Despite the attached social stigma, women perform the last ritual baths of the deceased women
Nasreen (name changed), 30, still remembers the first time she gave a ritual bath to a dead Muslim woman. She stood facing the dead body, which was lying on a washing table, slightly propped up. There were two other women with her. It was their first time too.
Like Nasreen, they also couldn’t bring themselves to do it.
“Each time I tried to start the bath, my hands shook and my mind went blank. I forgot what I was supposed to do,” says Nasreen, looking out from the window of her house as she recalls that day. She says it took her almost a year after that to steady her hands and stay calm.
Ten years later, fear has left Nasreen forever. She now performs two to four ritual washes a day. Sometimes the number goes up to eight or even ten a day.
Although she remembers the first woman she ever washed, Nasreen has lost count of how many others there have been over the years. "The number must be in thousands," she says.
For someone who lives near a graveyard and whose father works as a gravedigger, deaths and funerals have always been a common sight. Nasreen’s ancestors gave ritual baths to dead bodies of either gender and performed their last rites. It was something she grew up watching and she eventually got used to it.
When she was barely 12, her mother who performed ritual baths of deceased Muslim women before their burial, showed her and her elder sister how to wash dead bodies. Nasreen watched her closely, curious at the sort of ‘work’ her mother did. It was only after her mother’s sudden death in a road accident that Nasreen started performing ghusls (Arabic for ritual baths) of dead women to earn a living.
Nasreen is quick to make it clear that she neither does the work out of any compulsion nor does she feel any shame in doing it. "It is a noble work to do,” she says. “There is nothing to be ashamed of."
Then why does she not want to reveal her name and identity? "Because of the social stigma attached to this work," she says. "I do not want people to ridicule me because of what I do." When people need us, they send cars for us, but later they do not want to be seen with us,” she says.
The sheer extent of the social stigma and public ridicule against them has forced many women to either quit their work or stop socializing with people. Marriages too are either impossible or end up in divorces for most of them.
In Nasreen’s neighborhood, a woman had to stop doing ritual baths when her son couldn’t find himself a girl to marry because of the "lowly work" his mother did.
Razia (name changed), a 50-year-old woman who has been giving ritual baths to deceased women for the past 20 years, says she was once needed at a place where a woman’s funeral had been put on hold because they couldn’t find a woman to wash her. “The only woman who washed the dead in the area had stopped doing it after being subjected to taunts regularly,” she says.
For every dead body they wash, Nasreen and Razia say they earn Rs 500. The amount used to be a lot more until a few years ago when mohallah committees were formed, which fixed it at Rs 500. But it’s not enough, the women complain. "The mohallah committees pay us and the gravediggers together. So if there are, say, four of us, we get Rs 2000-Rs 2500 each. It’s hard to survive on this amount," says Razia, a widow who doesn’t have enough savings to marry off her son and two daughters.
Other women like Syeda, who is in her early 60s, give ritual baths as an act of "worship and social work." For the past 30 years of her life, Syeda has been washing dead bodies of the old, young, poor and the rich without charging a single rupee. Besides strangers, she has also bathed and shrouded her neighbours, her mother-in-law and even her own mother. "Islam teaches us to help the poor,” she says. “That’s what I am doing."
Though she refuses to accept money, families still keep insisting her to take something. Once a family didn’t stop sending her bread until she finally agreed to take it.
Syeda is the only woman in her family who gives ritual baths. But it hasn’t deterred her from doing what she considers to be a dignified work. Besides, her family, especially her husband, has been very supportive.
“We have always encouraged my mother to do this noble work. There’s nothing wrong in it,” says Syeda’s son, who has MPhil degree in social welfare. “Deaths are inevitable and what I do is just a way of facing up to my own mortality,” says Syeda.