Films on Widow Abuse Survive Their Own Ordeals

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Films coming out in the U.S. on the problem of widow abuse in India have generated their own sagas. The director of "Water" had her effigy burned in 2000 while "White Rainbow" opened in India last year amid floods and a cholera outbreak.

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Director Deepa Mehta

(WOMENSENEWS)--Two days into shooting "Water" in February 2000--a movie about the plight of Hindu widows in pre-independence India that opened in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco two weeks ago--the set was overrun by protestors who declared the movie "anti-Hindu."

Over the following days, director-writer Deepa Mehta and her cast received death threats, Mehta's effigy was burned, and Hindu fundamentalists marched the streets of Varanasi in north India until the film was forced to shut down under accusations of a foreign conspiracy to tarnish the image of Hinduism and widowhood in Indian culture.

Three years later in California, an Indian American director, Dharan Mandrayar, heard about the continuing maltreatment of widows in present-day India. He decided to make a movie--"White Rainbow," which opened in San Jose on April 7--on the topic and set it in the Hindu holy city of Vrindavan in north India, often dubbed the City of Widows because of the large number of widows who live there.

But when Mandrayar shared his plans with other Indians he knew in the States, he was given an icy reception. "All I got was, 'Why are you doing this?' 'Why are you saying this about our country?'" Mandrayar told Women's eNews. "It was shocking."

These two widow-themed films are showing the world a subset of Indian culture that is often not talked about, and sometimes willfully ignored.

Mohini Giri, a leading Indian activist for widow's rights, says many Indians shrug off widow abuse. "It's been like this for centuries as the accepted way of life," she says. "The husband is called a god and the minute a woman loses her god, she becomes a zero."

A Life Worse Than Death

In 2001, according to India's national census, there were more than 34 million widows in the country of more than 1 billion. Giri estimates that the number has risen recently as a result of increased deaths from natural disasters as the Asian tsunami as well as India's military conflict with Pakistan in Kashmir.

When a Hindu woman becomes a widow, she traditionally only wears white. In the past, her hair would be completely shorn and she could not wear jewelry or cosmetics. Many modern Hindu families do not adhere to these older customs, but still widows are often considered inauspicious and are not invited to weddings and other celebrations. Many widows embark on pilgrimages to places like Vrindavan and Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges and often decide to stay there, living in ashrams and begging for alms daily.

In "White Rainbow," Mandrayar drew his four central characters--only one of whom is elderly--from real-life widows' stories. Each character represents a different kind of widow abuse that is still often experienced: social ostracism, abandonment by children, rape by in-laws, and financial and sexual exploitation by priests.

Over the last few years, advocacy efforts have reached some Indian widows. Giri, herself a widow, founded the New Delhi-based Guild of Service in 1972, a volunteer organization that helps widows claim their pensions, organizes classes to teach trades such as spinning and weaving so that widows can support themselves and provides free literacy programs and medical treatment.

In 1998, the guild set up Amar Bari, an ashram for 100 widows in Vrindavan as an alternative to the overcrowded, dilapidated buildings that most widows live in. In 2002, the government of India opened a series of similar shelters for widows and other destitute women around the country as part of its Swadhar initiative. But Giri says whatever progress has been achieved is "only a drop in the ocean."

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