worse than other countries.

If this  wickedness against women continues, in the near future, that is, within another fifty years, marriage rites and connected relationships will cease to be; we can be sure of that.

Realising this, intelligent people in other countries are gradually relaxing the harsh treatment of women. Our country alone is obstinately clinging to the old practices. Therefore an unconventionally drastic agitation of women has to take place.

Last year (1929) at the Chengalpattu conference a resolution was passed stating that men and women should have the right to be divorced from their partners. And then in the Women's Conference held in Madras recently there was a demand for a law to enable women to have divorce when necessary.

The so called social reformers raised a hue and cry against the resolutions in the two conferences. But after the Chengalpattu resolution, in some part of India and in other countries divorce laws have been enacted. In Russia marriage itself is treated as a daily contract.

All of us know that in Germany, if there is no agreement between a man and his wife, they can be divorced without assigning any reason. The Baroda government also has enacted such a law. In many countries of the West, such a law is in force. We have to say that it is foolish on the part of the government in our country not to have enacted such a law.

Newspapers report that in South India many husbands have killed their wives suspecting immoral behaviour. Sometimes the husband's suspicion of his wife's character has led to many murders. Those who believe in divine dispensation do not have the brains to ask themselves why marriages conducted according to religious rites and the approval of god, end in this fashion.

If the world of the women should progress, if the human element should develop in women and if men should have contentment and happiness and if they should experience real love, it is essential that we should give our people the right to seek divorce when it is necessary. Otherwise men and women will have no scope for independent living.

Many of our 'social reformers' raise a violent cry of protest if a man marries two wives. It is not clear what makes them raise this cry. Is it their devotion to religion or rationalism or their interest in the welfare of women or the freedom of human beings or the righteous conduct of human beings? We will discuss this question on another occasion.

"If the world of the women should progress, if the human element should develop in women and if men should have contentment and happiness and if they should experience real love, it is essential that we should give our people the right to seek divorce when it is necessary."

Now, I wish to ask the people who object to a man marrying more than one wife these questions : Is marriage intended to give pleasure and satisfaction to man or is it just a formal rite? If by chance a man gets as his wife a woman whom he does not like, who does not co-operate with him and who cannot give him physical pleasure, then what should the man concerned do? In the same way, if a woman happens to get a man unsuitable to her in every way, then, what is her lot? What is she to do? If marriage has anything to do with divinity, and if it is really dissoluble, will such complications arise in it?

When these things are considered it will be clear to any kind of man, that the talk of divinity is utter falsehood. Therefore, if divorce is not facilitated in our country by law as it is done in other countries, we will have to do propaganda against marriage and also for more than one partner for each married man and woman.

The apart, at present, we wish to urge the man who find their wives non-cooperative, and useless for giving pleasure and satisfaction, to come forward to marry the women they like. Only then the suffering that results from bringing together, in the name of divine sanction, men and women who do not know each other and who have not given their consent for the alliance, will end.

Why man is born and why he dies are questions with which we are not concerned. What we are convinced about is that as long as human beings live, they must enjoy pleasure and satisfaction. For this, a woman must have a man and a man must have a woman.

When this is accepted, if difficulties which cause sorrow between the couple crop up, it is the first duty of any sensible man to get rid of those difficulties. Those who work for the pleasure and satisfaction of other human beings must do this service.

Without getting rid of the difficulties if men and women suffer dissatisfaction and pain, telling themselves that simply because they are married, they must patiently put up with everything, I would say that they betray absence of the essential human qualities and also want of self-respect.

- Original Source : Kudiarasu, 17 August 1930

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