I have always believed myself to be a privileged woman.
Learning about the lifestyle some widows led in the Indian city of Banares only reinforced my privilege. I was having a conversation with my aunt about Banares after dinner one day. She and my grandma reminisced about the good ol’ days of visiting Banares for vacations. My aunt would sneak away with her grandma and trot to the marketplace. The most I knew about Banares was from the fine print in my eighth-grade textbook; it was the place for widows after the British had abolished sati, the ritual practice of burning widows after the death of their husbands. Our conversation began while we were doing our last-minute social media scrolling before bed.
“Do you know why they had their hair short?” She asked.
Practicality was always my first thought.
“To protect them, right?” I answered.
I knew what some men could do to women. Beat them up or do the unspeakable that I’m too disgusted to put on paper.
But my aunt shook her head, and added something more horrific that still sends chills down my spine:
“That’s not all. They did it to make sure the widows never look good again. Once you become a widow, you cut your hair short and always wore white because you’re not allowed to look good or remarry or feel great either. Widows only ate boiled vegetables because good food gives you the energy to live, to feel good. Women even younger than you had to do this...Think of how bitter and spiteful you have to be to do that to anyone.”
Horrified was an understatement. I was mortified. Instead of Sati being a physical ritual, it was Sati of the soul. The women lived like the dead after their husbands died.
It left a bitter taste in my mouth, like disgustingly minty toothpaste and strong rum.
“Why couldn’t their parents take them in?” I asked.
“Because they no longer had any use. They’ve already married and they can’t work without any education.”
Mind you this was a little over two hundred years ago, not in the medieval era. If I was born just a hundred years ago, I could have faced the same situation
I realize how privileged and free I am to live in today’s world. I live a relatively free life, but even I have my restrictions. Even at the age of eighteen, walking to the store myself or being out at night are things I don’t have the privilege to do. Liberty is having the choice to live your life the way you want. But not everyone is as fortunate as me. Some girls in India and in the Philippines, barely thirteen and married to men twice their age, are forced to be wives and mothers for their families. Female infants in Mexico are being slaughtered before they even open their eyes. Women in too many places are expected to fit in this cookie-cutter mold in order to fit in their society and find a life partner. Abuse victims around the world are made to suffer in silence. Trans women are often oppressed and not even considered female.
We may have a bit of liberty, but there’s still more to scrounge up for everyone. But we’re all in this together. All our suffering and effort has woven this blanket of solidarity, one that keeps us warm in the darkest of nights due to our mutual respect for each other’s struggles. Women have been struggling for freedom as long as there was salt in the sea, but one day we’ll see the fruits of our labor come to ripe.