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Forbidden Red

Widowhood in Urban Nepal

Kathey-Lee Galvin


In Nepal, red symbolizes life, vibrancy, and passion—a color and existence that is often denied to women who have lost their husbands. The compelling stories of Sodha, Anju, and others vividly portray the plight of widows in this third-world country.


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For centuries, Hindus in Nepal practiced Sati (or Suttee), a ritual that required a widow to surrender herself to be burned on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although Sati is illegal and extremely rare today, remnants of the custom in a social sense survive throughout Nepalese society. Now, as then, by the time her husband’s funeral fire is extinguished, the woman as wife no longer exists. Her separation from both family and society has begun.

Upon learning that her husband is dead, the rites that change a woman’s social status are set in motion. She is often stripped of her necklaces, jewelry, and other outward accoutrements of married life. The color red in Nepal symbolizes life, vibrancy, and passion, so her red clothing is also taken. She is usually expected to observe mourning for the balance of her life, and her behavior is often carefully monitored by neighbors and family members to ensure that she remains properly chaste and circumspect.

Nepal is one of only a few places in the world where the life expectancy of males is greater than for females. In a country where nearly half of the 25 million residents are unemployed and 42 percent live below the poverty line, widowhood is especially fraught with economic and social difficulties. As women who can no longer produce descendants for the paternal line and with no spouse to protect them, widows are particularly vulnerable to intrusions upon their entitlements—whether it be land, living space, business involvements, food portions, or personal property. In addition, some face gossip and slander, while others are expected to live in seclusion until they meet their own deaths.

Author Kathey-Lee Galvin traveled to urban Nepal to interview widows of various ages, castes, religions, and circumstances. The compelling stories of Sodha, Anju, and others vividly portray the plight of widows in this third-world country. Applying kinship modeling and practice theory to an examination of widow rituals, residence choices, and religion, Galvin analyzes—with some surprising results—how widows are rejected, the choices available to them, and the survival strategies they employ. Contrary to the traditional assumption that only sons bear responsibility for their widowed mothers, she reveals that in Nepal, daughters are important in ways previously unexplored. Additionally, her study demonstrates that a shift in residence type, from extended to nuclear, is occurring and that this change has profound impacts for widows. Forbidden Red is a noteworthy complement to the few contemporary studies of widowhood in South Asia.

Photographs / map / notes / references / 176 pages (2005)

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Weight .53 oz
Dimensions 8.25 x 5.5 in