As a child in Nepal, I saw women from my great-grandmother to strangers on the bus stand out like sore thumbs in a sea of reds and other bright colors with their all white attire. While I didn’t question their bangle-less and color-less look, I also never understood it since color and women’s attire is such a vital aspect of our culture. Religious practices from birth filled with red powdered and yellow liquid tikas to the literal celebration of colors, Holi, color is a part of us, and even more importantly in a Nepali women’s life. Upon reaching marriage-hood, women are gifted with red tika (also known as bindi), sari, colorful bangles and necklaces and most importantly, sindur (also known as vermilion), a red powder decorated by the groom on the day of marriage in the bride’s hair parting signify the partnership. In her daily life, the married woman incorporates plethora of colors in her outfits pairing it with one of the specific gifts listed above the acts alike an engagement ring in western culture to signify marriage-hood, but as a child I wasn’t aware of these practices; I just knew moms wore red churas (bangles) and tika like my mom did. While the significance of these items, tika, sindur, etc, and their link to patriarchy is a conversation to be had on its own, I want to prompt attention to the gross reality that comes when those colorful items and color itself is taken from the woman when she has the unfortunate of being a widow in Nepal.
When the husband dies, the women is forced to break her churas, an action that would have been considered bad luck while he was alive, forbidden altogether from those previously mentioned gifts, singing, dancing and she is forced to wash her sindoor, signifying the drought in her once flowing metaphorical river created by her hair parting filled with of lucky, colorful and lively blood of the sindur now empty. Furthermore, she is forbidden from colors for the rest of her life. Along with the husband’s family and close relatives, she is to abstain from salt for 13 days, pray, wear white seamless clothing and not touch each-other in the mourning period known as kriya. The only difference, the colorless life is permanent future for the widow.
In the conservative tradition and stigma bound Nepal, the widow suffers. Not only is she to follow irrational and restricting rules such as maintaining lifelong chastity, not wearing jewelry or make-up and even sustaining a vegetating diet, she faces legal oppression. From land inheritances rights, finding work, to travel documents that require male signature, she is challenged. It is worthy to mention that those already difficult challenges and their negative consequences are heighten due to Nepal’s norm of illiteracy, specially female illiteracy. Along with those obstacles, the widow must endure heinous social stigma surrounding her widowhood which includes her being barred from religious rituals and celebrations, being seen as bad omen which leads society to treat her as an “untouchable,” all having the commonality of treating heras a sub-human being.
These disturbing changes that occur to a woman once her husband is gone showcases us what the patriarchal society says to a women, “You are useless, ill-omen-ed and worthless.” Because what other purpose could a woman have if not to serve her husband?
While views on widowhood are slowly changing with movements like the Red Color movements and the #RedTikaChallenge, women all over Nepal are facing these horrid conditions. And while somewhat of a change is here, it is not enough; not until widows in Nepal can remarry without facing physical and legal danger along with societal persecution, and today in Nepal a widow can not do that. Recently, personally meeting and hearing the experience of a widow who lived in the most industrial and educated part of Nepal, Kathmandu, yet she still faced societal isolation, bigotry and wasn’t allowed to remarry and was immensely relived to have been able to move to the U.S. with its social liberty brings alive the horrors that exists in my mind. From family members, since they are the first respondents in the situation, so they have the biggest positive or negative impact, activist, educators, to law makers, we have to play our role to bring about the change faster so even more widows aren’t forced to live colorless lives.