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Varied cultures seek to display marital status as per their traditions, be it a ring or a mangalsutra. This article asks an important question – with changing times, does tradition need a closer look?
I am not sure what qualifies one as a feminist, but I believe that truth, however bitter, should be spoken, and uncomfortable questions need to be asked. This is about one such question – Why do married people (mostly women) need to wear some kind of sign indicating their marital status?
I will speak only in the Indian context, as social dynamics and values are a little different in other countries.
There is no doubt that a woman looks beautiful in her wedding finery, jewels, and makeup. The red dot on her forehead, the bangles, anklets, toe rings and nose pins. The rituals also invoke a relationship for seven births, and are made complete by tying a sacred thread (thaali/mangalsutra) around the bride’s neck in some communities, or by applying sindoor (vermilion) to the parting in her hair.
Rings are also exchanged between the bride and the groom. While he may choose to excuse himself from wearing the ring claiming discomfort or simply personal preference, that would be blasphemy on the lady’s part. For one, she would get chastised by her mother/mother-in-law and other female relatives for not taking the signs seriously – “It will bring harm to your spouse if you do not apply sindoor/wear mangalsutra. For most of us, it is taken for granted that we wear these symbols of marital status.
Obviously, these are very old customs, and I share Wikipedia’s take on the topics; quoting from the Wikipedia page on Vermilion and Mangalsutra :
“The wiping off of the sindoor is very significant for a widow. There are many rituals associated with this practice. The most common being the mother-in-law or older sister-in-law wiping off the sindoor when the woman becomes a widow. The widow will break her bangles and remove her bindi as well. Many Hindu women will remove their nose ring and toe rings as well. The parting of hair is symbolic of river of red blood full of life. When the sindoor is removed then the river becomes barren, dry and empty. This custom is prevalent in rural areas and is followed by all castes and social ranks.”
“According to Hindu cultural ethos, the mangalsutra symbolizes the inseparable bond between a husband and a wife. During the wedding ceremonies in southern parts of India, the bridegroom ties the mangalsutra to the neck of the bride uttering, “May you live long by wearing this sacred mangal sutra, the reason of my life”. ”
…the first knot represents her obedience to her husband, the second to his parents and the third represents her respect for God.
“Married women are led to wear a mangalsutra throughout their life as it is believed that the practice enhances the well-being of her husband and family. It is also believed that the mangalsutra protects the marriage from any evil. Three knots symbolize three different aspects of a married woman – the first knot represents her obedience to her husband, the second to his parents and the third represents her respect for God.”
Most of us must have seen the movie Dor, where the young and vibrant Ayesha Takia is asked to wear indigo garbs as mandated by custom, when she loses her husband. She’s made to lead an austere life, which she tries to forget from time to time by flouting some rules and listening to music, which she used to enjoy when her spouse was alive. For a widower, there are no such rules.
I am not opposed to these signs, neither am I a stickler for them. I follow what I like and discard what I don’t. I think that no well-meaning spouse ever wishes that any harm should come to the other, whether they wear their wedding ring or not. I feel that this should not be an imposition but left for the individual to decide.
Just because one does not wear these talismans does not mean they consider their marriage unimportant.
Also, it should not be a scale to judge someone’s character. Just because one does not wear these talismans does not mean they consider their marriage unimportant. One may not be fond of jewelry; vermilion may cause an allergy to others.
Many malpractices, like Sati, have resulted in the misery of Indian women for generations. Widows banished to Varanasi by their families recently played Holi for the first time in their lives as color was forbidden for them; they could not even eat to their hearts’ content once they had lost their husband and caregiver. Even the West wass not free from rampant incidents of witch-hunting in olden days. These illogical rituals are now less prevalent, although we do get to hear of isolated incidents.
To conclude, injustice and unfair treatment have been meted out to women from times immemorial. With our progressive outlook and educated family backgrounds, we may want to look at traditions we follow blindly and allow mature people the freedom to choose what is best for them.
Pic credit: dskley (Used under a CC license)
Originally published at the author’s blog.
I love literature, studied engineering, and work as a Statistical Programmer in the Pharma domain.
Thanks for voicing several women’s thoughts and concerns about this topic.
You know it is very difficult to change the mind set of people, and especially those, of several women in our country who have been reiterated time and again with such patriarchal mind set, that it is scandalous for them to even think of having a different perspective.
Many of us feel obliged to abide when we meet the yesteryear women (in some function), by wearing toe ring or sindoor, which we may not wear in our own house. But at one point of time, I understood that we need to brave all their ridiculing eyes and talks, by not feeling obligatory to wear these, and just be ourselves. I started saying that it came off loose and have given it to the silversmith for tightening or something. Next time, when I go, they are too worried about their own problems that they forget to scan me before I enter the marriage hall.
It is after all, we who form the society and I feel that we should assert by words or deeds. You will not be crowned by them. But for sure, our next generation might thank us for smoothening their path to some extent. Btb, may be this is the time, for us to thank those women and men in our history, who martyred their life and spent time for fighting for such causes. Otherwise we would still be way behind !!
One more important aspect is that when Indian people say culture, it is mainly for women. Can you just wrack your brains and tell me some specific cultural symbols or rites which are associated with men alone, which they religiously follow? Apart from small prayers to God, and performing the final rites for their parents, culture does not expect anything from them. Or am I wrong? I am ignorant on this.
We see out heroes snapping their fingers and deliver such dialogues as – “An Indian woman should be modest, wear sari and respect elders…”. As he says this, he will be puffing out smoke (Indian culture,er?), wearing jeans and t-shirt (again, the same cultural attire?), having spiked hair (I do not want to comment) and he will walk over the girls’ parents and treat them like trash, after she gets married to him (sorry, I misunderstood, when he said ‘elder’. I thought it meant all elders). SO, is culture gender-specific?
Sorry for the pretty long comment. But thought if these subtle patriarchal views are challenged at home, then our place will be a better place to live, brimming with TRUE Indian culture.
I agree with u cent percent. I dnt wear any signs and I value mymarital relationship just like any other married woman.
More women need to speak about this issue, and more often! Thanks for bringing out this topic Aruna!
I loved your comments on ‘gender-specific’ Indian culture Vani!
Thanks Jyothi. You are right, more people should talk about such issues, so that it is no more a scandalous one.
I wear sindoor, mangalsutra bt when I want to, nt everyday. N one thing I wanna say day women notice dese things more. They start talking wrong about a lady if she z nt following t rituals.. A married woman needs to wear bangles, sindoor etc all t time. Mother in law, she forgets dat her son was fine b4 marriage n now a girl married to him needs to do all these for t sake of her son’s health. I strongly dont like dis. At times m being questioned for nt doing dis.
Thanks a ton for bringing up this topic. I am often told by my family members – husband, mom, father-in-law that I should never forget to apply the deep red Bindhi, the Mangalsutra and the wedding/engagement ring. But you know what, I don’t believe in these symbols at all. Long, long ago when India was a land of kings and kingdoms and when girls as young as 5 and 8 were married off, these symbols took root in our society. The red vermilion on a married woman’s forehead was bright in color and visible even from a distance to others. This way, other individuals – especially male – knew that a girl was already married and off limits for them. Same with the Mangalsutra and toering too.
My question here is – why is it only mandatory for women to wear these symbols? How can you tell if an Indian male is married or not by just looking at him? Why are there no symbols demarcating him as ‘married’ and ‘unmarried’? And why should I follow those age old customs even now? I don’t need to prove to the world that I am married or not.
My fiance is very much fine with me not wearing any of these to show it to world outside but he is insisting me to wear when I could expect relatives around or when my to be mom-in-law, father-in-law would be around..I am really tired of explaining this..and he says the same to me stating “as to why would I not understand this one compromise I have to do ?”..I feel so not nice about this…
It seriously irritates me. Being educated if I really failed to make my better half understand (who is equally educated too and have known each other for 5 years now) about my feelings on these symbols (wearing mangalsutra and toe rings) and do the crap FOR MY TO BE FAMILY….
Where is the education ending, what are educated conveying the generations to come ?..I came from a background where my family was orthodox about these symbols right from my birth, performing mundan after certain age and piercing ears. And when I attained puberty, I still remember the way my mom would treat me, practicing untouchability (during period cycles asking me to stay in a corner of the house, use separate utensils, bed, pillows) and I took a stand (during my second period cycle in my life), gathered my courage against these kind of rituals at the age of 15 at my home; post which they slowly understood these do not make sense any. Why would a guy not take initiative for the same? How would it make a difference to all of the stories we have heard in the news : “a frog being married to a human or some other creature” to expect thundering rain for crops ??? It feels the same to me when women are asked to wear such symbols to prove the world, It is a choice for a women to wear what she prefers to, as long as ETHICS & VALUE SYSTEM is strong…and best of all is, my to be husband knows me quite well and as a matter of fact he has reiterated umpteen number of times that he loves me for being a beautiful human by heart, appreciating my value system and views ….I am disappointed and upset…irritated at this topic.
I always wonder if we are all moving forward as matured, educated and humanity driven system ? If ethics and clarity of value system is taught in schools and educational institutions at all ? And if I have received these very rightly from my school. Why not my to be husband ???
I am very disappointed and hurt and is the reason I am being so very explicit about my feelings. I am a feminist since my schooling, I have partaken so many debates and discussions..I am surprised to have experienced these views from my to be husband. I mentioned all of my above words as my view points and with no absolute intention to hurt others…and I love my fiance. Is anybody there who could get my view point and address ??
Dear Niru… thanks for reading this piece.I can imagine why you find it difficult to conform to these requests from your fiancée.But none other than you can explain your displeasure to him.I suggest you take it slow and steady and have a discussion with an open mind.Good luck! – Aruna
Thank you Aruna, I will….
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