A few years ago, one of our neighbors in Afghanistan fell from his roof during the winter. He got injuries and lost his life. After his passing, his wife’s life changed drastically. A few days after his funeral, his mother took his kids and kicked out his wife out. His family firmly believed that she was the reason for his death because she had brought bad luck. After few days, the widowed woman had to move to Iran to live with her brother because she had no means for economic self-sufficiency.
According to the United Nations, there are an estimated two million women widows in Afghanistan. They account for about six percent of the population and face a wide range of issues including legal discrimination, lack of economic opportunities, and stigma. Too often when a man dies, many of his wife’s rights do as well. There is a tradition of marrying widowed women, often without their consent, to their brother-in-law. This is done partly so they have someone to financially provide for them and partly to maintain familial rights and ownership over the children and inheritance of the woman. In addition, Afghan women don’t have custody rights over their children after the father passes away. Often grandfathers or uncles on the side of the father receive custody over children. This is partly due to lack of economic opportunities for widowed women. When they can’t afford to provide for their children, their deceased husband’s family is more likely to take over custody.
In addition to the legal barriers and lack or economic opportunity, widowed women are often stigmatized and considered bad luck or burdens on the family of the deceased. They are often shamed, stigmatized and punished for showing happiness, wearing bright colors, or celebrating life in any way. For nearly a year after one becomes a widowed woman one is required to act somber and maintain a rigid demeanor to exude grief.
Widowed Afghan women are often called “besarparast”, meaning “without-a-head-of-household”. Regardless of whether they work or not or can support their families or not, widowed women are not considered the heads of their own families after their husbands pass. From national television shows to governmental figures to local people, everyone uses the word “besarparast” to describe widowed women without considering how condescending it is. This term assumes that women always need a male head of household and they cannot be considered the owners and decision-makers of their own lives. This word and the thinking behind it is what leads family members and relatives to interject in the lives of woman widows and make decisions about who they should marry, where they should reside, etc.
When a wife dies, their husband is not called a “widow” let alone “besarparast”. We don’t have a Persian word for a widowed man. Usually the husbands remarry to someone of their choice, but a widowed man who takes care of his children by himself is considered a hero. On the other hand, widowed women are robbed of the right to custody and even if they do take care of their children, it is considered a part of their job and nothing extraordinary. If a widowed man remarries, people say that he married because he needed someone to take care of his kids but if a widowed woman remarries, people will often frown upon it unless she marries a close relative who can be the new male head of household.
On International Widows Day, it is important to remember that even today, too often when an Afghan woman becomes a widow, she is considered less and given fewer rights and opportunities.