Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, But Obedient Ones are Rewarded in Heaven: An Examination of the Re-Invention of the Bengali Tradition of Sati By Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History is a book authored by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  This has become a well-known phrase used by most feminists to imply a meaning of disobedience or stance against the patriarchal structure of society.  Often in error, the credit of the invention of this phrase is attributed Eleanor Roosevelt and Marilyn Monroe.  Their image, and especially the image of Monroe, will often appear with the slogan on merchandise as a means of marketing and raising revenue.  Ironically, reinvention or reuse is prevalent in history when it comes to tradition or ritual for the same reason – monetary gain.  This practice is common and the benefit of reinventing or reinterpreting an old tradition is an automatic connection to the past giving continuity, which, according to Eric Hobsbaum, instills strong “binding social practice,” (p. 10) including loyalty and duty in the members of the group.  This is especially effective in manipulating the poor and uneducated who usually display strict obedience and blind acceptance of tradition. The Bengali reinvented tradition of satî is an example of this.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak looks at the ritual of satî in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Examining the historiography of this tradition through post-colonial deconstruction, Spivak reveals that the ritual of satî in Bengali tradition as an invented tradition rooted in hegemony.  Externally, this tradition is a façade, presented to the outside world as an ancient tradition of ritual p

urity and means of cultural preservation.  Internally, it is anything but pure; it is a means of power and control over the subaltern widow, which through self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre, results in the forfeiture of inherited property she is entitled to upon her husband’s death.

While culturally the people understood the ritual of widow sacrifice or satî to be part of ancient tradition, it was not a ritual universally practiced by Hindu widows nor was it “caste- or class-fixed.”  The original story of Sati is much different from the ritual practiced in India:

“The story of the mythic Sati, reversing every narrateme of the rite, performs a similar function: the living husband avenges the wife’s death, a transaction between great male gods fulfills the destruction of the female body and this inscribes the earth as sacred geography,” (Spivak, 93).

The man performs the action to avenge his wife’s death.  Another point overlooked is that Hinduism is goddess-centered religion.  The elite Bengali ruling class culturally reverses this tradition by erasing “the image of the luminous fighting Mother Durga” and replaces her “as a self-immolating widow who lies on her husband’s funeral pyre,” (Spivak, 103). In fact, the word satî means “good wife” and thus this becomes a ritual of the “good wife.”

In about 1784, the Bengali elite group codified Hindu law for protecting their cultural identity.  Stuart Hall states, “Cultural identities are the points of identification” that within the discourse of history and during times of instability, become important to distinguish or set one group apart from the others.  Like traditions, cultural identities are not stagnant and subject to reinvention.  Hall states that cultural identities are “constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative, and myth” which undergoes constant transformation and always involves position of politics.  Connected to class-consciousness is cultural identity and economic creation that results in a division of class, which gives the ruling class power over both the social and political arenas.  Through the codification of Hindu law and the reinvention of tradition, the Bengali elite fit this description of the ruling class.  Power resides in class distinctions as well as political control of the elite; however, those in power making the rules were men.


The subaltern submitted to this ritual due to the law, imposed duty, and responsibility the widow had as the decedent’s wife.  Gairola states that by becoming a wife, there is a creation of a bond and death strains this bond.  If she refuses to become satî, she will irreparably harm those bonds and be damaged goods.  Moreover, refusal to perform this ritual has a theological threat attached due to the misfortune of being born woman, engaging in this ritualistic act is required for release from her female body.

According to Ania Loomba, “widow immolation is one of the most spectacular forms of patriarchal violence; each burning was and is highly variable, and is both produced by and helps to validate and circulate other ideologies that strengthen the oppression of women.”   Ruha Gairola states when a subaltern woman submits to a patriarchal demand such as this, her subjectivity is “validated by those in power.” Widow immolation becomes a vanishing point for a theory of female subjectivity.  “The relationship between agency and subjectivity is inextricable,” and according to Gairola, our identities function the way in “which others construct us.”

Along with theories of subjectivity and ideology, performance is another means of examining the ritual of satî.  When a satî immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, it is a re-performance of a myth, a representation to preserve her husband’s honor with society as her witness.  One of the teachings given to the satî is that death by honor is a gift and, according to Gairola, her identity as widow is “released” and assumes her identity as the god, “Shiva’s wife.”  An ideological construct with the incentive of theological reward for being a good wife encourages cooperation.  The satî leaves behind a miserable life to enter a heavenly realm, praised by heavenly dancers for her devotion to her husband.  Another positive spin on this ritual – the satî is a martyr.

After exploring the different theories that surround the reinvention of Sati, there is the final and probably most important rationale for the reinvention of this tradition – the issue of economic value and worth.  Gariola states the “widow becomes viewed as a worthless nuisance, indeed a living commodity without use.”  However, more important, the widow’s self-immolation removes her right of inheritance.  According to Rosiland Morris, it is easy to draw the conclusion “that the ideological justification for widow sacrifice rested in an economic jealousy of her rights to the deceased husband’s property.”  Terence Ranger states “men tended to appeal to ‘tradition’….to insure that the increasing role which women played in production in rural areas” did not compromise or diminish their “control over women as economic assets.”  In this case, tradition values the widow’s death as an economic asset.

Normally one would expect a widow to be the “object of protection from her own kind” However, with the ruling elite seeking to protect its status among the British colonizers, a reinvention of a tradition to demonstrate high culture and purity codified into law, which sacrificed these widows.  Cultural identity has less to do with this creation then economic and political gain by the elite class.  What is perplexing is that the female subaltern, or in this case the satî, is both “object of colonialist historiography” and “subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender [that] keeps the male dominant.”  In fact, not protecting the

widow is due to what Spivak calls “communal misogyny.”  Through the reinvention and ideological influences that mandate a widow to self-immolate on her husband’s funeral power, in the end one finds that this purist tradition is nothing more than thievery – a stealing of the widow’s inheritance

Michele Stopera Freyhauf:  Feminist scholar, activist, and has her Master of Arts degree from John Carroll.  She is now a graduate student at the University of Akron in the Department of History focusing on Religion, Gender, and Sexuality.  Michele is the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS) and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia.”    Michele is an advocate for women’s rights in society and religious institutions as well as being a voice for the voiceless; the oppressed and marginalized in society.  Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and her website can be accessed here.

Categories: Activism, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, General, Herstory, Hinduism, Human Rights, Politics, Postcolonialism, Power relations, Race and Ethnicity, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Textual Interpretation, Women's Suffering

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3 replies

  1. We had a brief discussion of this in class last week, and while I am sympathetic to everything you say, it is important to recognize that besides being part of patriarchy, sati is also part of a religion that values renunciation. Sati is also understood as a form of heroic renunciation–of self, of ego. Renunciation is also part of Christian and other traditions.

    I of course like to go to the root of the matter. As I said in She Who Changes, far to many religions are based on the premise that “this life just isn’t good enough.” Religions that say that are also anti-female, insofar as it is the mother who gives birth us into “this life.” So the question for me is: Is the problem patriarchy or religions of renunciation, or are they two sides of the same coin?


  2. Carol,

    As always you bring an interesting perspective to the table. When researching this particular area my goal was a historiography of the ritual of the Bengali sati through the subaltern studies. But when reflecting on religions of renunciation, do all have to be violent? Certainly Buddhism focuses on renunciation but differently. Monks/Nuns practice renunciation within the context of their vocation. So I am not sure that we can call religions of renunciation necessarily patriarchal. Then it might be the way we define patriarchy. I think this is an interesting point of discussion that I would like to continue.



  3. Carl Jung: There is no birth of consciousness without pain. Within the mystical tradition of Christianity it is understood as Kenosis, a dis-empowering in order to be empowered. At times in my own life I have to empty the self of unhealthy ego to be able to receive the intended wholeness I am intended for.


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