Widows: The Untold Story

Mineke Schipper

‘Grief over your dead husband lasts to the door.’ Never heard that one before? That’s right, only the variant about dead wives became popular. Those who delve into widows will come across striking differences with the status of widowers. The loss of a life partner has traditionally translated for men into new freedom, but for women into a disastrous loss of status. Hierarchical imagery is the result of power. Special mourning rituals and seclusion were imposed on widows, and their mourning clothes served as warning beacons. Unaccompanied femininity created so much fear that a widow’s vagina had to be locked, temporarily or for life. Harassment and suspicion of murder or witchcraft – because why had he died and not she? – made many desperately opt for the same fate as their dead husbands.

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

With her book, Schipper has placed the accounts of old rituals into a new context. In Schipper’s closing words: “We cannot change history, 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 ‘she who has not yet died’ have to sit out the rest of her days without prospects?”’ NRC

‘In ‘Widows’ Mineke shows the shocking sexism that underlies the way widows are treated. A widow’s fate was often that of an outcast, excluded and sometimes even imprisoned. Schipper’s examples often stem from hopeless poverty, superstition and illiteracy, as a result of which many widows did not and do not know what their legal position is. Although their position is slowly improving, these vulnerable women deserve more attention within contemporary feminism. Schipper’s contribution is a good start’ Het Parool

Past praise:

‘Mineke Schipper provides a fascinating and wide-ranging compendium of fact and fiction through the ages.’ J.M. Coetzee

‘Schipper’s prose is light, fast-paced and witty, and her analysis is completely gripping.’ Sunday Telegraph

‘With the discerning eye of an anthropologist, the literary flair of a novelist, and with sturdy common sense, Mineke Schipper guides us through millennia of remarkably diverse attitudes towards human dress and undress. Colorful, well-researched, and timely. Highly recommended.’ Steven Shankman, UNESCO Crossings Institute, University of Oregon, USA


  • Prometheus NL
  • Sefsafa Egypt Arabic