Widows have always been more numerous than widowers, who usually remarry fast, almost always with younger women. For this and other reasons (such as war), men die sooner than their wives. According to a recent estimate, there are more than 258.5 million widows on earth and one in ten of them lives in extreme poverty. From ancient texts onwards, the need to represent women as weak and dependent is persistent, and widowhood has long been associated with an empty life.

Mineke Schipper

The customs and restrictions of widowhood, around the world and throughout the ages

Unaccompanied femininity has historically created so much fear that a widow’s vagina had to be ‘locked’, i.e. declared inaccesible, temporarily or for life. Harassment and suspicion of murder or witchcraft — because why had he died and not she? — made many widows opt for the same fate as their dead husbands. ‘Grief over your husband lasts to the door.’ Ever heard that joke before? That’s right, only the variant about dead wives is popular.

Schipper delves into the history of widowhood around the world and finds striking differences between their status and that of widowers. The loss of a life partner has traditionally translated for men into new freedom, but for women into disastrous loss. Special mourning rituals and seclusion are imposed on widows, and their mourning clothes served as warning beacons. Think of the women whose hair must be cut, who must only dress in black, or white, or to be condemned to mourning the rest of their lives.

Widowhood is a heavily neglected subject. From that thick fog of oblivion looms a staggering global legacy that has never before been mapped. The good news is that entrenched attitudes are slowlychanging — and widows are visibly changing in step.

‘We cannot change history,’ writes Schipper, ‘but we can look at the past with new knowledge and look at the future with new eyes. Far too many widows have been told against their better judgment that there was no future after the death of their husbands. Why should the partner who is still alive have to sit out the rest of her days without prospects?’

In Widows Schipper shows the shocking sexism that underlies the way widows are treated. […] Although their position is slowly improving, these vulnerable women deserve more attention within contemporary feminism. Schipper’s contribution is a good start.

Het Parool

With her book, Schipper has placed the accounts of old rituals into a new context.



Mineke Schipper
Mineke Schipper (b. 1938) was Professor of Intercultural Literary Studies at the University of Leiden. She has professorships in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and China. She received a Dutch knighthood for ‘building intercultural bridges nationally and internationally, inside and outside the academy’ and continues her scholarly work at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. She wrote 'Widows' as a recent widow herself.
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