NEW DELHI — In most of India, millions of Hindu widows are expected to live out their days in quiet worship, dressed only in white. They are typically barred from all religious festivities because their very presence is considered inauspicious.
Until recently, Indian widows were expected to follow the socio-cultural codes of a patriarchal Hindu society that demands a woman lead a life of asceticism after a husband's death.
But slowly, widows are moving toward modernity.
The holy city of Vrindavan, in Uttar Pradesh, is known as the City of Widows because it has given shelter to thousands of poor women. Their lives appear to be changing for the better, with women's groups and Indian aid organizations taking interest in their welfare.
The widows are breaking age-old traditions of staying aloof by actively participating in Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali. They went a step further recently, participating in a fashion show.
PTI adds: Decked up in a lehnga-choli and wearing bright make-up, a nonagenarian sashayed down the ramp using a walking stick, as she marked a departure from age-old traditions that expect widows like her to renounce earthly pleasures.
Her catwalk was part of a fashion show for widows organized on Oct. 15 by NGO Sulabh International in which nearly 400 widows from Vrindavan and Varanasi as well as Deoli Brahmgram near Kedarnath, also known as the "Village of Widows" after the floods in Uttarakhand, took part.
"Look at these clothes I am wearing today. I did not dress up like this even on my wedding," said Urmila Tiwari, widowed at the age of 33 years.
Tiwari, who came from Vrindavan, explained the import of the fashion show. "Widows are often told that they can't do this or that. So, Pathakji is hosting this event in order to tell them why shouldn't they do everything and anything they want to."
"We have been given a new lease of life. He has painted us in colors through all this make-up," she added.
Her friend Kusum, who has accompanied her from Vrindavan, donned a colored sari for the first time since she lost her husband about two decades ago.
"We didn't know what was right or wrong. We merely followed what was expected of us. But now times have changed. Men and women are treated at par with each other," she said.
An 85-year-old with a tonsured head, too, echoed the same sentiment, adding that the pink lipstick she wore made her "uncomfortable." Of Nepali origin, she was married at the age of 14 and lost her husband the following year. She has been in Vrindavan for the past "14-15 years."
The event was inaugurated by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi, who also released two of Pathak's books. The books are titled "Widows in India: Study of Varanasi and Vrindavan" and "Supreme Court of India & Widows of Vrindavan."
Speaking about the show, Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, said, "We have turned a new chapter today."