Widowhood

The transition into widowhood, which is unrelated to any biological event in the life-course of women, receives considerable cultural elaboration in certain societies, where the widow is demeaned, compelled to change her appearance, and to engage in public acts that denote grief, such as wailing and inflicting pain on herself. She may be blamed and punished for her husband's death and accused of poisoning or sorcerizing him, unless she can prove her innocence, as Strathern (1972) reports for the people of Mount Hagen, New Guinea. Perhaps most dramatic (and most controversial) is the Indian custom of sati (suttee), which dictates that, to avoid widowhood, the bereaved wife must throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre to be immolated with his corpse (Hawley, 1994). Embree (1994) explains, "... in India, as elsewhere, widows were a special subset of dangerous women____Not only would life [as a widow] be miserable for her, but inevitably she would yield to base sensual passion and bring disgrace on her community" (pp. 155-156). In some societies, the widow is expected to enter into a leviratical marriage with her husband's brother, which places her in a relatively unenviable position, or she may be expected to return to the household of her own people, typically her brother's, where her welcome is questionable.

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