“With degrading, harsh treatment, everyone seems bent on killing a widow insomuch that the tormenting thoughts come to her mind as if she herself had killed her husband.” These were the feelings of ‘S’, a highly qualified woman currently serving on an important post in a government department. She is a widow with a 10-year-old daughter. She says, “A widow, who would already lead a life of misery and suffering, is subjected to scathing criticism every time she looks happy, and even gloomy. She is agonizingly reminded that her husband is no more. She is even stopped from getting some solace by weeping and bewailing. They would not let her to live peacefully. Although Islam clearly articulates that due rights of widows and orphans must be provided to them, our societal practices are quite different and sometimes even contrary to what the religion has taught. Our own belongings become a source of danger to our own life and sometimes a feeling occupies us that we are a burden on our family and the society at large.”
This is the desperation that afflicts more than 258.5 million widows across the globe. Why is it so? Sociologists assert that it happens because of blind following of the outdated societal customs, myopic viewpoints, pursuit of vested interests, flaws and inadequacies in laws relating to women’s rights and a sheer lack of will to implement those, unending delay in dispensation of justice and absence of governmental policies and measures in this realm. All these factors are driving the lives of widows to myriad problems. Widows are absent in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organizations; hence their situation is, in effect, invisible. In addition, consistent failure in paying attention to formulate policies aimed at ameliorating widows’ conditions is another common observation in almost all societies. So, in order to attract world’s attention to this burning, critical issue, the United Nations General Assembly declared 23 June the International Widows’ Day and it was observed for the very first time in 2011. The observation marks the importance of giving widows a better place in society and of providing them with suitable opportunities to lead a respectable life.
Through a key recommendation, the Beijing Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women — held in Beijing, China, in September 1995 — called for more and better statistics on gender. But, that has still not been adequately addressed by most governments. Take, for instance, the facts and figures about widows, most countries have no data on them and if there are some the figures available are either outdated or are related to only widows’ population.
So, the absence of reliable data on widows and their poverty levels are the biggest impediments to formulating polices and drawing up plans to alleviate their sufferings and eradicate violence against them. With a mission to solve this predicament, the UK-based Loomba Foundation is playing a proactive role as a global platform for collecting data on widows and their children from around the world on modern lines. As per the Foundation’s ‘The Global Widows Report 2015′, widows of marital age constitute 9.1% of world’s total female population. A brief analysis of the Report suggests that in terms of geographical distribution, South Asia is the second biggest region to host widows’ population — 22.40% of the world’s total — and 8.7% of South Asian women of the said age group are widows. The Report ranked Pakistan 10th on the list of countries with one million or more widows, with an estimated number of more than 4 million. It means that nearly 7% of widows in South Asia and 1.5% of those of the world are in Pakistan. India tops this list followed by China and the USA at second and third place, respectively. Other countries among the top 10 were: Russia, Indonesia, Japan, Brazil, Germany and Bangladesh.
The latest available data manifest that the number of widows is increasing in Pakistan as well as in the world. During 2010-15, the global population of widows soared by 9% while that increase in South Asia was recorded at 6%. In Pakistan, as per the 1998 census, 5.40% of women in age group 15 years and over were widows. The latest data made available by Pakistan Bureau of Statistics put this ratio in 2012-13 at 8.45%, with the biggest ratio of widows in Sindh province where they constituted 8.70% of the total female population. Sindh is followed by Punjab with this ratio at 8.64%, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 7.83% and Balochistan with 6.48%.
Armed conflicts, natural calamities, disasters and various diseases, especially AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), are the biggest causes that widowed huge number of women. Moreover, since women usually live longer than men, most of them live in widowhood in the final years of life. And, with restricted access to resources, as compared to relatively younger widows, their living conditions remain miserable, to say the least. Widows, be they from developed societies or from the developing ones, are under the claws of destitution. A British think tank Chatham House conducted a survey in 17 developed and developing countries wherein nearly 63% respondents said that the treatment meted out to widows is harsh and inhumane than that to other women. It happens because in most of the social systems around the world, widows – and children – are considered lesser beings. Since depriving them of their due rights is Ubiquitous in most parts of the world, they remain dependent on men for legal and economic securities and this too comes to an end with the husband’s death.
In many societies, widows do not, at all, have the right to inherit property and if they have some that is too limited. Unless a woman is given share in her husband’s or her parents’ property, she cannot be economically strong, and will, thus, remain dependent on ‘charity’ by her in-laws. Due to illiteracy and lacking technical skills, a widow cannot support her family and thus remains reeling under the claws of abject poverty. The Loomba Foundation estimated that in 2015, approximately 14.8% of widows’ total population and 34.4% of that from South Asia, lived in an extreme poverty where basic needs go unmet. Currently, there are more than 584.6 million children living with widow mothers and nearly 25% of them are in South Asia alone. Another largely ignored fact is that such kids are often vulnerable to economic and psychological exploitation. Since most widows have to provide bread and butter for their families, when they can’t, they pull their children out of the school and use them as a helping hand in earning money to provide for the family’s needs. In addition, daughters of such women too face multifarious deprivations and there are always more chances of their maltreatment.
Ms ‘W’, a middle class woman who has been a widow since 15 years and is living with her three daughters, says, “The life of a widow in our society is pathetic. No one would ask, how do you meet your daily needs or have you bought new clothes for Eid or how would you pay your kids’ school fees? … and so on. After the demise of her husband, most people — even her own siblings — would turn their back on the widow because they feel her to be an additional, unwanted burden on them. But, when it comes to her own life, everyone tries to impose restrictions, to create hurdles. I would cite my own example. I got education up to matriculation but I am not permitted to do a job. When neither I am allowed to do a job nor would anyone take responsibility to care for me and my daughters, then what would I do? I wish I had gotten more education so that I could support my family. That’s the reason why I am a staunch supporter of girls’ education and of imparting to them some technical skills so that they may sustain their families and rear their children better. Moreover, a girl needs to be bold and strong enough to raise voice for her rights in the belongings of her dead husband.”
Educating girls means enabling them to face and endure all bitterness of life with courage. Education inculcates in them self-confidence and an awareness on their rights. But, it’s no less than a predicament that literacy rate of females in our country is still below 50%. It means more than half the females aged 10 years or more are still illiterate. The situation in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is even more precarious as nearly 75% women in the former and more than 67% in the latter are still deprived of education.
In many countries, widowhood is considered a stigma and at some places it is even related to witchcraft. For instance, hundreds of aged women — most of them widows — in Tanzania have been killed on the charges of witchcraft. Widows are sometimes forcibly evicted from their homes and they are physically abused, and some are even killed, by their families. Since social status of a woman is hinged on that of her husband, therefore, after her husband’s death, she loses all that. And, to regain that standing, she has to, willingly or unwillingly, contract a marriage with another male from her in-laws. A highly-qualified woman, Ms ‘A’ is the widow of a person who enjoyed great economic, social and political status in the society. They were childless and her husband left behind huge fortunes. She says, “In order to grab the property and fortune of her husband, a widow is forced to marry someone from her husband’s family; otherwise, threats to her life increase. She is pushed to the wall to such an extent that she finally surrenders the property. And, the one who dares to demand her share or gets it through courts, makes her life imperilled.
The trend of involving a widow in her deceased husband’s last rites and traditional mourning is still rampant in many countries, despite that these put her life in danger. At some places, she is burned to death along with the body of her husband, while at some other places, she is forced to drink the water her husband’s corpse has been washed with. And, in some instances her head is shaved for mourning. A widow’s social interactions are curbed, she is given less and specific food and even the colour of the dress she would wear in mourning is specified. In most cultures, such maltreatment is, socially and religiously, acceptable and is considered rightful.
On the contrary, Islam calls for complete protection and unrestricted provision of the rights of widows and orphans. Professor Awais Sarwar, who has been teaching Islamic Studies since long, asserts that in the pre-Islam world, widows were meted out a harsh treatment as they were deemed to be only a property, not a human being. Even a widow’s right to life was snatched in some religions and she was not allowed to remarry and was considered a bête noire. Islam eliminated these cruel practices and provided complete protection to the widows.”
As per a Hadith narrated by Hazrat Abu Huraira (RA) in Bukhari Sharif, Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “The one who looks after and works for a widow and for a poor person, is like a warrior fighting for Allah’s Cause or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all the night.” (Volume 8, Book 73, Number 35)
According to a Hadith-e-Qudsi, Ibn Abbas reports that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) said: “Allah, the Glorious, said: ‘I accept the salah of one who humbles himself to My Greatness; … and who spends the day remembering Me; and who is merciful to the poor, the wayfarer and the widows …’”
For the guidance of the Ummah, the Holy Prophet (PBUH) has set glorious examples with regard to respect for widows. Among them, the foremost is that majority of her wives, the Mothers of All Muslims, were widows before their marriage to the Holy Prophet (PBUH). He (PBUH) not only married them but also treated them with great kindness and took best care of them. He (PBUH) declared them to be the Mothers of All Muslims; even the Holy Quran praises them.
No constitution, no charter, no religion and no system in the world can present any example of such a great treatment. Hazrat Abdullah, in another Hadith, reports that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) would never hesitate from going with an orphan or a widow to fulfil his or her need.
Professor Sarwar further opines, “Islam has guaranteed certain rights to the widows; for instance, it rejected the concept of considering them a bane as it preached that everything is related to the divine decree, it fixed a widow’s share in her husband’s legacy; restricted the period of iddah (the period a woman must observe after the death of her spouse or after a divorce, during which she may not marry another man) to only four months and ten days instead of the entire life; it granted her the right to remarry and lead life as per her own wishes; it declared grabbing of her property a cardinal sin; and made it obligatory on the Islamic state and the well-off people to take care of them.”
Ms ‘S’ opines that for the protection of widows’ rights there is a pressing need to establish such institutions where they would be taught some technical skills and provided with free, urgent help if someone tries to grab her property, and her security is also ensured.
According to Ms ‘W’, there should be a system under which a widow could get her due share in everything left by her husband at the earliest and where it is ensured that she has actually received her right and she is under no duress in this regard. In addition, if a widow does not want to remarry, she must be provided with enough economic support to stay independent of others.
Ms ‘A’ pleads that litigation related to widows’ property must be disposed of at the earliest and they should be provided security, and implementation of strict laws in this regard must also be ensured.
With access to proper healthcare facilities, education, suitable and secure employment, enhanced participation in decision-making and other matters of daily life, violence-free life and opportunities to lead a secure life after getting widowed, we can prevent the transfer of deprivations and destitutions to the next generations. This is the aspiration of the widows, and a legal right of them, as well.