A family’s honor is closely tied to the honor of their women, as reflected in the virginity of unmarried girls and the fidelity of married ones. Any hint of scandal can bring shame to an extended (joint) family, which can have dozens of members. This explains in part why a woman’s actions and movements are so closely monitored. A man who is brazen enough to kiss a young girl in a field can get the shit kicked out of him and or even sometimes be killed. Rural women who deviate from the strict social codes are sometimes stripped naked in public or even gang raped.

Hindu women are expected to be shy and demure and not to speak unless they are spoken to. Indian women have traditionally kept their voices low, looked downward when speaking and never looked a man in the eye. Men look down on women smokers even though men smoke everywhere and sometimes snub their cigarettes out on the floors of people’s homes.

All moral codes say that women are to be treated with respect and kindness, mothers particularly so. In many homes there are separate areas for men and women. Sometimes men and women drive in separate cars.

In cases of adultery the man is often let off lightly and regarded only to take a ritualized purifying bath while the woman is regarded as polluted for the rest of her life. Other punishments might be imposed depending on the caste of the man and woman involved. One woman told National Geographic, “As a child, I was very fond of dancing but when I told my mother, she slapped me and said, ‘Don’t even think of it; girls from descent families don’t dance and sing. Don’t ever speak to me about it again.”


Dot on an Indian Woman’s Forehead

A puju (Hindu offering) ends when worshipers take red powder (“kumkum”) and place a dot on the middle of their forehead. This is a representation of a third eye located on the sixth chakra, said to be the seat of "concealed wisdom" and a source spiritual energy and concentration. This is different from the dot many Indian women have on their forehead, which indicates they are married. Both kinds of marks are called bindis or tikas or various other names although those terms or more properly applied to marks that have religious meaning. 'Bindi' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'bindu' or a drop.

Married women in India often have a dot between their eyes or at the parting of their hair. A widow is not supposed to have such a dot. Only married women, or in some cases women or girls who have never been married, can wear it. These many women wear dots of various colors, shapes and sizes. They are worn for fashion not religious reason and often are designed to match the clothes they are wearing

In southern India, girls choose to wear a a mark on their forehead, while in other parts of India it is the prerogative of the married woman. According to hinduism.about.com: “A red dot on the forehead is an auspicious sign of marriage and guarantees the social status and sanctity of the institution of marriage. The Indian bride steps over the threshold of her husband's home, bedecked in glittering apparels and ornaments, dazzling the red bindi on her forehead that is believed to usher in prosperity, and grants her a place as the guardian of the family's welfare and progeny.” [Source: hinduism.about.com]

“A traditional bindi is red or maroon in color. A pinch of vermilion powder applied skillfully with practiced fingertip make the perfect red dot. Women who are not nimble-fingered take great pains to get the perfect round. They use small circular discs or hollow pie coin as aid. First they apply a sticky wax paste on the empty space in the disc. This is then covered with kumkum or vermilion and then the disc is removed to get a perfect round bindi. Sandal, 'aguru', 'kasturi', 'kumkum' (made of red turmeric) and 'sindoor' (made of zinc oxide and dye) make this special red dot. Saffron ground together with 'kusumba' flower can also create the magic!”


Millions of Hindu and Muslim women in northern and central India, particularly in rural areas, practice “purdah”, a complex set rules for veiling and excluding women that some say has been followed for over 1000 years. Women according to purdah may not be seen by any men other than her husband and in some cases some of his in laws. She may not even talk to her husband in public when other people are around; notes have to be given to children acting as messengers. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ♢]

Purdah rules of veiling the body and avoidance of public appearance, especially in the presence of relatives linked by marriage and before strange men, are inextricably linked to patterns of authority and harmony within the family. Rules of Hindu and Muslim purdah differ in certain key ways, but female modesty and decorum as well as concepts of family honor are essential to the various forms of purdah. In most areas, purdah restrictions are stronger for women of high-status families. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The importance of purdah is not limited to family life; rather, these practices all involve restrictions on female activity and access to power and the control of vital resources in a male-dominated society. Restriction and restraint for women in virtually every aspect of life are the basic essentials of purdah. In India, both males and females are circumscribed in their actions by economic disabilities, hierarchical rules of deference in kinship groups, castes, and the larger society. But for women who observe purdah, there are additional constraints.*

Purdah is derived from the Hindi word “parda,” literally meaning “curtain.” It implies high status. Brahmans favor strict interpretations of the purdah dictums. Some old timers lament how things have changed: how some young brides, who are supposed to sequestered, are even talking to their father in laws. ♢

Hindu rules enforcing feminine modesty became stricter after the Muslim invasions so that Hindus could protect their women from the conquerors. Some scholars believe the custom of purdah was introduced by Muslims. There is little evidence of it existing before the arrival of large numbers of Muslims in the 12th century. Others have suggested that Hindus introduced the custom to Muslims.

Veiled Hindu Women and Extreme Purdah

Hindu women who follow the customs of “purdah” cover their bodies and wear veils just like conservative Muslim women. Women are even veiled at death. At a funeral the only people that can lay eyes on the face of a deceased woman are those who saw her in real life. Women practicing purdah learn to recognize other such women by their children. At their wedding only women and male relatives of the groom were allowed to attend. In some places where purdah is practiced to an extreme level women travel around in cloaked vehicles. When they step out from the vehicle they are covered by a tent-like umbrella called a “chattri” that conceals her completely. [Source: Doranne Wilson Jacobson, National Geographic August 1977 ♢]

Purdah customs are also practiced by Muslim women in India. Mimkera, once part of Bhopal state, was governed for more than 80 years by Muslim queens. One former queen told anthropologist Dorane Wilson Jacobson in 1977, "When I was married in 1905 I was only five years old; my husband was only 11. I spent the rest of my childhood in this palace observing purdah in the strictest sense. My husband and his older brothers and their sons were the only males I met with; the only man I saw outside the family was the old, white-bearded cook. I went to school here but always behind a curtain. the teacher sat on the other side and we never saw each other...On trips I wore a burka, rode a bus owned by a relative, then was driven the last mile in a horse-drawn carriage completely enclosed by a curtain." Now the queens drive sports car and wear blue jeans and their children get to look at their teachers. ♢

For almost all women, modest dress and behavior are important. Clothing covering most of the body is common; only in tribal groups and among a few castes do women publicly bare their legs or upper bodies. In most of the northern half of India, traditionally dressed women cover the tops of their heads with the end of the sari or scarf (dupatta ). Generally, females are expected to associate only with kin or companions approved by their families and to remain sexually chaste. Women are not encouraged to roam about on pleasure junkets, but rather travel only for explicit family-sanctioned purposes. In North India, women do relatively little shopping; most shopping is done by men. In contrast to females, males have much more freedom of movement and observe much less body modesty. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Origin of Veiling

To most Westerners veiling is more associated with Muslims than Hindus. There is some debate as to when the custom of veiling began and where the custom originated . Some conservative Muslims have insisted that veiling was practiced in Mohammed’s time and Mohammed’s wives veiled themselves. There is little evidence of this though. Some say the custom of veiling was adopted by Muslims about three of four generations after Mohammed’s death and is believed to have been copied from the Byzantines or perhaps from India or Persia. Veiling has also been practiced for a long time by Hindus from India, where women seclude and veil themselves through a custom called purdah, which was originally adopted by the upper classes and became a status symbol.

In any case the custom of veiling predates Islam. In antiquity it was a sign of high status. Jewish and Christian women adopted the custom to symbolize a retreat from public life. The Iranian term chador, meaning “tent.” is derived from the personal custom of very wealthy women traveling around in covered sedan chairs. Some people have said the Western custom of brides wearing veils come from Muslim countries. More likely it comes from ancient Greece. The veiling and segregation of women was common practice among women in ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium.

In the old days veiling was more common in the cities than in villages, presumably because city women were more likely to be secluded and pampered than rural women who needed to work in the fields and veiling and covering themselves made such work more difficult. In the cities it seems that women often were the ones that demanded they be veiled as a means of escaping harassment and showing their status.

Purdah Versus Feminine Modesty

Many of feminine modesty are not considered purdah but merely proper female behavior. For traditional Hindus of northern and central India, purdah observances begin at marriage, when a woman acquires a husband and in-laws. Although she almost never observes purdah in her natal home or before her natal relatives, a woman does observe purdah in her husband's home and before his relatives. As a young woman, she remains inside her husband's house much of the time (rather than going out into lanes or fields), absents herself or covers her face with her sari in the presence of senior males and females related by marriage, and, when she does leave the house in her marital village, covers her face with her sari. Such practices help shield women from unwanted male advances and control women's sexuality but also express relations within and between groups of kin. Familial prestige, household harmony, social distance, affinal respect, property ownership, and local political power are all linked to purdah. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Through use of the end of the sari as a face veil and deference of manner, a married woman shows respect to her affinal kin who are older than or equal to her husband in age, as well as certain other relatives. She may speak to the women before whom she veils, but she usually does not converse with the men. Exceptions to this are her husband's younger brothers, before whom she may veil her face, but with whom she has a warm joking relationship involving verbal banter. Initially almost faceless and voiceless in her marital home, a married woman matures and gradually relaxes some of these practices, especially as elder in-laws become senescent or die and she herself assumes senior status. In fact, after some years, a wife may neglect to veil her face in front of her husband when others are present and may even speak to her husband in public.*

For Muslim women, purdah practices involve less emphasis on veiling from in-laws and more emphasis on protecting women from contact with strangers outside the sphere of kinship. Because Muslims often marry cousins, a woman's in-laws may also be her natal relatives, so veiling her face within the marital home is often inappropriate. Unlike Hindus, Muslim women do not veil from other women as do Hindus. Traditional Muslim women and even unmarried girls, however, often refrain from appearing in public, or if they do go out, they wear an all-covering garment known as a burka , with a full face covering. A burka protects a woman — and her family — from undue familiarity with unknown outsiders, thus emphasizing the unity of the family vis-à-vis the outside world. Because Muslim women are entitled to a share in the family real estate, controlling their relationships with males outside the family can be crucial to the maintenance of family property and prestige.*

Purdah and the Seclusion of Women in India

During their lifetime some India women see nothing beyond their parent’s and their husband’s houses and few streets around these houses. Going to the well and attending religious functions are some of the few times women actually leave their house. They stay busy within their homes cooking, tending courtyard gardens and raising children. Some women are so deep in purdah that when male guests come to their house they pass dinner through a curtained doorway.

Restricting women to household endeavors rather than involving them in tasks in fields and markets is associated with prestige and high rank in northern India. There the wealthiest families employ servants to carry water from the well and to work in the fields alongside family males. Mature women of these families may make rare appearances in the fields to bring lunch to the family males working there and sometimes to supervise laborers. Thus elitism is expressed in women's exclusive domesticity, with men providing economic necessities for the family. Only women of poor and low-ranking groups engage in heavy manual labor outside the home, especially for pay. Such women work long hours in the fields, on construction gangs, and at many other tasks, often veiling their faces as they work. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In rural communities and in older sections of cities, purdah observances remain vital, although they are gradually diminishing in intensity. Among the educated urban and rural elite, purdah practices are rapidly vanishing and for many have all but disappeared. Chastity and female modesty are still highly valued, but, for the elite, face-veiling and the burka are considered unsophisticated. As girls and women become more widely and more highly educated, female employment outside the home is commonplace, even for women of elite families.*

Widows in India

Becoming a widow is one of the worst fates that can befall a woman in traditional Hindu society. Even in urban, middle-class families they are forbidden from wearing bangles, the decorative dot between their eyes and bright colored saris of a married woman. In some rural villages, widows are often cast out of their homes by their families, left to spend the rest of their lives begging for money. Without a husband to define her existence a widow in many cases becomes a nonentity waiting for death.

Although a man may grieve for his deceased wife, a widow may face not only a personal loss but a major restructuring of her life. Becoming a widow in India is not a benign or neutral event. A man's death, particularly if it occurs when he is young, may be attributed to ill fortune brought upon him by his wife, possibly because of her sins in a past life. With the death of her husband, a woman's auspicious wifehood ends, and she is plunged into dreaded widowhood. The very word widow is used as an epithet. As a widow, a woman is devoid of reason to adorn herself. If she follows tradition, she may shave her head, shed her jewelry, and wear only plain white or dark clothing. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Hindus believe that a widow is still married to her husband even if he is dead. She is expected to be faithful to her dead husband and help him reach a higher spiritual plane by living in poverty and chanting prayers to the gods and praying continuously for her husband. If she has sex or remarries it is regarded as an act of adultery that is just as bad adultery committed against her alive husband. No restrictions are placed on a man after his wife dies. Some Hindu scoff at the tradition but many still accept it.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For centuries, Indian widows would throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres, reflecting the view that they were of little social worth without their protector and breadwinner. Although that practice, known as sati, has been outlawed, widows are still traditionally considered inauspicious, particularly in Bengali culture, their presence at weddings and festivals shunned and even their shadows seen as bad luck. Until a few decades ago, widows were often accused of causing their husbands' deaths — the mother-in-law in older Hindi films would accuse the new widow of "eating her son" alive. Even now, "unlucky" widows are scorned for remarrying, views reformers attribute more to India's male-dominated society than religious tenets. "Widows are treated like untouchables," said Bindeshwar Pathak, head of the civic group Sulabh International. "Indian tradition is very full of heritage and knowledge, but some of our traditions are beyond humanity." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012]


Rules for Remarriage Widows in India

According to Indian law widows are allowed to remarry but tradition pushes them into life of austerity. Women who are widowed young usually remarry because there is a shortage of women and a man without a wife is often overworked.

Widows of low-ranking groups have always been allowed to remarry, but widows of high rank have been expected to remain unmarried and chaste until death. In earlier times, for child brides married to older men and widowed young, these strictures caused great hardship and inspired reform movements in some parts of the country. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Rules for the remarriage of widows differ from one group to another. Generally, lower-ranking groups allow widow remarriage, particularly if the woman is relatively young, but the highest-ranking castes discourage or forbid such remarriage. The most strict adherents to the nonremarriage of widows are Brahmans. Almost all groups allow widowers to remarry. Many groups encourage a widower to marry his deceased wife's younger sister (but never her older sister). The remarriage rate among widows and widowers is also much higher among Muslims. Islam also does not discourage widow remarriage like Hinduism does.*

By restricting widow remarriage, high-status groups limit restructuring of the lineage on the death of a male member. An unmarried widow remains a member of her husband's lineage, with no competing ties to other groups of in-laws. Her rights to her husband's property, traditionally limited though they are to management rather than outright inheritance, remain uncomplicated by remarriage to a man from another lineage. It is among lower-ranking groups with lesser amounts of property and prestige that widow remarriage is most frequent. *

Difficult Life of Indian Widows

There are tens of millions of Hindu widows in India and more widows than any other country in the world. The high caste Hindu ones are expected to live a life of asceticism, wear white saris and chalky white marks on their foreheads that signify they are widows, sleep on the floors, eat bland vegetarian food, refraining from onions and garlic, refrain form wearing make up or jewelry and stay away from public celebrations such as weddings They cannot wear a forehead mark, toe rigs or bangles. Only married women are allowed to have these. The rational for some of these restrictions, in part, is to suppress sexual desires of the widows so they don’t betray their deceased husbands. Often times there are simply viewed as bearers of bad luck and a drag to have around.

Widows are expected to remain in their husband’s household performing disagreeable chores and suffer in silence. They are totally dependent on their in laws. Without them widows lose their children and their place in their community. Widows who are illiterate and lack skills have an especially hard time. This is often the case because women are often taught to serve their husbands and their families. They develop few skills other than what is required of them as daughters, wives and mothers.

One woman’s group leader put the life of a widow in this way: “Her life is socially, culturally and emotionally dead. Widowed women are harassed, abused and denied land and livelihood.” In the old days widows were often expected to shave their heads but that is rarely done anymore. Some survive by washing clothes and sweeping floors for neighbors in exchange for meals which they share with their children. Some are badly beaten. The Los Angeles Times talked to one woman who was beaten so badly by her son that one of her arms was paralyzed.

The cases are especially tragic for young women who marry young after being forced to wed older men, they didn’t want to marry in the first place, and their husband dies off not long after they are married. In some cases the widow is left destitute because all of her husband’s money was spent on medical care and paying off debts and the widow is forced to live with in-laws she doesn’t like who order her around. Sometimes when these women die they are simply thrown into a river because no one wants to cremate them.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “But social and generational changes are also evident. Even as prejudices linger in rural areas, a growing number of widows in urban areas or those from less-restrictive families remarry — sometimes to a brother-in-law — maintain careers and share the inheritance. All widows over 60 are eligible for a $16 monthly government pension and food allowance. But up to 80 percent are illiterate and unable to navigate India's labyrinthine bureaucracy. Even those who do succeed complain that inefficiency and corruption siphon off some of their money.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012]

Widows in Varanasi

Some widows head to Varanasi because that is the place where Hindu go to die. Several thousand widows from other parts of India live in Varanasi. There is one government-run ashram for them. It holds 16 people. Many are homeless and have been shunned by their families and have nowhere else to go. They are often referred to as Dasis, servants of God.

A businessman in Varanasi built a special ashram for the widows after prayers for the return of a ship he thought was lost at sea. Widows here have traditionally passed their day, sitting on the floor, with shawls and saris over their head so they look like humps of cloth and repeat "”Hare Krishna”, “Hare Rama” all day long. Some bath every morning in the Ganges.

Some widows survive by working in sweat shops where they cut up old clothes and weave the scraps into bedcovers for several dollar a day. Some are paid small amounts of money to recite prayers. Many are beggars who stake out prime spots along the Ganges or at temples.

Women’s groups try to help widows and politicians make promises but in the end little is done. In Vrindiavan there is an ashram that offers 110 widows some food, a place to live and teaches them to read and write. Otherwise they is little assistance for them.

Widows in Vrindavan

About several thousand widows live in Vrindavan, another pilgrimage city regarded as the hometown of Krishna, and live a similar life. The widows come to Vrindavan because they believe that by praying to Krishna, Krishna will give them a better life in their next reincarnation cycle.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Vrindavan in central India, a sacred town known as the City of Widows. Today, nearly 15,000 widows live in Vrindavan, where the Hindu god Krishna is said to have grown up. Although it is believed they were first drawn for religious reasons centuries ago, many widows now come to this city of 4,000 temples to escape abuse in their home villages — or are banished by their husbands' families so they won't inherit property.” [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012 ]

In August 2012, “an outraged Supreme Court ordered government and civic agencies to improve the lives of women in Vrindavan after local media reported abandoned corpses being put in sacks and tossed into the river, a charge officials deny. The government of West Bengal state, where most widows who live here come from, has since promised to provide them with government housing and a stipend exceeding what they'd receive in Vrindavan, which is in Uttar Pradesh state.

“But social workers, pointing to similar past initiatives, say follow-through is often lacking. Nor is it clear that the widows want to leave Vrindavan, said Yashoda Verma, who manages the 160-resident Mahila ashram. According to centuries-old Hindu laws, a widow hoping to obtain enlightenment should renounce luxuries and showy clothes, pray, eat a simple vegetarian diet (no onions, garlic or other "heating" foods that inflame sexual passions) and devote herself to her husband's memory. At least, that's the idea. "Very rarely do you see people go to Vrindavan because they're devoted to the cause," said Rosinka Chaudhuri, a fellow at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. "Sometimes it's blackmail, or if you're not loved enough, you take yourself up. But the numbers are staggering."

Sad Lives of Widows in Vrindavan

Reuters interviewed a 75-year-old widow in Vrindavan who was married at five, widowed just three days later, and has been a widow every since. She was taken care of by her father until age 12 and them caste out her family by her brothers and uncles. In the early 2000s she earned about 10 cents a day chanting Hindu hymns at a temple and supplemented that with occasional handouts of rice.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Lalita Goswami was married only a few years when her husband, a Hindu priest who beat her and abused drugs, died of an apparent overdose. She was left with three young children. Still, she said, being married was better than being a widow. That ordeal has lasted for decades. After her husband died, the brother-in-law who took her in kicked her out, forcing her back to her parents' home in Kolkata. Her brother saw her as a financial burden and neighbors ostracized her. In a bid to keep peace, her mother exiled her and her two youngest children to Vrindavan. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, October 16, 2012 ]

Goswami spends her time at Mahila Ashray Sadan, one of several widow ashrams supported by charities here. "What else could I do?" said Goswami, a solicitous woman who strokes visitors' faces and touches their feet in a traditional sign of respect. She lives in a 30-bed dormitory laced with the widows' meager possessions. Goswami recently lost her appetite and suffers from chronic diarrhea and nausea. The ashram gives her one meal a day and a $6-a-month allowance. Healthcare is scarce. "I'm 70, maybe 80," she said. "All I know is, my children have children." Many supplement their income by chanting up to five hours a day at local temples — essentially singing for their supper — in return for 10 cents and a bowl of rice. Goswami gave that up when her health deteriorated.

“Guddi, a resident in her 70s with a square face and a nose ring, said she came to Vrindavan after being abused by her daughter-in-law, a common complaint. "What's the point if they feed me two rotis [flatbread] but beat me with a shoe?" said Guddi, who uses one name. "If I'd been born a man, life would've been better. There isn't much respect for women in India."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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