- Before 12th Century
A widow is a woman whose spouse has died, while a man whose spouse has died is a widower. The state of having lost one's spouse to death is termed widowhood or occasionally viduity. The adjective form is widowed. The treatment of widows around the world varies, but unequal benefits and treatment generally received by widows versus widowers globally has spurred an interest in the issue by human rights activists.
Economic position of widows
In societies in which the husband was typically the sole provider, his death could plunge his family into poverty. This problem can be aggravated by the general longer life spans of women, and that men in many societies traditionally marry women younger than themselves. However, even in some patriarchal societies, widows could maintain economic independence. A widow could carry on her late husband's business and consequently be accorded certain rights, such as the right to enter guilds. More recently, widows of elected officials have been among the first women elected to office in many countries (e.g. Corazon Aquino). In Romantic-Era Britain, widows had more opportunity for social mobility than in many other societies throughout history. Also, along with the ability to ascend socio-economically, women who were “presumably celibate” were much more able (and likely) to challenge conventional sexual behavior than married women in their society.
In other cultures, however, widowhood is much stricter and unarguably more demeaning to the rights’ of women. Oftentimes, women are required to remarry within the family of their late husband after a period of mourning. With the rise of HIV/AIDS levels of infection across the globe, rituals in which women are succumbed to in order to be “cleansed” or accepted into her new husband’s home makes her susceptible not only to the psychological adversities that may be involved, but impeding health risks. It is often necessary for women to comply with the social customs of her area because her fiscal stature is dependent on it, but this custom is also often abused by others as a way to keep money within the patriarchal family. It is also uncommon for widows to challenge their treatment because they are often “unaware of their rights under the modern law…because of their low status, and lack of education or legal representation.”
Even in the U.S., as of 2004, women who are “widowed at younger ages are at greatest risk for economic hardship.” Similarly, married women who are in a financially unstable household are more likely to become widows “because of the strong relationship between mortality [of the male head] and wealth [of the household].” In underdeveloped and developing areas of the world, conditions for widows are much more severe still. However, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“now ratified by 135 countries”), while slow, is working on proposals which will make certain types of discrimination and treatment of widows (i.e. violence, withholding property rights) illegal in the countries that have joined CEDAW.
Widows in Indian Culture
In India, there is often an elaborate ceremony during the funeral of a widow's husband, including smashing the bangles, removing the bindi as well as any colorful attire, and requiring the woman to wear white clothes, the color of mourning. Earlier it was compulsory to wear all white after the husband was dead, and even a tradition known as sati or suttee was sometimes practiced, where the newly-widowed woman would throw her body onto her husband’s burning funeral pyre. However, in modern-day culture the norms for clothing has gradually given way to colored clothing, and sati practice has been banned in India for more than a century. The ban began under British rule of India and is much owed to the persistence of social reformer Ram Mohan Roy, who asserted that sati was a means of showing status rather than a universal ritual in India, and that “there are other ways of doing it than by burning wives.”