Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856

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Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856

A Hindu widow in India (seen in this engraving from 1774–1781) was not allowed to wear a blouse or choli under her sari. The sari was required to be of coarse cloth, preferably white.

Status: Repealed

The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856, also Act XV, 1856, enacted on 26 July 1856, legalise the remarriage of Hindu widows in all jurisdictions of India under East India Company rule.[1]
To protect what it considered family honour and family property, upper-caste Hindu society had long disallowed the remarriage of widows, even child and adolescent ones, all of whom were expected to live a life of austerity and abnegation.[2] The Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act of 1856, enacted in response to the campaign of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar,[3] provided legal safeguards against loss of certain forms of inheritance for a remarrying Hindu widow,[2] though, under the Act, the widow forsook any inheritance due her from her deceased husband.[4] Especially targeted in the act were Hindu child widows whose husbands had died before consummation of marriage.[5]

“Second marriages, after the death of the husband first espoused, are wholly unknown to the Hindu Law; though in practice, among the inferior castes, nothing is so common.”[1]

— William Hay Macnaghten (1862)

“The problem of widows—and especially of child widows—was largely a prerogative of the higher Hindu castes among whom child marriage was practised and remarriage prohibited. Irrevocably, eternally married as a mere child, the death of the husband she had perhaps never known left the wife a widow, an inauspicious being whose sins in a previous life had deprived her of her husband, and her parents-in-law of their son, in this one. Doomed to a life of prayer, fasting, and drudgery, unwelcome at the celebrations and auspicious occasions that are so much a part of Hindu family and community life, her lot was scarcely to be envied.
On the other hand, the lower, particularly Sudra, castes and the (so-called) ‘Un-touchables’—who represented approximately 80 per cent of the Hindu population—neither practised child marriage nor prohibited the remarriage of widows.”[6]

— Lucy Carroll (1983)
The Law[edit]
The preamble and sections 1, 2, and