I would be marginalized at best, inhabiting the netherworld between normal existence and the grave. I would be shorn of my hair and denied permission to partake in family meals, would sleep on the ground, and be generally fenced from polite society by pollution taboos-if I were a widow in parts of India today.
Since widowhood is now my beat, I cock an ear to reports of how my counterparts are faring throughout the world: Like in Zambia, where, according to the locally based organization Women and Law in Southern Africa, the relatives of the deceased may help themselves to the property of the marriage, and the widow must be "purged" of her husband's spirit by having sex with a member of his family (this on a continent rife with AIDS!). Or in Zimbabwe, where law does not allow a widow to inherit from her dead husband, and where the custody of her children may be transferred to her husband's relatives. Or in Swaziland where widows are the poorest of the poor. Or Nigeria, where a widow may not work for a year after her husband's death, to prove that she has not killed him. Or in Tanzania, where widows, suspected as witches, have been stoned to death.
The Sanskrit sati literally means "a good woman" or "a true wife." The Rite of Sati, that is, the burning of a widow along with the dead husband (lest she reap the bad Karma to be born a woman again in her next reincarnation!) has been practiced since before Christ, and indeed had its practitioners in other ancient cultures as well. In the 17th century, the custom prevailed mostly in Bengal where, combined with polygamy, it now and then produced the spectacle of 40 or 50 women immolated with a single man.
Theoretically a voluntary act, Sati was in practice reduced to murder, as the widow was drugged, tied to her husband's lifeless body, and forced with bamboo sticks onto the burning pyre. Undergirding, always, has been the cultural mindset of the woman's single-minded desire to please her husband-and the husband's single-minded desire to lord over his wife!
"Desire for the husband." "Rule over the wife." Is this not an echo of Genesis 3, a demonic twist on the divinely ordained order, cosmic abnormality now become a grim normality, at least in the parts of this groaning creation where they did not say, "Blessed on the mountains are the feet of those that bring good news"? While the ship of civilization in Europe took a different, more salubrious, turn on the rudder of James 1:27 and Psalm 68:5, beginning the slow and steady reversal of the Edenic curse, elsewhere the nations languished for centuries in darkness, and called it light. (Syria's President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite branch of Muslims which, contrary to mainstream Islam, believes that women do not have souls.)
William Carey brought the true light to India (along with the printing press and medicine). But it was hijacked by Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) who, admitting that biblical truth was "more conducive to moral principles ... than any other," was nevertheless loath to see Hinduism outflanked by Christianity, and started his own anti-sati reform movement. The Sati Abolition Act was implemented in British India in 1829. For all that, the practice has its spotty practitioners to this day, and a whole cottage industry of Sati has developed, complete with Sati temples that peddle picture prints of Ram Sati, as a woman on a burning pyre.
All this the modern feminists forget, as they decry Christianity while standing on its shoulders, impugning its record on the status of women while reaping its benefits. They would borrow its capital to discredit it; they would slay it with the very sword that it has tendered them. And such were many of us, who in our '60s journeys looked for light and liberation in all the wrong places. (My own brother, now a missionary himself, found Christ on the River Ganges where he sat reading the Baghavad-Gita, when an Indian man sidled up and handed him the Gospel of John. Ah! The depths of the riches of the mercy and humor of God!)
As long as our colleges today are crowding out the traditional humanities curriculum with such offerings as "Fetishim," "Queer Theory," and "Third Wave Feminism and Girl Culture" (actual titles), maybe we could sneak in one of our own and call it "Widowhood Through Two Millennia: The Difference Christ Has Made." We might even learn that wisdom did not spring fully formed in this generation, and we might see how much better off we are to be married, or single, or even widowed, in a culture sweetened by the gospel.