NEW DELHI — In 1987, the death of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar in the village of Deorala shook India. The story told was that she committed sati, walking into her husband’s funeral pyre, in a trance and dressed in ceremonial red. After her death, her village deified her and people made pilgrimages to her village to pay their respects to the Maha Sati (Great Sati).
It was later uncovered that Roop Kanwar was buried under the firewood so she could not escape; she screamed and begged for help as the villagers watched her burn. National outcry provoked the arrest of a village doctor, her father-in-law, two brothers-in-law, the husbands of two aunts and their sons.
However, upon investigation, no one in the village admitted to seeing the sati take place. Everyone accused of murder was eventually acquitted by the court of law. Three weeks after her murder, Prime Minster made a public statement saying, “Sati is a national shame.”
The practice of sati has been banned since 1829 but no one has ever been successfully charged with murder or prosecuted under the law. Kanwar’s death brought to national attention the realities of how women are expected to behave in their societies and how their lives are devalued because they are female.
The practice of Sati is connected with the Hindu concept of partivrata: an honorable woman who has no existence apart from that of her husband. Sati is traditionally viewed as an example of a woman’s fidelity, sacrifice and religious piety. In “Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death and Female Infanticide in Modern India,” Mala Sen writes that “outliving one’s husband is seen as the worst possible punishment a woman can suffer… death is preferred to widowhood.”
Dowry deaths are another “Indian phenomenon” often published in national and international media. However, this is misnomer because the “terms contribute towards making domestic violence in India appear as unique, exotic phenomenon.” Dowry deaths are rarely due to the husband not receiving enough dowries (gifts and money upon marriage).
Domestic violence is using “brute force to establish power relations in the family whereby women are taught and conditioned to accepting a subservient status for themselves.” Dowry deaths are not about the dowries because “what a man states as his reason for beating a wife cannot be treated as the cause of that violence.”
Sati and dowry deaths are both examples of how Indian women’s lives are diminished to mere objects, expected to sacrifice again and again to prove their honor. In the case of sati, women are viewed as worthless without their husbands. In the case of dowry harassment and dowry death, women are stripped of their independence and exploited by their in-laws.
As long as practices such as sati and dowry deaths endure, women will be viewed as less significant and undervalued. They will be confined to the home and restrained from contributing to the formal economy, and pulling themselves out of poverty.
Violence against women is exacerbated by poverty and gender inequalities. But ending poverty calls for an end to violence against women.