Making a simple choice – Mangalsutra

Sometimes making a simple choice can be so exhausting. 

I’m talking about the Mangalsutra.  That chain that would be sinful not to wear.  Only bad women, evil women, women who don’t love their husbands, refuse to wear it.  And so, on the attitudes go.

It is a symbol of love between husband and wife.  It is symbolic of their bond. It is our tradition (and yes woman, you are responsible for keeping our traditions alive).  And so on goes the advice.

In my 20s, my head was filled with the above by my many aunts and cousins.  My mother herself never lectured me on this but she did wear hers as a matter of habit.

I was reluctant to wear one for several reasons:

One, I am uncomfortable with jewelry in general.  The most I like sporting is a single pearl in each ear.  If the occasion were more formal, I might don a thin chain or a bracelet. 

Two, the mangalsutra seems forced.  It was never seen as a choice.  Anything forced automatically arouses my suspicion.  Women who did not wear it were treated with intolerance. 

Three, if you look at the traditional significance of it – it was yet another symbol (besides kumkum, bangles, etc.) denied to widows and used to discriminate against them.  It was mainly to celebrate the “state of being married”, to separate that state from the “unfortunate” states of being single, divorced, or widowed.  Having a husband is what got you into the coveted Mangalsutra club and to keep the perks, you had to fast, pray for and serve one’s husband and in-laws and proudly display your membership with the sutra, kumkum, and bangles (the latter two also not allowed for widows).

So, I chose not to wear something that glorifies the concept of being married, something that says – you do not exist as an individual, without a man, you have no worth. And by making this choice, I quickly became “evil incarnate” for some, “that arrogant woman” for others, and “she who has made a coward of her husband” for yet others.  My husband is one of the most obstinate, individualistic people I know, so this last remark usually cracks him up.

When I was younger, I often felt hurt at people’s ugly reactions.  I felt compelled to explain that I loved and supported my husband – that a chain meant nothing to me – that you can wear it and backbite and manipulate your husband.  Over time, I realized that all these explanations and scenarios were unnecessary.  Justifying a choice means that you are giving someone the right to question your choice.  Then it’s no longer a choice.

Since I’m in my mid-40s, I keep assuming that these are things of the past and the girls and young women nowadays have it different.  I do hope I’m right.  But every now and then, I’m in for a surprise. 

My niece (cousin’s daughter) recently joked: “I should take my very modern friend who dresses in shorts to my in-laws’ house, so that in comparison, they would be thankful they got someone like me as a daughter-in-law who will at least wear a salwar kameez – but may choose not to wear the thick heavy wedding Mangalsutra but prefers a lighter, more fashionable version”.

I smiled politely but her remark made me wonder.  Why try so hard?  Why not just politely tell them what you prefer to wear?  Why let them disparage your friend for wearing what she finds comfortable?  If they required a nose ring, would you get your nose pierced?  Where does the control end? 

One aunt told me “my house, my rules”.  “I don’t care what my d-i-l does in her own house, but in my house, she needs to wear it.”  Really?  House rules extend to personal things like jewelry?  This is news to me. 

So, can my parents say the following to my husband:

“In my house, all men wear the sacred thread, so you must too.” 

Or “All men sport beards, so you must grow one.  You can shave it off when you get home.”

Or, “We don’t like facial hair.  Shave off your goatee.  Grow it back after your vacation.”

Or “We consider pants indecent.  Please wear dhoti at our place and when you go home, you may switch back to pants.” 

If they did, I’m sure he’d say, “I love you guys but would you stop kidding around so much!”

If he thought they were being serious, he would tell them to take a hike, probably. 

Most arguments that justify unfair traditions do not survive the reverse-the gender test (or reverse-any-role test). 

And yet this never really happens, does it?  Why would no one ever dare suggest such a thing to him but think nothing of calling me names for my most personal choices? It’s simple.  It’s mostly habit.  Misogyny is a habit that’s hard to break.  Most people unthinkingly assume they can give advice to, criticize, admonish, berate, slight, humiliate, or punish women for things that they wouldn’t dream of interfering, were those choices made by men.  They have seen others do it all their lives – it is so ingrained. 

And it will REMAIN ingrained – unless we correct it.  It will take a lot of women to keep saying ‘no’ to attempts to control – to break this habit.

What about you?  Do you feel pressured to wear the mangalsutra?  If so, what forms does the pressure take?  What do you do about it?  What would you like to do about it?

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