Mother of all duties

Burning Women

September 1, 2006

The self-immolation of widows in India continues to attract attention, not least because it is still practised. There was a case in 2002, and legal battles still rage following the famous 1987 sati Roop Kanwar. Rajasthani courts have dealt leniently with the broader practices that glorify it, re-allowing worship at sati shrines in 2004. (These more recent events are not covered in this book, which was first published in German in 1998.) Joerg Fisch focuses his attention on the banning of sati in the European colonial period and modern era, drawing on a wealth of documentation. Part one places sati in a global context of voluntary death to accompany the deceased. Our earliest examples are live interments in Egypt from the 3rd millennium BC. Fisch surveys other continents, seeking to demonstrate a history of European aversion to the practice.

Fisch offers two presuppositions underlying the practice: belief in an afterlife and social inequality, although if these were sufficient causes, would not sati be universal? One anticipates a religious and gender analysis to turn on these two issues, but Fisch takes them nowhere. There is no analysis of the mechanisms by which those dying try to side-step death.

Fisch's assessment of evidence is a bit random. Some accounts of women's self-sacrifice are dismissed as male fantasy, while comparable events in India and Africa are "barbaric" only in the latter. Fisch's Western-centrism contributes to a skewed perspective: he insists that the hegemony of European culture has saved the world from such cruel manipulation, ignoring earlier interruptions. "It was only the universal claim of European norms, introduced with reference to 'human nature', which was decisive," he writes.

But was the suppression of sati in the colonial period really based on a civilising influence? Europe itself was shortly to descend into bloodletting on terms explicitly seen as sacrificial at the time.

Fisch differentiates "following after" from self-sacrifice and sacrifice to a god, which allows him to claim that Islam and Christianity have never endorsed such practices. But had he not excluded martyrdom, a practice among early Christians, he might have questioned how the interpretation of voluntary death as to be with god is affected by differences in understanding of god. The aversion towards voluntary death can then more clearly be seen as a power struggle between cultures promoting their own deity.

The author's motivation is the confrontation of international law by belief systems at odds with its modernist, Eurocentric, egalitarian, individualistic and this-worldly values.

Fisch nowhere posits a possible gynocentric interpretation: that only women can safeguard both their own and their men's wellbeing in the afterlives. And what is greater than the power of life over death? Man's scope is only his own welfare; the functional power unit in the world of sati is the family, with the wife at its heart. Is the real problem here that it gives woman too much power for the European mind? We should recall that early European international law frequently demoted the place of women in Europe's new spheres of influence, as is well documented in the case of the imposition of Dutch law on Sri Lanka. Had a gynocentric imaginaire been possible for Fisch, he might perhaps have chosen the term "heroine" not "victim" throughout. This is the challenge with which Eurocentric legal systems fail to engage.

Kate Crosby is senior lecturer in Pali and Southeast Asian Buddhism, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Burning Women: A Global History of Widow-Sacrifice from Ancient Times to the Present

Author - Joerg Fisch
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 610
Price - £55.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 1 905422 02 4 and 03 2

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