Bhut Gali – Ghost Street… You couldn't have invented it: they are living on Ghost Street! Not really Hell or Purgatory, but a place that is not imaginary nor a place far away from the real world. This is a real place, here and now, among humans- the last refuge of loneliness and abandonment as they come to the end of a path that leads from life to total absence. On their benches of silence, widows, they often wait and hope for nothing better than death.

One can easily recognize them when they venture out onto the streets, begging and looking for some food, hidden behind white veils and a posture more self-effacing than discreet. It is even more likely to see them in the narrow lanes, skulking, sliding along the walls like shadows, so as not to show themselves or be seen, because they bring misfortune: they could not keep their husbands alive. They are like black cats! A chance encounter in the morning brings bad luck.

But we are not speaking of cats but of human beings, and these women in India make up a group of 45 million. Forty five million women who have to make themselves so small that they pass unnoticed, until they disappear forever.

“The state of widowhood is a great calamity in a patriarchal and traditional society like India and patriarchy has played the biggest role in the total marginalization of widows.
Institution Women Men
Remarriage Widow remarriage difficult, almost impossible in case of elderly women and widows with children Widowers are encouraged to remarry, do remarry easily
Patrilocality Widowed daughter-in-law persuaded or compelled to forego the rights on property and return to parents home Men retain the right to reside at and enjoy the parental property
Widowhood Widows given secondary status, ill-treated on socio-cultural and religious occasions Status of widowers unaffected
Joint Family Rights of women circumvented, widows deprived of their legitimate share Elder brothers and males benefited at the expense of younger ones and women.

As widows, women suffer some of the most severe subjugation of their whole lives. Widowed women are harassed, abused, and denied land and livelihood. The widows have to face many kinds of deprivation: economic, social, cultural and emotional. Of all the deprivation the economic derivation is the most harmful. (…) Among basic causes of their vulnerability are restrictions on the residence, inheritance, remarriage and employment opportunities of widows. The situation of widows in North India is worsened by the system of Patrilocal residence, whereby widows cannot return to their parents' home even though they are often rejected by their in-laws. “
The Guild of Service.

"For the majority of these women, life is what some have described as a "living sati", a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning. A widow is sometimes called "pram" or creature, because it was only her husband's presence that gave her human status. They couldn't be present at the rituals and celebrations that form such an integral part of Indian life, such as marriage or birth ceremonies. In some cases even her shadow was considered polluting or offensive to "cleaner" members of society. Washer men wouldn't wash their clothes, no shopkeeper would sell things to them, they wouldn't be able to participate in any rituals, and so on, so it was considered a great sin." (Dheera Sujan)

Indian journalists' outrage, as expressed in Aarti Dhar's well documented series in The HIndu or Dheera Sujan's in RNW, raised awareness of this tragic situation.

J. VENKATESAN wrote: “The Supreme Court on Friday expressed shock at the inhuman disposal of the bodies of widows, who lived in government shelter homes at Vrindavan, by chopping them into pieces on the plea of lack of money for proper cremation.”

By the end of 2011, the Supreme Court was moved, and required the State Governments to provide decent cremations to deceased widows, and asked NGOs to study how to quickly remedy the plight of these women.

Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the powerful organization Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, with 50 000 volunteers, has already undertaken a long struggle for the restoration of the untouchables. He launched the fight for widows in August 2012. Pathak has assigned a suitable monthly pension to more than 750 women in five ashrams of Vrindavan and did the same a few months later for hundreds of widows in Varanasi. To encourage them to no longer beg, he bought sewing machines to enable them to secure a share of their income themselves. He urged teachers to teach them to sew, make incense sticks, but also to read and write. Discovering these old women following carefully the explanations of their teacher at the blackboard, while proudly raising their slates, is terribly moving.

Dr. Pathak, a disciple of Gandhi, knows it will take a long path of patience to succeed. He knows that he will also have to win the people's support and the sympathy of the media. So he has embarked on a spectacular demonstration. Widows are traditionally excluded from religious ceremonies and festivals. Who cares! This is where he plans to strike the public's attention. For the first time, on the 24th and 25th of March 2013, hundreds of widows celebrated Holi, the Festival of Love and Spring, the Festival of Colours, which is forbidden to them, the Ladies in white veiled like Ghosts. But beware, they celebrated Holi with holy waterfalls and showers of millions of colourful flower petals offered and brought there by SULABH MOVEMENT. Although this is happening in their ashram and not on public roads, a dozen Indian and international journalists and photographers are invited. The event could make the front page of several major Indian newspapers. The world is changing...

For a long time I wanted to address this issue on widows but I was wondering how to approach it. My Indian friends asked me: "How are you going to present this? It’s truly distressing and terribly sad but why would you suddenly show this dramatic and dark side of India, you who have always shown its deep beauty? Why do this now? What do you plan to do with such excruciating pictures? You always looked at India showing its deep beauty, so what now? Where are you going with such overwhelming pictures? And moreover, you are badly placed, you Westerners to come and judge us, or even bear witness on this subject! How and where do your old parents die, in the West? They are most often left alone in nursing homes, while we, in India, with the preserved extended family, are able to with the preserved links of solidarity in the "Joint Family", are able to keep many of our elders at home until they pass away. So please, do not give us any lesson! "

But today, it is not a question of giving lessons. Many dedicated Indians rise and act to change things. Judges, journalists, associations involved as Sulhab Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, generous social reformers like Dr. Pathak make their voices heard. A breeze of hope begins to blow. We must witness, encourage, and support it.

The future of millions of girls depends on this rising awareness. They should no longer live the plight of these widows. This is perhaps a new dawn for a whole people.

And so, I'm simply happy to have photographed these widows because I find them so beautiful and dignified, with their searching looks and their desire to once again smile at life, at other human beings. We danced and they hugged us so fraternally and so tightly I thought their bones might crack, but they just modestly laughed.

They are fragile, so fragile, and yet so strong. I respect and admire them. I love them with all my heart.

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