KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Sarita Adhikari, 31, a widow, wears a dirty, green dress and faint lipstick. Although her husband died three years ago, a small red vermilion dot, a sign of marriage, adorns her forehead, challenging Hindu custom for widows.
For the first year after one's husband dies, a Hindu widow has traditionally followed a strict cultural etiquette. She may not apply any makeup or red vermilion on her forehead. She must wear only white clothes. She cannot visit public or religious places or attend auspicious ceremonies, including weddings and religious rituals.
Although these rules endure for only a year, community members continue to hold superstitious beliefs that they will incur bad luck if they see a widow in public. So they do not invite widows to social events.
Widows, especially those easily identified by their traditional white clothing, face discrimination and stigma, Adhikari says.
"I have faced many social problems soon after my beloved husband’s death," she says.
Adhikari says a friend called her 11 months after her husband died, when she still wore white, to help at a “puja,”a Hindu ritual in honor of the gods. But when Adhikari reached her friend's house, her friend’s mother-in-law remarked that it was not good to invite widows to auspicious occasions. Disheartened, Adhikari returned home.
"Unable to control myself, I closed the door and sobbed, looking at the white clothes,” she says. “My friend's mother-in-law’s words reverberated in my ears.”
Once she began wearing white, men also chased and brushed up against her in public buses, she says. They addressed her using foul language and teased her.
"That’s not all,” she says. “People used to call me a cursed one."
This changed in 2011, a year after her husband died, when she heard on a radio news program about widows wearing red instead of white. This was part of a campaign by Women for Human Rights, an international nongovernmental organization that fights discrimination based on marital status.
Traditionally, married women wear red, which symbolizes life and vitality. Custom forbids widows from wearing this color, visually segregating them from married women. Because marriage is a symbol of security, Women for Human Rights chose red for the campaign to make widows feel more secure.
After hearing the news program, Adhikari plucked up her courage to discard her widow’s garb and put on red clothes, bangles and lipstick. She says this change has made her feel more secure by hiding that she is a widow.
“After I started wearing red clothesand bangles and putting red, decorative marks on [my] forehead and lipstick, people do not gaze at me with ill intention," Adhikari says.
Nepalese widows, identified by their white clothing, have long suffered stigma and harassment by their family and society. To end this discrimination, the Women for Human Rights’ campaign has been inspiring widows across Nepal to wear red in public. The campaign also aims to raise awareness among widows’ families. Campaign leaders say widows now have the courage to demand more legal rights from the government, which has changed several laws.
There are nearly 500,000 widows in Nepal, according to the National Population and Housing Census 2011. More than 80 percent of Nepalese citizens practice Hinduism.
Of the 41,530 widows surveyed in a 2010 study by Women for Human Rights, 78 percent reported that they had faced violence from their husbands’ families. Out of these women, 80 percent had encountered rudeness and foul language, 12 percent had endured physical violence, and 8 percent had suffered sexual abuse.
Although no Hindu religious scripture requires widows to wear white, Hindu culture has imposed this practice on women for 1,600 years, says Prem Khatri, a culture and anthropology professor at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu.
“Widows were forbidden to blend in the society and to wear colored clothes,” he says. “In certain Hindu families, widows were burnt alive in the funeral pyres along with their husbands’ dead bodies.”
This practice, called “sati,” became illegal in Nepal in 1920, says Nirmala Dhungana, an associate professor at Tribhuvan University pursuing her Ph.D. in studies of Hindu women in the Kathmandu Valley. But widows still face verbal abuse.
“Though not being burnt physically, widows in Nepal are burnt mentally," Dhungana says.
Widows have to tolerate disgrace and harassment from their family and society, who use foul language against them, accuse them of wrongdoing, and criticize them if they laugh and talk with others, says Lily Thapa, the Women for Human Rights’ founder and president.
Some widows survive their year in white by secretly wearing color in private in their rooms, says Srijana Kafle, the Women for Human Rights’ regional coordinator.