Widowhood rites: Should a woman comply?

If it is tradition

The existence of widowhood rites at the beginning of time must have been to serve certain holistic purposes which have been derailed as cultures have become dynamic in their changes.

Derailed in its totality, especially here in Nigeria. And if you don’t believe me about the horrors of widowhood rites, ask any and many women who have had to go through one dehumanizing act or the other to show that they really truly loved their husbands so much that they’re ready to be subjected to any act to show that they respect the acts, norms and cultures of their dead husbands and their family, even when most of those acts are lies perfected by the man’s family to scare and lay their hands on what they believed the man left behind in terms of material wealth. Marriage is supposed to be ‘till death do us part’.

Widowhood rites are therefore an extension of the marriage contract beyond what both partners had initially planned or bargained for.

Cultural norms and traditions play a large role in what widowhood rites are or should be. A lot of women, who are in cross-cultural relationships most often, find themselves involved in very strange rites at the demise of their husbands.

Even within the same culture, women whose dead husbands left them something or which the family assumes or believes have inherited something are subjected to acts that are dehumanizing. Modernity has empowered a lot of women to the extent that they may even be the primary breadwinners of their families.

That they did not come out when the man was alive to ‘burst his bubbles’ to tell the true story of how cash was coming in, does not mean that all that they laboured for should be subjected to scrutiny and forceful takeover by the man’s family after his demise.

A lot of women these days go through a lot to fend for the family. Most of them are the backbones or pillars upon which the family rests. Being made to suffer instead of being pampered by the man’s family after his death is something I do not subscribe to. Not all widowhood rites are bad however. Some are done in good faith to make a woman feel welcomed and to also have a sense of belonging within the social framework of the community. In some communities, once a woman is widowed, feeding her and her children, if they have not attained an age to fend for themselves becomes the job of the man’s family. I have examples of widows who are lucky to belong to this group.

Some are so pampered by their in-laws that they won’t even want to remarry again. I know of a family friend whose husband died at a relatively young age leaving her with three kids.

The mother-in-law, according to her has been so good to her that she feels that even her dead husband didn’t take care of her needs as well as the woman. I also know of another who is almost being treated like royalty by her dead husband’s people. This is not to say that they wouldn’t have prayed that their husbands didn’t die, but that life after the death of their partners haven’t been all bad.

Pregnancies may also be protected if the woman did not know that she was pregnant before he died. The unborn child is given hope of having a name and identity within the man’s family if during the period of rite of incarceration she discovers she is pregnant. That a man dies shouldn’t be an excuse for his immediate family to suffer. Some widows may get inherited in certain parts of the country.

They will become wives to other members of the man’s family. To the man’s family, this may be to take care of the children and widow or as a means to getting their hands on the properties of the dead man. Given all the above, I won’t say women shouldn’t perform it. All I’ll say here is that society should stop the dehumanizing part of it. And that women shouldn’t allow themselves to be debased to show that they loved their husbands. Marriage is a joyful thing; it shouldn’t end with sorrows for the living.

No way

When a woman loses her husband, her clock freezes; it is almost like the end of the world for her; it could even drive her crazy; events begin to unfold in quick succession and she is suddenly faced with a bleak and uncertain future. Coupled with all these, she is faced with all sorts of demands from her husband’s family, their local community and the society as a whole.

According to most norms, there are things which a widow must or must not do, particularly within the three to six months following her husband’s death. Widowhood rites vary from ethnic group to ethnic group, but most practices are, in my opinion, extreme. No one says a woman should not mourn her husband. Of course, she should, but how? Must her mourning be according to laid out rules, regulations and procedures created by communities over the years?

Does the submission to and performance of these rites prove sorrow and a deep sense of loss? Because of the way some tribes practise widowhood rites, a lot of women dread the rites more than they dread the loss of their husbands.

They would rather die before their husbands in order to be free of the woes and traumas of widowhood rites. When they think of the rites and see what widows go through in this regard, they pray for their husband’s sound health and long life (laughing out loud!).

This is not a women-liberation point of view, but don’t you ever wonder why no man is subjected to any rites in the event of the death of his wife (I have never heard of morning rites for widowers!)? I have never seen a widower dressed in white or black clothing in the name of mourning, except at his wife’s funeral.

In the same vein, I have never heard of any tradition which requires a man to go bald or stay indoors, sitting on a mat for over three weeks; have you? It is almost as if a woman should suffer because her husband died.

These rites seem to insinuate that a widow is the cause of her husband’s death and must therefore serve a sentence like a convicted criminal. One could actually rephrase the widowhood rites instructions thus: “By reason of the death of your husband, you are hereby sentenced to a doomed life. Your hair shall be shaved immediately. You shall be confined in the family house in the village for at least three weeks during which you shall remain on a raffia mat.

You shall be dressed in plain white or black clothing, without make up or jewellery for at least three months. You are banned from remarrying and you shall remain Mrs. — for the rest of your life!” Yeah, this sounds ridiculous, but isn’t this what it really is?

Let’s be frank. The most barbaric of them all is the one which requires a widow to drink water that was used to wash her dead husband’s body in order to prove that she did not kill him. Very inhuman practice, but unfortunately, we are surrounded by advocates and implementers of such rites.

The other crazy one is that which requires the widow to marry her late husband’s brother or relative. We all think that this is ancient practice, but the truth is that you can’t live in Germany and assume you know everything going on in France. Neither the television and radio stations nor the internet can tell it all.

If I have stirred up your curiosity, conduct a personal survey by initiating casual discussions on this issue. Ask your neighbours, colleagues, relatives and friends about what obtains in their local communities. You will definitely be amazed at what goes on. I believe widows should be treated with more empathy than some traditions permit.

The death of a woman’s husband is enough trauma for her, so she should not be further traumatized by these so-called traditional widowhood rites.

The woes that widows experience in our society are unbearable. Those who claim that those rites are the true proof of mourning are big liars. A widow should be allowed to mourn her late husband in her own way; after all, it is she who wears the shoe that knows where it pinches. So should a woman submit to traditional widowhood rites? I think not.


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