THE SHAVING OF WIDOWS' HEADS IN BOMBAY.
TF the telegram from Bombay, published in the Times of Monday, is true, which we do not doubt, and means what it appears to mean, of which we are nearly as certain, it records one of the most interesting and hopeful incidents ever reported from British India. According to this account, the barbers of Bombay, four hundred strong, have met in a formal caste meeting ; have decided that it is oppres- sive to shave the heads of Hindoo widows ; and have agreed that if any barber henceforward performs the operation, he shall be expelled his caste. The new rule thus passed will never be broken until it is repealed, and it means that oppres- sion of the most cruel kind, sanctioned by religious feeling, protected by a custom of immemorial antiquity, and defensible by serious social arguments, has been abolished from humani- tarian motives by the members of a low trade who would have greatly profited by its continuance. The barbers have, as it were, rebelled against their own razors because they were put to a bad use. That is a bit of evidence as to the possibility of the filtration of benevolent ideas in India downwards from the cultivated class through the population, of a quite invaluable kind. The English in India have repeatedly accomplished improvements of a similar sort; but it has always been through pressure from above, which, though successful for its immediate end, left, or may have left, the minds of their subjects precisely where they were before,—that is, prepared to renew their sanction for cruelties the moment the external impulse towards mercy was removed. The practice of suttee, for instance, has been abolished, apparently without resistance ; but every now and then, on the edge of a Native State, or in some district almost out of sight, a case is recorded under circumstances which suggest that it is not a change of feeling, but only the Law which prevents a general revival of a custom under which great native ladies were burned alive, amid the applause of the priesthood, by their own sons and brothers. The slaughter of female children among Rajpoot tribes has almost ceased, but it still requires the jealous watchfulness of the State to keep it from reviving ; and there is no evidence that, if the British departed, the festival of Jugunnath would not again be rendered more impressive by the annual suicide of two or three of his more trustful or more despairing votaries. The annual massacre of children at Saugor, as offerings to the spirit of the sea, is, so far as we know, the only evil custom in India which, being prohibited by law, has died apparently for ever out of the sympathies of the population, who will now tell you with some roughness, just as converted cannibals do, that no such incident ever happened. In view of these facts, and of the total failure to extinguish some shocking customs, such as the exposure of the aged sick on the banks of the Ganges, it has often been alleged that Western ideas do not really penetrate into India at all; that the English secure nothing for their humanitarian views except submission ; and that if we departed, we should leave the people morally as unaffected by our rule of a century, as a cloud when it passes leaves the light of the sun. We have ourselves once or twice expressed an opinion very much of that kind, with the one reserve that the idea of law as opposed to individual will has
made some genuine progress. The recent incident, however, so far as it goes, negatives that depressing theory. A body of very low people, not threatened with any legal penalties or any social disabilities, have abandoned a profitable but cruel practice solely because the idea of its cruelty had filtered down from the minds of the cultivated into their own.
To understand the importance of such a movement, we must comprehend something of the strength of the custom so resolutely attacked. The practice of treating widows as quasi-criminals, outcasts, or slaves, is among Hindoos of high antiquity. It is probably a substitute for a still older custom, once universal among the conquering tribes of the Asiatic world, of slaying the wives of chieftains on the burial-places of their lords. As manners grew milder and men less desperate, and new religious ideas were born, that practice was abolished, and widows were per- mitted to live, but only as persons whose right to survive must be regarded as imperfect. Their position became that of household slaves, or rather family outcasts, entitled to no honour, bound to servile offices, dressed in the meanest clothes, fed -with the cheapest food, and regarded by all around them as persons who ought to consider themselves incurably degraded. Had not the very Gods themselves, or the Fates, pronounced them deserving of heavy suffering? It is the rooted belief of every convinced Hindoo, that unexpected or severe misfortune brought about without human bands is evidence that the sufferer has in some former state of being deservedly incurred the displeasure of the Higher Powers, and is justly expiating by his own misery his own actual though forgotten guilt. They think this even about themselves, and we have known a respectable Hindoo, full of life and energy, and by no means specially bigoted, upon the death of an only son suddenly to renounce the world, and thenceforward to live, covered with ashes and repeating only prayers, the painful expiatory life of the sunyasee, or Hindoo hermit. What he believed about himself, his friends were more ready to believe about him ; and as the death of a husband is the highest mis- fortune his wife can endure, those who insult or degrade his widow, even if her own closest connections, do but carry out the visible will of the divine. The widow is therefore, in theory at all events, abandoned to her fate. Of course natural laws are not wholly suspended even by superstition, and thousands of widows protected by personal affection, or by their own abilities, or by their wealth—for widowhood does not cancel rights of property—lead decently happy and contented lives. The majority, however, suffer under the ban typified by the shaving of their heads,—that is, they are regarded till death as fallen from all title to respect, and are treated with a habitual indignity which, even when they are exempt from actual oppression, makes the position of millions of unoffending women no better than that of slaves or convicts. So severe is their lot, that it excites pity even among those who believe that it is sanctioned by religion ; and it would probably have been ameliorated long since, but that it fits in with one of the principal Hindoo social arrangements,—that of early marriage.
For reasons with which we have in this article nothing to do, but which are much graver and more permanent than Euro- peans are apt to imagine, Hindoos even of the higher and more reflective type are unwilling to abandon their custom of early marriage, which guarantees, as they think, the honour and purity of their households, and for which they can discern no working substitute. It is necessary, therefore, as such marriages forbid all individual choice, to surround them with all possible sanctions, and above all to make the husband's life an object of the wife's most jealous care. If she can be happy without him, she might give him a successor; and she is therefore not only forbidden to re-marry, but so treated that even to be a widow must always be to her a horrible position, one which she can never desire to enter, however she may dislike her husband, or whatever oppression she may suffer at his hands. Her pride, her desire for comfort, and her religious feeling are all alike enlisted in favour of remaining a wife, and of doing all that in her lies to provide for her husband's safety, especially in the preparation of his food, which, by a custom testifying to ages of household suspicion, she alone is fully trusted to cook. She is, in fact, by a law which works automatically, punished if he dies, just as in Rome, for at least two centuries, the slave was executed if his master fell dead of heart-complaint.
To break down a system thus protected by immemorial
custom, by a religious idea which no Hindoo doubts in his heart, and by a sort of social necessity, might seem impossible, and it is distinctly creditable to Hindoo social reformers that they have attacked it with so much nerve. They are often very weak, and still more often seem weak, being bound with withes of prejudice or social habit invisible to European eyes ; but in this matter they have been creditably persevering. For more than thirty years past, both in Bengal and in Bombay, a few men have been found, generally young and usually belonging to that class of the educated which Europeans habitually depreciate, who have protested in season and out of season against the treatment of widows, as cruel, unnatural, and contrary to Scriptures older than those which modern Hindoos obey. They have been helped by the universal detestation of women for the system, which has for them none of the self-sacrificing charm of suttee, and, let us hope, by a great amount of suppressed natural feeling. Fathers and brothers and kinsfolk feel for their women in India just as much as they do in England, perhaps more, for the social system binds them much more closely together; and the treatment of their daughters, sisters, and kinswomen when reduced to widowhood must often have seemed perfectly in- tolerable,—more intolerable than the rules of the cloister are sometimes felt to be in Catholic families. They secured long ago the widespread assent to the Widow Marriage Act, which, though nearly inoperative in fact, makes remarriage theoreti- cally legal; and they are now loudly condemning all the more striking customary oppressions upon widows. They have talked, as is usual in such cases, apparently in vain ; but they have evidently been heard, for they have not only stirred the widows to a sort of revolt of opinion, of which many signs have reached Europe, but they have actually changed the feeling of the very class which is of all others the instrument of this particular oppression. The barbers benefit by the shaving of the widows' heads, which is the visible sign of their social degradation, and the barbers have been the first to declare that the practice shall cease ; that at all events they will have no further hand in it, whatever they may be paid. Henceforward no barber in Bombay can shave a widow's head, and as no one else can shave it, no widow's head will be shaved. A humani- tarian opinion has filtered down to the bottom ; and for the first time, that we can remember at least, in the modern history of India, the revolt against a social oppres- sion has come from below, and from men who are acting to their own hurt and only on behalf of others. That is the best omen we have received from India for years ; and it is none the worse, rather the better, because the leader of the barber movement appealed to superstition to repress avarice. The barbers, he said, had not been prosperous of late, and it was because of the widows' curses. That argument doubtless told; but it told because men's minds had been prepared for it by discussion, and the slow downward filtration of cultivated opinion. The widows have cursed for a thousand years, and till now no barber has ever hesitated to shave their heads ; and if in the city of Bombay he gives up shaving the un- willing, it is because his conviction on that subject has been changed by "the foolishness of preaching," the preachers in this instance being young men who do no doubt say a great many silly things, but who have this time arrested one of the most outrageous oppressions that ever discredited an ancient civilisation.