Queering the Woman-Widow: Visiting this Gender as an Oxymoron

Image Credits: Niranjan Shrestha. ‘Nepal criminalises isolation of women during their periods’. The Times, 10 August 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nepal-criminalises-isolation-of-women-during-their-periods-jbwl3c8cv.

by S.R. (she/her/they/them)

TW: rape

Ideating the term ‘queer’

The phrase ‘queer’ has made a protracted adventure; in phrases of the definitions, it meant and has touched on meanings that are greatly exclusive but rather linked. The preliminary means of the phrase dates lower back to 1508 Scotland, in which it meant “strange, peculiar”. Close to 1812, the phrase advanced to mean ‘to spoil, ruin’ and became used as a verb. Only after a hundred years, in 1935, it began getting used as a noun withinside the area of “homosexual”. However, the term ‘queer’ is open-ended and it is indeed important to know how this open-endedness of the term ‘queer’ has made itself politically more efficacious. Queer activists Gayle Rubin’s article argues that ideas about sexuality are structured “strategically” in binary oppositions, where one side is positive, good, moral, strong, and right and the other side is negative, bad, immoral, weak and wrong. Sexuality has thus then become nothing more than a commodity. As described by Judith Butler-

My understanding of queer is a term that desires that you don’t have to present an identity card before entering a meeting. Heterosexuals can join the queer movement. Bisexuals can join the queer movement. Queer is not being lesbian. Queer is not being gay. Queer is an argument against certain normativity, what a proper lesbian or gay identity is.[1]

Thus, Queer/queering means to protest against any normative structure; Queer becomes a term which embraces more fluid categories, does not binarize, and most importantly provides humans with a “peculiar” lens to view any normativity of socio-cultural threads. The diversity and fluidity of ‘queer’ have made it accessible to and applicable in the intricately designed world of literary theories! Therefore ‘Queer’ will always remain politically radical, the radicalism which first perpetuated the movement against normativity. The ambiguity of the word ‘queer’ has indeed benefitted political activism and has functioned as an emancipatory notion because it has no fixed referent. So, ‘queer theory’ is broadly used to resist patriarchal dichotomies, heteronormativity and to pull out the oppressive subjugation of all ‘bodies’. particularly women and other minorities by disclosing the underlying power structures that produces.

Woman-Widow and Widower terminologies

Why Queering is important here? Judith Butler enchantingly stated Queer means an argument against any normativity, so the ‘normative’ definition of women must be queered to bring out the sufferings of the widows, by critiquing the underlying power structures that produce the widow and widower. Women and the concept of ‘what a woman is’ have repeatedly revisited the definable spaces of the socio-literary and political domain in phases and faces that are represented within the patriarchally coveted Brahminical hierarchies.  The definition and conceptualization of the ‘objective women’ have been enlisted by personalities according to the political interpretation of the body identified as women, and what it is, when placed amidst the complexities of phallus-power discourse. To remember Simone de Beauvoir regarded women are ‘marked in absence’ so rules are imposed on them, but men are considered ‘universal’ hence they are invisibly present like ‘omnipotent’ fundamental organisms. Therefore, the construction of a woman’s identity is circulated and trapped within the ‘beating and molesting’ survival, where patience and tolerance measure the skin’s ability to accept and move on. Within the Indian spectrum, the viable ideal formation of ‘women’ is when they associated and adhere to the forever ‘sacrificial framework’ of the ‘self’, which is in a way easier for the women and unquestionable too, for they do not know ‘what to question’! Judith Butler’s careful explanation of what a woman can be has really deconstructed the monolith identity patriarchy created for them, and which Queer lens has allowed us to perceive enthusiastically; Butler stated- “Women are the sex which is not “one”. Within…a phallogocentric language, women constitute the unrepresentable…women represent the sex that cannot be thought, a linguistic absence and opacity”. The cultural construction of women as a stabilized solid and presumable umbrella veils the intersectional experience of woman. Hence it is crucial to critique identity-solidifying discourses with the variability of experiences. Who is a widow? Adhering to the binarized structures that refuse to accept the hues, the definition of a widow is associated with the body of a woman, for ‘widow’ is a noun here but more appropriately receives the ‘object’ position within the syntactical framework. Power discourse constructed the widow as the woman who will be widowed by the death of the partner; meaning the one who will be on the receiving end of the widowhood, not the maker of the widow. Thus, the widow then by linguistic position becomes a powerless word of identity; a word that is pitied and victimized. Now, a widower is also a noun but that receives a subject-position is the syntactical relation, for widower is the person in power of widowing a body, an identity. So, widows are ‘created’ by widowers, which means ‘power-discourse’ framed a masculine noun widower to indicate the power of a phallus even after their death to control the identity of a woman, so using the feminine noun indicates widow. Here these words- widow and widower are clearly adhering to the computing binary of identities. Putting the queer lens to it, I find that the definitive features associated with these terms are problematic. A widow has to be a woman wearing white, naming God, without any symbols of color and I ask why. Red is a color linked with the symbol of marriage in India, but since childhood every woman wears red, then why suddenly only as a marker is red associated? Secondly, red is also indicative of vibrant life, desire, but I question why a 20-year-old widow cannot be vibrant and have desire, but can be sold to prostitution to get desire out of her body; what is wrong with that or even why an 80-year-old widow cannot have so? These questions prick those solidifying monolithically dominating patriarchal powers who have constructed identities as fixed and their features must never be questioned, a reason for which the widows of Varanasi suffer.

Widows of Varanasi – The Branched Outcast

The presentation of women oscillates as per operating domains. India the concept of women draws an intricate intersectional perception for it keeps altering like the diversity we have. The concept of women strongly channelizes the idea of widows; a fear is installed in them as to ‘what would happen to them without their husband’, for women and their definitions as Irigaray regarded was defined by men and established in relation to the phallus. The fear of ‘what will happen to me’ was less than the fear of what society would do to me. The minds of women were so beautifully ingrained with dark ritualistic hues that they feared life in the ‘absence’ of their husbands. An important issue to regard here is the absence-presence. Until the presence of the husband the woman is the wife (a linguistic absence and a marked presence), but the moment this husband figure dies, the wife is the widow who suddenly becomes the ‘absently marked presence’; a fright starts evolving within her psychic framework now what; hence all regulations on the body. We must understand that rules are not imposed on the identity-widow; rather, on the body-women who is a widow! The issue of widows burning or killing themselves can be seen even in Independent India, few such cases include-

Cultural dimensions operating with India have framed excuses to keep going with the patriarchal approaches to widowhood. The issue of Varanasi can be also traced to Religious cultural power-play. Varanasi is a centre of Hindu worshippers and priests, which means, that majorly Brahmins are the rulers of the place. The notion of controlling and regulating bodies and identities churned from the time Brahmins replace and reformed the Vedic system and beliefs; the position of women started degrading since then, as ‘history’ marks. Varanasi, therefore, is already a land of “pure religion” without liberty of religious choices; thereby a place of subjugation clearly. Now the different subject position of women in such a “pure” religious phallogocentric society is doubly oppressed. So, what happens to widows there? Commencing from colors to hairstyles all gets curbed through and under the lens of patriarchal rules, for women and widows of Varanasi are not defined as they wish to define themselves; instead are defined as patriarchal gazes and beliefs wishes to re-present their lives-identities-stories under the veil and excuse of religious-purity. Now, this culture has produced widows as ‘outcasts’ in our social organization. Women’s presentation has always been associated with men- they are the daughters/the wives/the mothers; roles that are organized intricately in connection to the ‘unshifting’ position of ’men’- the subjects! In Varanasi the widows are ‘pariahs’; some are old as eighty years while some are young as twenty years. The older ones beg with their “rotten” skin and empty stomachs to earn their food; while the younger ones are thrown into prostitution to suffer until their skin is rotten and they start begging! Further oppression of widows includes-

  • Widows are made to lose their lofty shiny hairs, colors of life, and sexual desire after the death of their husbands; they are to give their lives in the service of God or violence or serve as sex slaves for all phallus customers. They are not even provided with the chance to explore whether or not they desire or hate a ‘phallus’!
  • The oppression and horrendous condition of women have nothing to do with “natural” rules (rules are never natural), rather it is very much a cultural product turned into destined futures for the gender- women. After the death of their husband remaining untouched is the way to go to heaven or burning the flesh along with the funeral pyre of the husband is the way to reach heaven. In association with this quoting of a misogynistic line from the texts of Agni Purana which states that- “The widow who practices self-control and austerities after the death of her husband, goes to heaven…the widow who burns herself on the same funeral pyre with her husband also goes to heaven” (222.19-23).[2]
  • Sadly, therefore practices of getting bald, getting white(s) on heads and bodies, and forgetting the individual existence of the self, result in a horrific future for these women. The home which recognized them as a part of it turns hostile and just throws them out; a huge sense of uncanny reverberates through all known ‘relationships’ under the name of ‘culture’!
  • Abandoned by society these widows often seek shelter in ashrams, where their fat have no assurance
  • Coming to Varanasi as widows to hope for ‘a home in the heaven’ after their death to find peace and reclamation as Varanasi is associated with Lord Shiva, alternatively kills their left years of lives too!
  • Census figures state that Uttar Pradesh has the largest population of children marrying; more than 2.9 million children between 18-19 years old are married off to old men, resulting in younger widows.

The situation of a woman’s identity as the ‘oxymoron’ presentation now needs a stoppage, where every time woman must not be visualized within the structural binary if ‘pure/impure’, ‘wife/whore’, ‘an angel/devil’ and so on. The religious veil of Varanasi instigates and fuels the exploitation of widows there, a voice that needs to be heard! Since people are hardly aware of the knowledge provided within Gita and Vedic and Upanishada readings; particularly women are barely allowed to enter the reading of these texts; often the phallus power moulds it as per their need. The 20-year-old getting widowed is given to prostitution by a priest, no one questions. The widow is said to live with the priest for cleansing her soul of all ‘dirt/pollution’ and then the priest rapes her body and after doing out with his lust dumps her into prostitution: religious pyres frame widowhood and its rules. Since within a phallogocentric society everything is phallus-oriented, the resulted rules of widowhood also cramp women. These incidents start with child marriage. The majority of them suffer from HIV-positive health impacts. The duplicable removal of widows from society as ‘outcasts’ has resulted in more than 38000 in number, where 12000+ women are between the age of 20-45. Varanasi is known not only as the land of widows but also as a religious land; hence, religious blindness, and lack of educational awareness results in the phallus-dominated religion ruling the bodies. The exclusion of widows and seclusion of their identities are therefore results of extreme patriarchal religious acts. Thus the objectification and suppression of women from and under diverse layers is still a question that is composed under ‘silent discourse’. Within this cultural heterogeneity of India, this subjugative power regime that commodifies women from birth to death and turns their lives into a living hell needs discussion, urgently. It is very important now that we stop pitying the widows as victims of our religion(s), and start discussing and questioning the religious features which make and construct these objective widows!

About the Author:

Being an Independent Researcher (since 2020), Suparna Roy has completed her Master’s Degree in English (2018-2020) and is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Education (B.ED- 2020-2022). She has completed intermediate level in the French Language too and served as an Online Communicative English Trainer at Inspira (2020-2021-Nov); moreover, she is actively involved in presenting in seminars and conferences where her papers and works are focused on Gender Studies, India English Literature, Caste, and Cultural field. Also has got more than 20 publications (journals, chapters in books, pre-prints, magazines, e-newspaper, books), and 25+ presentations to date. She has also completed a research project under Think India Tribal Rights Forum (one month), where her topic of research was- Tribal Women, Traditional Occupation and Kinship Ties: A Queer View of the Socio-Economic Status of the Mewar Tribes. Currently, she has received the Summer Sexuality fellowship 2022 from the California Institute of Integrated Studies for three months- June 3rd to September 1st to conduct research under Dr Penny Harvey and Dr Michelle Marzullo. Her extra merits include short certified courses, co-authoring 10+ anthologies relating to people’s literature and social subjects, participating in social events, mixed martial arts, and classical dancing.


[1] Butler, Judith. “The Desire for Philosophy: Interview with Judith Butler”. http://criticaltheorylibrary.blogspot.com/2011/05/judith-butler-desire-for-philosophy.html, 2001.

[2] Purana, Agni. 222.19-23. https://rattibha.com/thread/1305883502584315911?lang=en.

Image Credits:

Shrestha, Niranjan. ‘Nepal criminalises isolation of women during their periods’. The Times, 10 August 2017, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nepal-criminalises-isolation-of-women-during-their-periods-jbwl3c8cv.

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