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How Do We Look At A Widow In Our Society?

It was upon Nadeem Aslam’s recommendation, (in “Where to Begin”) that I looked up the Urdu short story “Sookhe Saavn” (Dry Rains) by Zamiruddin Ahmed. I read it a couple of times to orient myself with this dreamy world till the burn of the question wrung anew: What is the status of a widow in Pakistan? Are her desires, longings, hopes acknowledged, let alone understood? What is it like for her in a patriarchal society that shuns solitary women?

A widow suffers the death of her husband. She has hardly recovered from this hard truth, when our society starts to cast negative glances her way. There is pressure build-up from her family and in-laws, let alone outsiders. Suddenly the ‘respect’ that was afforded to her in a patriarchal set-up is taken away, and she is deemed as an outcast. It makes you think: is a woman only deemed worthy of respect in the shadow of a man?

The widowed world that we enter in Ahmed’s story is markedly different. Here is a slightly older woman who is a teacher, living on her own on economically satisfactory terms. It is also true, that at the onset of the story, enough time has passed by, for the ‘newness’ of widowhood to be dusted off. However, the protagonist is new to the feeling of being alone (her young daughter has recently been married off) and she experiences this new found freedom in a sensuous and enigmatic manner.

I’m thinking of random Pakistani dramas that I have seen, and realizing that not one dealt with the themes invoked in Ahmed’s story at all. In fact, once I had asked the content head of a well-reputed local channel as to how and why they didn’t show more independent women in their serials. In a matter-of-fact way, I was told that “this is in fact what the audiences want to see… the women watching these shows feel jealous of independent women.”

I was made to understand that the audiences relate to the helpless and wailing woman. Ahmed’s “Sookhe Saavn” challenges all such orthodoxy of opinion and makes its own case to the prevalent patriarchal mind-set which cannot allow women to be free – mentally, physically or emotionally. Here is a woman, who lives alone, but with a freedom even if it comes at a cost. The cost being loneliness, lost memories and an unlived potential of life.

Ahmed’s story converges exquisitely with the freeing sense encapsulated in nature, which Kate Chopin’s newly widowed protagonist also bravely explores in “Story of an Hour.” Both stories flaunt an intoxicating session with nature’s “delicious breath of rain.” Mrs. Mallard, in Chopin’s story, embraces the ‘spring air’ in daytime, whereas Ahmed’s heroine experiences it nocturnally. I think both feel liberated, as and how it can be felt for a widow who has acquired a new ‘freedom’ in an otherwise patriarchal world. This oneness with nature that both Ahmed’s and Chopin’s stories investigate, comes at a time when both women feel themselves as separate human beings, each full of independent desires.

These depictions of the widow, makes the reader affirm that the life of a widow does not come to a dismal standstill. It is in fact, even a new beginning, as one chapter of their lives is closing down, and yet another awaits opening. It is this sense of ‘discovery’ that both Chopin’s and Ahmed’s characters feel that is inspiring. Chopin’s 1000-word short story confronts the sudden absence of a man in a wife’s life as a moment of intense liberation. Ahmed, on the other hand, delves into a long and sustained absence of her man, and the play of memory and desire in a woman’s life. Both women recall their husbands with a bittersweet ache, both have a complicated relationship to the past. In context of society’s reaction to widows and women, I’d like to raise the question: does our society allow a woman to have a past? Both the narrations of “Sookhe Savn” and “Story of an Hour” challenge the herd opinion that women with a past are somehow tainted. The stereotypical mindset ought to be reflected over, as in the stories mentioned which explore the beauty of such women – a holistic view of a woman is lacking in society.

Another compelling depiction of a widow occurs in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colours: Blue.” In this movie, is painted a vivid description of the raw details of the state of mind of a woman who has recently lost her husband. One should watch it to be able to imagine what an acute sense of loss this can be. It comes with its own reserve and controlled shock in this particular woman’s case. The case of starting life anew, after a terrible sorrow, is not easy and we should not be too quick to discard or mock it. Great sorrow brings with it an air of sanctity which must be respected.

In the famous, Amitabh Bachan and Dharminder starrer “Sholay,” there is the presence of the quiet widow (played by Jaya Bachan) who keeps to herself and has forgotten how to laugh. Portraying her as the love interest of the hero, the stigma around an Indian widow is somewhat confronted. Culturally, Pakistani society is prone to stereotypes of the widow as well. She has to be quickly married off or else is a burden to the supporting family. This is at least one of the many reasons why economic independence is important for a woman.

There is a verse mentioned in the Ahmed’s story, that the teacher relates to her student:

رہی نہ طاقتِ گفتار اور اگر ہو بھی

تو کس امید پہ کہیے کہ آرزو کیا ہے

There is no strength left for speech; and even if there were,

With what hope could I really tell my ardent wish (translated by Muhammad Umar Memon)

It evokes in the reader a sense of the world of the widow caught in the patriarchy. A widow too has hopes, dreams and desires – and the loss of her husband is only a passing condition that she goes through – she does not stop being a woman in her own right. She too has a world to look forward to, perhaps even with a newfound sense of freedom.

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