They are known as the "tiger-widows," responsible for the death of their husbands. They are branded "husband-eaters," their mere presence at social gatherings is considered a bad omen.
Unsurprisingly, they receive no shelter or assistance from their in-laws, ostracised by society instead.
Even in the twenty-first century, widows whose husbands have been killed by tigers face such superstitious discrimination in the regions surrounding the Sundarbans.
A few so-called "tiger-widows" from Munshiganj in Satkhira's Shyamnagar upazila told the Dhaka Tribune that they scrape by from day to day, alive but not really living.
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According to Nari Shongothon Leaders nearly 1,150 tiger-widows live in the areas adjacent to the Sundarbans Dhaka Tribune
These superstitions, though their prevalence is falling, are still alive and well in the Sundarbans, said concerned individuals and organisations.
The upazila's Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Kamruzzaman told the Dhaka Tribune that steps were being taken to raise awareness among the locals.
Sonamoni has gained infamy amongst the villages around the Sundarbans. She had lost two of her husbands to tigers.
People try to avoid seeing her for fear of bad luck.
She said: “My husband was carried off by a tiger in 1999. My father-in-law chased away, and my one-month old baby after that. I had to wander the streets with my child. My brother-in-law then married me.
“He too was carried off in 2003. Since then, I have had to live with people calling me a bad omen, unlucky, or even husband-eater. Even if I am invited to social gatherings, I have to eat after everyone else has finished eating.”
She also said: “My father-in-law keeps me in chains so that he does not have to see my face first thing in the morning. This life is no better than death. My husband was eaten by a tiger, but he left me to die.”
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Buli Dashi was tortured and thrown out by her in-laws Dhaka Tribune
Buli Dashi, another "tiger-widow," said: “My husband, Arun Mandal, died in a tiger attack while he was fishing in 2002. My mother-in-law blamed me for it and began torturing me.
“At one point, she chased me out of the house. My father had died long ago, so I went to live with my brother. But my brother is very poor, so I started fishing for fry and crabs. That is how I have had to raise my children.”
“There are many women like me who have been thrown out after being blamed for their husbands’ deaths from tiger attacks. My husband's younger brother was also killed by a tiger. His wife Dipali was similarly thrown out by her in-laws,” she added.
Shahida Khatun, another tiger-widow, was also thrown out from her in-laws' house. She has to make a living fishing and working as a domestic help.
Organisations like Onirban, Durjoy, Jagroto Bagh Bidhoba and Nari Shongothon Leaders are working to reintegrate tiger-widows back into society and dispel the myths surrounding them. These organisations say that progress is very slow.
According to data from Nari Shongothon Leaders, an NGO, over 1,000 people have died between 2001 and 2011 in tiger attacks. There are no recorded incidents of deaths from tiger attacks between 2012 and 2016. There were three people killed and one injured by tigers in 2017. Mohon Kumar Mandal, an official from Nari Shongothon Leaders, said that there were nearly 1,150 tiger-widows in the areas adjacent to the Sundarbans.
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Seeing the face of the women whose husbands were killed by tigers are considered bad omen Dhaka Tribune
However, government estimates of people killed by tigers, is much lower. According to organisations working in the Sundarbans and surrounding areas, the government estimates are lower because honey hunters, fishermen and others who go into the forests often do not follow government regulations and procedures. Many use passes from their colleagues to go into the forests, and when they die, their names do not come up in the government's records.
Pijush Bawlia Pintu, an expert on the Sundarbans, said: “Harvesters pray to the 'Bonbibi' before entering the Sundarbans. There are many other superstitions among them, besides that. These superstitions have decreased after awareness campaigns, but there are many families who still practice them.”
“There is a government rule to pay Tk1 lakh to the family of a fatal victim of a tiger attack, or Tk50,000 if they are injured in an attack. But many people use other people’s passes to go into the forest, and there are no such regulations covering them.”
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Progress in changing local superstitions has been slow Dhaka Tribune
The Munshiganj Union's Municipal Chairman M Abul Kashem Morol, however, said that the situation of tiger-widows has improved. He said: “The literacy rate of people here was very low. When tigers carried off their husbands, the widows were frequently accused of being responsible and forced out of their in-laws' homes. But the situation has changed now, and we rarely hear of such incidents.”
The Shyamnagar UNO Kamruzzaman said: “I have just recently joined this office. I have received word of one person being injured in a tiger attack. I have also learned about the local superstitions from people here. We are making an effort to dispel these superstitions.”
Former Shyamnagar UNO and Additional Deputy Commissioner (revenue) Abu Sayed M Monjur Alam said: “There has not been much news of people dying from tiger attacks in the area recently. But there used to be a practice of driving away the widows of people who died in tiger attacks. That practice is no longer as prevalent as it used to be.”