On September 4, 1987, Roop Kanwar was burned alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. He had died the day before, at the age of 24. Roop was only 18. They had been married less than a year.
The funeral was attended by thousands of mourners/spectators. Dozens of people were charged with various crimes, including murder and “glorification of sati”. However most charges were dropped, and the rest ended in acquittal. Roop was India’s last known sati, or suttee. Either word is used to mean both the act of a widow sacrificing herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, and the widow who does so.
The practice had been outlawed a number of times through the centuries in India and other Hindu countries, but the “Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act” enacted in 1987 in response to Roop’s death seems to be the most successful. But this is a religious/cultural tradition, and sometimes laws are inadequate. As recently as 2009, Indian police had to stop 60-year-old widow Sharbati Bai from committing sati on her husband’s funeral pyre.
How did this tradition start? And what is its appeal to women, both young and old? It could be that it was started as a way to prevent unhappy wives from poisoning their husbands. Really, that’s one of the theories. Or, maybe it was more honorable for the widow than the possibility of becoming destitute. It could even be a way to keep the gender balance, since women have been outliving men everywhere in the world throughout history.
Even outside the Hindu culture, we sometimes hear of a surviving spouse committing suicide, which seems pretty similar. Of course, it hasn’t always been clear that the sati was completely voluntary. Restraints, drugs, and even violence are known to have played roles in some cases and suspected in many others. And although it may seem that Roop was a young widow at 18, the age of consent for brides in India had been 10 until 1891, when it was raised all the way up to 12. Even then, the law was not strongly enforced.
There used to be a cigarette ad aimed at women, saying, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” In this case, that might be a little too accurate use of the word.