An Overview of the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, 1856


India's strongly ingrained societal norms and practices from the 19th century severely restricted women's rights and freedoms, especially for those who were widowed. Widows were doomed to an existence of isolation, poverty, and social neglect. The Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856 provided a glimmer of light amid this general gloom. The British Raj took an exceptional step to confront deeply ingrained societal traditions and bring about a dramatic change in the status and treatment of Hindu widows with the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act. 

The Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, (also known as Act XV of 1856), was passed by Lord Canning and drafted by Lord Dalhousie. It was enacted on 26th July 1856 and came into effect on 6th July 1856. This act aimed to transform societal norms and improve the status of widows in India.

Definition Of Widow & Widow Remarriage

In the context of this act, the terms "widow" and "widow remarriage" can be defined as follows:

Widow: A widow is a lady who has lost her husband and hasn't found anyone else to remarry. It especially refers to a Hindu lady who has lost her spouse and is unable to remarry because of cultural traditions and societal conventions in the context of the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act.

Widow Remarriage: The act of a widow remarrying after her husband's passing is referred to as widow remarriage. Hindu widows were subject to limitations until the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856 made it legal for them to remarry. The act attempted to give widows the chance to start a new marriage if they so wished while also acknowledging their social and emotional needs.

Pre-Act Conditions of Widows in India

Before the Act, widows had to put up with the following:

  1. Sati: In some places and eras, widows were required to commit suicide by setting themselves ablaze on the funeral pyres of their husbands who had passed away.

  2. Child Marriage: Widows, particularly those who were young, were frequently coerced into weddings as children to keep them from ever becoming widows.

  3. Widowhood: After becoming a widow, a lady was expected to lead a life of isolation and poverty. She was prohibited from getting remarried because widow remarriage was frowned upon. Widows were frequently encouraged to dress in white as a symbol of their widowhood and were supposed to devote their lives to religious rituals and grieving.

  4. Social Ostracism: Society frequently shunned widows. They were prohibited from taking part in social and religious rituals because they were viewed as unlucky. 

Post-Act Reforms and Impact

After the enactment of the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856, significant changes were observed in the lives of widows in India. The Act's provisions led to a transformation in social status of widows. The following developments took place:

  1. Widow Remarriage: The Act permitted widows to remarry as long as certain requirements were met.

  2. Property Rights: The Act also aimed to safeguard widows' property rights by enabling them to inherit and own property on their own.

  3. Social Perception: Although opinions against widow remarriage did not immediately shift in society, the Act significantly contributed to upending the established conventions. It started a change in public attitude and helped make widow remarriage a more accepted societal norm over time.

  4. Dress Code: Widows were expected to follow certain dress norms, such as donning all-white attire to symbolize their widowhood. They were expected to shave their heads as a sign of grief and were forbidden from donning any jewelry or accessories.

  5. Limited Property Rights: Widows had a restricted number of property rights, including the right to inherit. They frequently weren't allowed to inherit their husband's assets, which instead went to other male relatives.

  6. Financial Dependence: Widows frequently relied on their families or male relatives for financial support. They struggled financially and lacked prospects for self-sufficiency without a husband's support.

Features Of The Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act,1856

The features of the Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act, 1856, are mentioned below:

  1. Legalization of Widow Remarriage: The act's most important clause legalized widow remarriage in Hindu culture. In Hindu societies before the legislation, widows were typically expected to lead a life of austerity and were not permitted to remarry. By removing these limitations, the act permitted widows to remarry.

  1. Customary Laws Superseded: The statute repealed customary rules and regulations that forbade widow remarriage. It sought to enforce widow remarriage's legitimacy, even though this went against long-standing traditions or widely held religious beliefs at the time.

  1. Validity of Remarriage: The act stated that any marriage of a Hindu widow would be lawful and legally recognized, regardless of the religion or caste of the widow or the person she wished to marry. To further eliminate societal barriers, it attempted to encourage inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.

  1. Property Rights: The statute made sure widows would not lose their inherited property rights if they decided to remarry. It safeguarded widows' property rights and permitted them to keep their part of inherited property even after getting remarried.

  1. Right to Maintenance: The act made it clear that a widow's decision to remarry would have no bearing on her entitlement to maintenance. It made sure that widows who got remarried would still get maintenance and financial support from their ex-husband's family.

  1. Social Stigma: The act was intended to combat the social stigma that Hindu society attaches to widowhood and widow remarriage. It promoted the social acceptability of such unions and aimed to normalize the idea of widows remarrying.

  1. Widow’s Consent: The act emphasized the necessity of getting widows' approval before allowing them to remarry. It was claimed that widows should not be subjected to any pressure or compulsion when selecting their life companions.

Laws Under The Act

A key piece of law passed in India during the British colonial era was the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act, of 1856. The statute aims to fight prevailing practices such as child marriage and the maltreatment of widows as well as the social and cultural difficulties that Hindu widows confront when trying to remarry. It enacted several laws to encourage widow remarriage and elevate the position of Hindu widows. The main clauses of the act are briefly explained here:

  1. Permission for Hindu Widows to Remarry Legally: By removing the legal barriers that stopped Hindu widows from remarrying, the act made it legal for them to do so. A marriage established by two consenting Hindus shall be genuine, legitimate, and accepted, according to Section 1 of the Act. Unless a custom or Hindu law specifically states otherwise, a woman who was previously married but is now a widow will not render the marriage null and void.

  1. Right to Inherit Property Ceased: The statute acknowledged a widow's right to inherit property from her former husband's family, enabling her to take legal possession of her fair portion. The Act's Section 2 discusses how a widow's claim to her deceased husband's property terminates. In accordance with natural justice, the act cancels the widow's entitlement to maintenance and inheritance that had been granted to her by the testamentary disposition or will upon her second marriage. In such cases, the Act deems the widow dead and transfers the property to the next surviving spouse's heir.

  1. Child Custody From Previous Marriage: As per Section 3, In the lack of clear instructions about the husband's children's custody, the section provides the following provisions:

  • Any male relative of the deceased husband, including the father, paternal grandpa, mother, and paternal grandmother, may petition the court for the appointment of a guardian for the aforementioned children.

  • If the Court decides to do so, the appointed guardian will have the right to care for and have custody of the aforementioned children during their minor years in place of their mother.

  • No such appointment shall be made without the mother's consent if the aforementioned children do not have sufficient property of their own, sufficient to support their education and living in their minority unless the appointed guardian agrees to provide security for the support and proper education of the children while they are minors.

  1. Does not prevent inheritance: According to Section 4, a childless widow preserves her inheritance rights if she had them before the passage of the aforementioned law.

  1. The second marriage's rights: Nothing in the three clauses that came before restricts a widow's ability to get married again. She is entitled to all marital privileges under Section 5 of the Act, just as if this were her first union.

  1. Ceremonies: Section 6 states that whatever rituals are carried out and commitments are made during the wedding of an unmarried Hindu female are sufficient to constitute a legal union. This also holds for ceremonies carried out during the wedding of a Hindu widow. Additionally, it is prohibited to disregard such ceremonies at widows' weddings.

  1. Child Marriage Restrictions: According to Section 7 of the law, female marriages that occur before a specified age are invalid. It was designed to shield young women from being pressured into child marriages, which frequently had negative social and health effects. Further,

  • If the widow is a minor and her marriage was not finalized, she needs her father's approval before getting remarried. Her mother's approval might also be sufficient in the absence of her father, her paternal grandfather, or him. The consent of her older brother or other male relatives is also acceptable in some circumstances.

  • A person who encourages a marriage that is against the law is subject to a fine, a period of imprisonment of not more than one year, or both.

  • Marriages that are consummated in violation of this section's rules are legally void. If the marriage is consummated, it cannot be declared null and void.

  • A widow who has reached adulthood and had a legal marriage has the right to provide her permission.

Benefits Of Remarriage

  1. Social Empowerment: Hindu widows were given social empowerment by the act of being given the option to remarry. It aimed to promote gender equality and eradicate the shame and discrimination encountered by widows in society.

  2. Emotional health: Remarriage gives widows the chance to start over in life and receive emotional support. 

  3. Economic security: Remarrying gives them a spouse who can share the financial burdens, which improves the economy.

  4. Increased social standing: It disproved the idea that widows were a burden and showed that they merited respect, dignity, and the chance to live happy, meaningful lives.

  5. Legal safeguards and rights: Remarriage gave widows these advantages, including the right to inherit, the right to own property, and the right to be legally recognized as a spouse.

  6. Future generations impacted favorably by widow remarriage: It assisted in ending the cycle of widowhood and promoted among younger generations a more progressive viewpoint on women's rights and gender equality.

Problems With Widow Remarriage In India

  1. Limited scope: The act only allowed childless widows to remarry; widows with children were not covered by its provisions. 

  2. Social opposition: Traditionalists and religious leaders in the conservative Hindu community claimed that the conduct went against religious traditions and teachings and supported the idea that widowhood was a sort of retribution. 

  3. Lack of enforcement: The act's enforcement was poor, and authorities frequently did not take any action against those who disobeyed its rules.

  4. Cultural discrimination and stigma: Despite the act, widows still experienced prejudice in their communities. They frequently experienced exclusion and social pressure to follow the accepted widowhood norms. 

  5. Inadequate support systems: The statute did not offer enough support systems to encourage widows to remarry, such as widow rehabilitation centers or financial aid, which was lacking.

  6. Limited impact: The act was intended to confront regressive conventional attitudes towards widowhood, but it had little effect on larger-scale social reform.

Non-Remarriage Certificate

Hindu widows were given the option to legally remarry under the terms of the statute. An official non-remarriage certificate was introduced to speed up the remarriage procedure. This document provides evidence that a widow's marriage would be viewed more as a sort of social union or companionship than as a legal marriage in the traditional sense. The non-remarriage certificate was created to allay worries about potential inheritance, property rights, and the legality of offspring from such relationships.

The act sought to promote Hindu widows' remarriage by providing them with social approval and legal protection by issuing non-remarriage certificates. Although the act was a great advancement for women's rights at the time, it encountered strong opposition from conservative social groups and initially had little effect. However, it catalyzed later legal changes and societal progress in India addressing widow remarriage.

WRA (Widow Remarriage Association)

The Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856 prompted the establishment of the Widow Remarriage Association (WRA) in India during the 19th century. The legislation was intended to alleviate the social injustice experienced by Hindu widows, who were customarily expected to live a life of celibacy and isolation following the passing of their husbands.

The Widow Remarriage Association was established to support and advance Hindu widows' right to remarry, which had been made legal by the new laws. The group was significant in bringing attention to widows' legal rights and combating ingrained social norms that prohibited their remarriage. The WRA ran a campaign to combat the stigmas attached to widowhood and to promote an inclusive and progressive society.

During the colonial era in India, the founding of the Widow Remarriage Association and the adoption of The Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act were key turning points for women's rights and social reform. The goals of these initiatives were to empower widows and dismantle the ingrained practices that frequently resulted in their marginalization and mistreatment.