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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33 thoughts on “Making a simple choice – Mangalsutra

  1. I love you for writing this. But sometimes it’s easier to just do it rather than argue with the m-i-l regarding why you choose not to wear it, especially when you visit them only once or twice a year.

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    • Same here, I am not very fond of ornaments and even a small dangly fashion earring gets on my nerves after a couple hours of wearing it. I cannot imagine wearing the mangalsutra or for that matter any necklace around my neck day in and day out. I would be so physically uncomfortable. So I do not wear it here in the USA. I do wear a ring when I step outdoors, but that’s more out of habit than anything else and sometimes I forget that too. When visiting India, I do not have the energy and patience to explain to a very old fashioned MIL and Indian society in general why I do not want to wear it. Especially when I am visiting India for just a few days. Even then, I wear it only when I am outside of my parents home. In my parent’s home, it’s back to my unadorned self 🙂
      Yes, I too dislike how these symbols glorify the state of being married. For the same reasons I am not in favor of haldi kumkum or similar customs reserved exclusively for married women.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s funny. I have never worn my mangalsutra or any markers of married women after couple of months of marriage (except ring). But the surprising thing is no one dared me. Some people have tried subtly but my non-explaning attitude coupled with defiance did the trick I think. Not in laws, not my family, and of course my hubby never cared. But rest of my family, elder cousins, and my SIL (hubbys brother wife) follows these rules to the tee. To each their own I’d say.

    Through 10 years of my marriage, what I have realized is that all my friends and younger cousins that live around me slowly let go of these markers too. No one seems to attach mindless sentiments around bindi or mangalsutra or toe rings anymore.
    That’s a thumbs up 👍🏼.

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    • It’s really interesting how change occurs so rapidly in some families and not in others. We are such a heterogeneous culture, it is impossible to predict any kind of trends. I have a friend from Mumbai – her family was so open minded 3 generations ago. And I have nieces and nephews (a whole generation younger than me) who are so traditional they make me feel like a rebel:)

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  3. I think one must do and abide by as one feels comfortable to do. Nothing or no one must coax one into obliging. I don’t understand one thing – why must women follow every rule, every ritual, wear dozens of things and not men. Are we women alone to portray we are married and I ask why?
    My mother-in-law is of the perception that I haven’t been educated well by my parents on things a married woman must follow.
    I am not averse to the idea of wearing the mangalsutra, but I simply wont, adamantly, if I’m forced.
    No thread, no piece of accessory, has the right to decide one’s love for one’s spouse, and that goes to both the sexes.

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  4. I feel uncomfortable with the toe ring, but wear it since hell would break loose if my MIL ever sees me without it, and what do I say about the bindi. A self proclaimed bindi lover that I am, feel like not wearing it only because I hate somebody reminding me every time I am out of the bathroom ” Bindi laga lena”. I sometimes abide just to avoid an argument and sometimes tell her that I don’t wear bindi always.But that doesn’t deter her from reminding me again.It is difficult to explain the concept of choice and comfort to in laws, the perception that a daughter in law becomes one’s ghar ki izzat is horrible to come to terms with and the added burden of what would people say if they see my DIL without bindi or bangles or toe ring is just too irritating to digest.

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  5. I wonder if wearing it makes me old fashioned? But i don’t give it much thought. I just wear it. I will wear it till I think i am ok with it. Maybe not wearing it will hurt my in laws sentiments. But i don’t think they will force me to. I dont put bindi, i dont wear ring, nor the foot ring. They are ok with it. They might tell me to wear it in front if their relatives. And wearing it for their sake is like encouraging wrong belief. So maybe I should not do that. I realised it after reading this. 😦
    I indeed missed this introspection Priya :* :*

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    • Introspection is a process Dhanashree. We all go through it – at our own pace, I suppose. I think it’s important to think about these things – what we decide to do, how we react, when we are ready to change course – that’s completely up to the individual and that’s going to vary a lot probably ….

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  6. I landed on this page quite inadvertently…and this has been going on in my head ever since my mother in law announced that she is coming to visit us. I do not live in India at the moment, and as soon as I came to Taipei, I took off the mangalsutra, toe rings etc. I did wear them on occasion, and whenever I went back for a visit. Like Lochan mentions above, I at times felt it’s better to put up with it, rather than argue (same goes for the rituals and fasts) and at times, I feel like Asha that I am not going to do something, just because of the pressure..that leaves me in dilemma, and I haven’t made up my mind yet..
    Of course, it would be lovely if we had the freedom to do as we please, and I have always rued the fact that in an Indian set up, it has been difficult to speak up and do as you please once you got married…I hope that mindsets broaden in the true sense of the term, and we, as women, get the freedom, without having to ‘demand’ for it everytime…

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  7. Wearing a heavy mangalsutra is a trend going downwards. I’m 58 and Parsi married to a South Indian Brahmin. My father in law strictly enforced the rules that marked a married woman. I followed it for a few years, but later chucked them as irrelevant to real life. My MIL was my best friend until she dies you see! Bless her soul.

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  8. In my view it all goes by one simple rule ” your life your rules ” . It’s strictly if you don’t like to do something you shouldn’t . And specially when it comes to minor choice questions on what to wear and how to dress up etc. We are talking about adults here , who shouldn’t take permission from anyone for what and whet they should wear. I live in the Netherlands for several years now and the remarkable trait about society is that everyone’s have their own choice to make even the kids. Nothing is enforced !
    Even when living in India never cared about what people think And how I’m perceived or making anyone happy on the cost of my own happiness. It’s simple to each his/her own. Do it if you like and if you don’t , never care for who would like or you or not !

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    • “Even when living in India never cared about what people think ”
      True, it doesn’t matter where you live … some people are just strong by nature and good at self-determination.

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  9. hmm havent been wearing it for decades.. no one seems to care. even when i go back to india guess everyone is so busy nowadays they dont notice. If they do they dont ask. A few aunts do force their DIls to wear i think,even if they do , i rarely answer , smile and walk away or i simply shrug , why no toering -‘shrug’ , why no bangles – ‘shrug’ 🙂 nothing like ignoring someone to shut them up. I really dont care to educate them. why bother in a few yrs they are gone.

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    • Ignoring is generally a good tactic…. especially when people who ask questions have short attention spans:)
      Unless someone gets really obnoxious …. then you have to tell them an unequivocal ‘NO’.

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  10. I don’t wear one and since I have no in laws, I have not been subjected to questions around it. That said, I think no jewellery should be forced on anyone. I hate jewellery on the neck and often wonder what women who are allergic to metal would do

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    • You make a good point. True liberation is when we can support one another, not engage in unhealthy competition. But this sense of insecurity among women has been bred over many generations. It is a hard habit to break. Also misogyny, after many generations, gets internalized. Women tend to be harsh on themselves and on each other. A man who fumbles with a skill is seen as “cute”, a woman who fumbles is seen as inadequate. We must consciously de-condition ourselves from this response and be kinder, less judgmental on ourselves and other women. That is true liberation.

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  11. Thought provoking post about a mundane thing such as wearing mangalsutra. My mother never wears it inside the house, so I always assumed it was for the benefit of others. I wore mine for a couple of days after wedding, just to get a feel. I didn’t like the toe rings the very first day so took it off. Finally decided that I didn’t like wearing mangalsutra and it sits inside my cupboard. I don’t care much for jewellery save for simple earrings. My MIL doesn’t care if I wear it. My parents try to gently suggest wearing it, but I don’t carry it with me when I visit them. So people have no choice but to accept me as I am. My sister and my cousin sister don’t wear it on a daily basis either. Its just when they visit their in-laws (which I think is ridiculous, but to each his own).
    Wedding symbols which are just for women are definitely a sign of patriarchy trying to control women. If it was a sign to tell other people that the woman is married, why don’t men wear it too, announcing their commitment to their wife? And why so many symbols (mangalsutra, the vermilion, toe rings)?

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  12. Long time IHM ! Hope you are doing well.

    I’ve never worn the chain around my neck. This comes from a place where I have never felt the need to advertise my marital status – which I refuse to let define me.So I refuse to wear the ring, toe ring or the chain or the sindoor. My in-laws never say anything directly to my face. its all the passive aggressive stuff , plus back channels thru husband. So , am sure a lot of talk and plenty of bitching goes on behind my back. I am expected to wear something when I visit the in-law’s parents, though I think the oldest gen is cooler than the in-laws. Some of my colleagues have these ultra fancy lite versions of the mangalsutra- their choice and if they are happy with it – good for them. In one case, it was the husband who wanted his wife to wear all the chains and threads- because it brought him good luck !

    I don’t also fast or keep those vrats which benefit the husbands/men. If there is something for everyone – I am on board with that.

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    • Hi Aditi,
      Loved your comment, especially, the one about being on board with rules that apply to all, not (conveniently) assigned to a few.
      This is Priya, not IHM. I’m a guest blogger on IHM’s blog, and write when I’m able to. Like you and many others, I miss her posts too.

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      • Oh yes , sorry I missed that Priya …

        I remember when I got married , within a day I was back to who I am – no jewelry , no markers etc. I distinctly remember the one thing so many people said – You don’t look married. I have often wondered what that meant and how one can look married vs not. May be this is what they meant !!!!

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  13. I have never agreed with the concept of Mangalsutra nor have I liked it as a piece of jewelry, so it is only natural that I don’t have one and have never worn one. But I am well aware that I am out of the fortunate few who have in-laws that were understanding of my choice. It helped that my in-laws are extremely progressive. When we got married, we did have a small episode where my mum-in-law asked me to wear it just for 5 mins for my husband’s granny. I politely refused because I said that it went against my principle. And I don’t want to do something for a granny I had barely met when I refused to do it to please my granny whom I have known and loved for years. I also mentioned that my husband wouldn’t like it at all. She wasn’t very receptive to what I was saying. So my husband spoke to her and she came around and apologized, which was very very nice of her. She said that if we had decided to not go the traditional way, then she also needed to muster the courage to answer people if they questioned our choice. I must mention though that acceptance came easily to her because she is a staunch feminist. She is a professor of history and arranges lectures at her university on taboo topics like sexual harassment, misogyny, LGBT etc.

    But I digress, I think it’s ultimately each woman’s individual choice. But I do urge all my female friends to question why they are choosing to wear it and then go ahead with it if they are convinced about it. I am a happy woman as long as women realize that they have a choice to think, to question, to seek answers, and then make an informed decision. Unfortunately, Hindi series have made mangalsutras into a fashion statement. So I see a lot of women wear it out of excitement, similar to all the symbolism associated with a marriage: Red as a bridal color, green and yellow as a bridal color in Maharashtra, white in the west and what not. If only marriages were simply about love and affection between two people 😉

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    • It is very nice of your m-I-l to be willing to see her mistake. None of us is perfect, but it confidence and a sense of security to be able to say, “I was wrong.” Loved the rest of your sharing!

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  14. I don’t understand this whole misogyny of forcing a woman to wear mangalsutra or taking the husband’s name for that matter. I don’t see its purpose of pleasing society and as it is, marriage is between two souls and why let external agents, be it parents or not to decide for two individuals. It’s the right of a woman as an individual to decide and true growth happens when a husband respect his wife’s choice.

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  15. Only when I read posts and comments like this do I realise that what I take for granted is an absolute stroke of luck in my case. I am married for close to 10 years, and I wore a thaali, sindoor and toe rings for a good 3 years only because I found it so much fun. Then I started finding them a hassle so I removed them. Not one person in my family asked me why, and my MIL lives with us. I think to a large extent I was always surrounded by folks who let me choose whatever I wanted to do. In fact, for the first 3 years, my husband would complain how I was spoiling my outfits with the thaali that did not go with them 🙂
    Nothing, and I mean nothing, should be forced upon someone without a reason. Would I ask my kid to wear a sweater when it is cold? Yep, there is a reason. But doing something because someone else believes is a must is unacceptable. Lots of girls I know don a different get up while visiting their in-laws. Their reason – why have a conflict? I wear shorts and skirts and tanks with as much right as I wear a saree when I feel like, and no one gets to ask me why. Afterall, it’s my life.
    I don’t even want to get into ‘why guys dont have to have marital symbols’. Because I doubt I would be ok wearing a thaali by force if my husband was made to wear a noose because that’s the norm. Because neither have a reason. And we should not accept anything that doesn’t have substantial reasoning.
    P.S. Nosey aunts who have rules around your dressing when visiting should not be visited. A rule I strictly follow.

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    • Agree with everything here, especially men shouldn’t be forced to wear marital symbols either. It’s not about revenge, it’s about being adults, and let adults decide what they want to do.

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  16. My dear IHM and mother of Tejaswee,

    I have come to your blog after ages. And I still find your piece on the mangalsutra refreshing and thought-provoking.

    Did U know that Ambedkar and his followers burned the Manusmriti that prescribes the control of women by males from the cradle to the grave?

    When I got married in 1982, my mother-in-law kept insisting that her daughter should wear a mangalsutra. When I warned her that I too, as her husband, would wear a mangalsutra, if she forced her daughter to wear a mangalsutra, she backed off.

    You correct: no one would dare prescribe such customs and/or traditions for men. What is worse is that women themselves force, persuade or blackmail other women into wearing a mangalsutra.

    A close & dear friend used to say that a mangalsutra is like a dog’s collar. And therefore, he would not put it around his wife’s wife’s neck. Fortunately, when he got married his wife did not wear it.

    Peace and love,
    — Joseph M. Pinto, Pune, India.

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    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts! It does become easier for women to oppose these practices when the men in their lives stand by them (like you did).
      This is not IHM, this is Priya, I’m a guest blogger on IHM’s site. Sorry for the confusion. I will do a clarification post soon.

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    • “dog’s collar” is a very apt description of the Mangalsutra. It is a “property marker” implying the wife as a property of husband. That is why men don’t wear it.

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  17. To be honest I do not mind wearing my ‘minnu’ (mangalautra). It is a tiny gold locket with an even more tiny cross on it. To me it symbolises the culmination of a decade of love and friendship which finally took a solid shape.. marriage.. Thankfully at the same time I have never been forced into feeling that I have to wear it at all times by either my husband or my MIL. He says it’s up to me. Anyway wat I am trying to say is, if my family has no issue about it then why the society get to have any say in it??? Recently I was sitting outside a medical ICU with my MIL. Another lady whom I have never before seen in my life, a lady who was the bystander of some other patient in the ICU had the audacity to ask my MIL why I was not wearing my mangalsutra!!! The nerve I say..!! Neither of us responded to the question..

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  18. Yes.. agree with this entire post… this feels like my thoughts exactly… i hate jewellery and don’t believe in any of these so called married symbols… while my husband, my mil or my dad just don’t care about what I wear or not, but my mom is just against this choice of mine.. we have discussed at length, argued, fought, Rona dhona( both of us😆 coz while I felt she doesn’t understands me at all n she cried coz I cried.. haha)… nowadays she would tell me to at least wear while I am visiting her or any guests visit home.. her only concern is that she cannot bear ppl (read relatives) talking bad about me.. I understand her worry but how long would one need to go to impress all these ppl.. sometimes she comes with weird reasons about why we should wear these n I laugh it off but sometimes it gets frustrating.. she gives this silent treatment and after a lot of asking, she would come up with just one request and the same story continues again.. she is my crazy mom, I cannot cut off my relationship just for this small choice of mine… sometimes I wear it just for her in front of her and I will tell her the same.. she is fine as long as I wear the chain in front of her… but 90% of the time I forget to wear it😉, coz I am bloody comfortable without any jewellery on me… So life’s going on as this….😏

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  19. Great Post! I often wondered why there is SO much jewelry to signify a woman is married in Indian culture. My husband is Indian and I was gifted a mangalsutra from his mother. I will wear it to Indian events but I won’t feel the need to wear it every day but maybe I will. We shouldn’t put so much emphasis on material things and should instead focus on the quality of marriage!

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