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So why were they throwing the young widow into the fire?

The episode portrayed the ancient practice of sati ("suh-thee"), the practice of widows throwing themselves into their husbands' funeral pyres in midieval India.

Sati was not performed everywhere in India (I'm looking for more information on its origins since I don't trust my memory alone...). According to the sources I've read, the widows who took part were not coerced--but when respectable life ended with widowhood (widows couldn't remarry and were considered inauspicious) and dying with their husbands lead to honor and praise, it doesn't sound as though the women who chose to practice sati were completely devoid of encouragement. They were trained to be loyal and devoted wives, so of course they would view the practice as their duty.

The fact that followers of Hinduism may revere God as Mother but treat the women around them as lesser than men is a paradox that only a sociologist might attempt to explain. I think it's safe to say that any treatment of women as lesser is not an intrinsic part of the religion. Social movements in India by people like Mahatma Gandhi succeeded in doing what the British could not when they tried to ban sati during the occupation. (I will avoid debating over the ethics of forcing a value system onto another culture.) Sati is currently stamped out (although some claim that it may still continue in very isolated areas, which is an alarming thought).

In any case, it was fun to see Xena coming to the rescue!

the subversive pomegranate
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Xena: Warrior Princess is MCA/Universal and whoever else legally owns it. This page is 1999 shilpa.