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?


21 Married Women in Chennai Remove ‘Thali’ Despite Husbands Being Alive

I have not read of any recent protests against widows being forced (directly or indirectly) to take off symbols of matrimony (colours, jewellery, make up) – but this event was found objectionable by some.

The display of symbols of matrimony plays a part in the process that pressurises women to Get Married, or become a Suhagan, and then to Stay a Suhagan.  It’s not enough for women to get married, and stay married, they also must Stay Suhagan. While it is no longer legal to burn a widow alive, women in traditional communities, are still under pressure to make sure that their spouse outlives them.

What do you think of this news? I believe these small steps are great for starting a conversation, about what is, for a majority of Indians, a taboo topic – in fact it’s so taboo, it’s not even a topic.

The easier way to deal with all such symbols is I think for women to wear or reject/ignore them irrespective of their marital status. Married women not wearing these symbols or single women wearing them would render the symbol useless – because then they fail to serve the purpose they have been created for.

And the easiest, I think, is for married women to stop wearing them.

What do you think?

21 Married Women in Chennai Remove ‘Thali’ Despite Husbands Being Alivece

CHENNAI: Terming the “thali” or “mangalsutra”, traditionally worn around the neck by married Hindu women as long as their spouses are alive, a symbol of slavery or oppression, 21 married women discarded it at a function organised by Tamil outfit Dravidar Kazhagam here on Tuesday.
…  According to DK, the event got over even before a division bench of the Madras High Court issued a stay order on the function.

The DK announced the “thali” removal programme after protests by Hindu Munnani against television channel Puthiya Thalaimurai over its proposed programme on women wearing “thali”.

The Tamil TV channel later cancelled the programme but two tiffin box bombs of low intensity were thrown at the channel’s office.

Several Hindu organisations had opposed the DK’s “thali” removal programme.
Tying a “thali” or “mangalsutra” by the groom around the brides neck is a major custom in Hindu weddings. A woman removes the “thali” only on the death of her husband.

Related Posts:

When married Indian women strive to look unmarried.

Why Indian women wear toe rings (BICHHIYA)? there is a Science Behind this..

The girl whose mother was not allowed colours and celebrations.

“It was very cruel whatever they did with my didi. Even the ladies were abusing her.”

Sindoor, Tali and Mangalsutra.

Display of respect to those in power, in Indian culture.

More related posts: 

First name, Unwanted. Second name, Dad’s or Husband’s name.

Ditched the dupatta, chucked the chunni – Starry eyed

Please watch Queen. Feels like our country is finally changing.

What makes someone find the concept of ghunghat appreciable?

‘When husbands are jealous, they look so cute, no!?’

For child’s passport, unwed mother needs to declare if she was raped: Centre to HC

‘I have grown up and gotten used to the fact that my parents are considered less fortunate since they did not have a son.’

“I seem to have a lot of similarities with the villainous daughters in law of India’s favourite serials.”

Sharing an email. 

Dear IHM,

Hi. I would like to say that your blog has clarified a lot of things in my life, but the truth is that your blog has thrown me (and I am sure many many others like me) into confusion.. and that is the best part about it. That you make me question about whether I have the right to ask more… about whether what has been seen as my “selfishness” is just a plea to be understood and liked for myself.
I thought of myself as a passive feminist, (if there is something like that) hardly a revolutionary, till I was 24 and married. Till then I took equal work, equal pay as a matter of course, assumed that always regardless of gender stereotypes whoever can do the best job will do it, that merit will always make its own way, and that if you have a career then your skills inside the home are not very important etc. With both parents working, my father buying groceries, clearing the table after dinner, making breakfast early in the morning for us, sharing in a lot of household chores etc was taken for granted. 
Then marriage happened(incidentally it was a love marriage) and it was brought home to me that I am a revolutionary. Initially I insisted on maintaining separate accounts for both of us, I expected that my parents and his would be treated on par (not the “now you are part of our family, and your parents are the girl’s parents attitude), then I expected that since I was working and contributing equally financially that we would share all the household chores as well, I insisted on getting a cook rather than cooking myself (I tried for the first 6 months and felt I couldn’t do it any more when I ended up spending all my time in the kitchen on the weekends) with a very demanding career I was unable to keep the house to the spic and span requirement of my husband (please note that it is still neater than a lot of other houses, but not up to the level of my husband’s house where my mother in law, a homemaker prides herself on her cleanliness). When my husband traveled, rather than packing his suitcase for him I assumed that he would do it and let me know if he needed anything, however later I realised that this was taken as a sign of my disinterest in him. I refused to wear the Sindoor, I do not believe in the mangalsutra but after a lot of gibes at me, I agreed to wear it.(I still get to hear from my husband about how”I do not appear to be married”).
Do not get me wrong, my husband is a very very nice person, genuine, friendly and affectionate. I am frequently told that I am lucky to be married to someone like him. However he is also traditional, conservative and has… let me say rock solid old world values which come into frequent conflict with my rock solid new age values as I am sure happens in a lot of marriages today.
Anyway, I realised to my horror sometime ago that I seemed to have a lot of similarities with the villainous daughters in law of India’s favourite serials not so long ago… leading me to have a lot of sympathy for these “villainesses”. 
When thinking about the stereotypical villainess in the soap operas that enter (or used to enter) our rooms on a daily basis a few thoughts occurred to me.
I have to confess, back in 2000 or was it 1999 when Tulsi Virani made an entrance into our homes I too was an avid watcher.  A few memories of the non sanskaari bahus back then (they usually got what they deserved by having their men have extra marital affairs with sanskaari women)–

The villainess. She enters wearing western clothes, revealing or non revealing. Even after marriage she retains the same clothes, eschewing the sari and the heavy jewellery that the sanskaari bahu wears. Since she is a “career woman”, she does not do seva of the elder members of the family, preferring instead to head to her workplace.  There she is the typical ambitious b*****, talking down to men, insisting on getting her own way, being overbearing and bossy to ensure that the job gets done. (In more extreme cases she may even pull down an aged worker to show how un-respectful she is).  Of course she is good at her work, another sign of how hopeless a daughter in law she is. She resents strictures on her behavior by the elders of the house frequently arrives late due to pressures of work and tends to treat her husband more as an equal than the holy pati- parmeshwar, sometimes even asking him to set dinner on the table or clear something up!! When her sanskaari jethani/mother in law tries to advise her on the importance of worshipping her husband and serving the family, that for an Indian woman the sindoor on her forehead is something that is more important than her life she is curt to the point of being rude. She may insist on staying apart from her in laws (or at least try to convince her in laws), travel on official trips without her husband and even interacts freely with male colleagues or friends.

The transition of the villainess into the sanskaari bahu is complete (usually after she has received her comeuppance with a slap from her husband or an extra marital affair) when she appears at 6:00 am  in the morning in the kitchen, dressed in sari and jewellery, head discreetly covered to take her father in law his first cup of tea. She offers the tea; falls at his feet and her transgressions of daring to have a life outside the home is forgiven! Credits roll!
Bollywood still perpetuates these images with regularity… the movie that comes to mind immediately  of course is the abolutely regressive, stereotypical Cocktail. 
A couple of years ago, one of the leading stars of Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna said in an interview that Rani’s character did not have an excuse for the extra marital affair… meaning that SRK’s character did… since his wife was career oriented, successful, upfront and made no bones about her husband’s failures? Does anything justify an extra marital affair?
Please note, I have stopped watching these serials for the past few years, so I sincerely hope that the above is outdated and obsolete 🙂
If you do end up putting any of this email on your blog and are including any of the personal information in the first couple of paragraphs, do keep it anonymous, since unfortunately 🙂 I am not that much of a revolutionary.
Thank you for your blog!
Best Regards
* * *
Related Posts:
New women in old marriages – Careless Chronicles
How to be a Sanskari Bahu – Careless Chronicles
* * *

Sindoor, Tali and Mangalsutra.

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On the day of my dad’s funeral, somebody pointed out that it was cold and my mother should have a shawl. I got up to get one. A well meaning relative followed me. I picked a maroon shawl. The well meaning relative muttered, “Red won’t be appropriate, take the beige one.” I assured her maroon would be just fine, knowing I was older than her and my mom was in no state to object.

Later mum mentioned how another acquaintance had pointed out one Mrs S, who was so distraught after her husband died that even a year afterwards; she hardly ate unless someone persuaded her to eat. Perhaps she needed a maid for a while. Join Yoga classes. Get out and meet people, anything to lift her spirits, and help her get on with life. Instead she was used as a subtle example of good widowhood.

A friend who is originally from Nainital lost her dad. She was expected to request some male cousins to perform the funeral rites. She was also expected to watch her relatives take away coloured saris and shawls from her mother’s gorgeous collection. She did neither. Some jaws dropped. She performed all rites and her mother still wears sindoor, and is still complimented for her lovely taste in saris.

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When I visited my mum later, she explained, “If I don’t use lipstick, my lips feel dry…” All her life she drank tea or water before applying lipstick, because (unlike her daughters) she hates leaving lipstick marks on teacups. What made her think she needed to justify her use of lipstick now? I reminded her how as a 68 year old grandmother; she could be a role model for the younger women she interacted with. How proud I was when I told well-meaning relatives, “My 68 year old mother wears sleeveless/lipstick/pretty colours/diamonds… ” etc.  I didn’t even want to mention how dad never cared for such customs.

Old age can be empowering in our culture. Suddenly the same old opinions become respectable.

I love putting sindoor (vermilion) on the forehead and filling the hair parting with it. We even have jokes about how one can intentionally let some of this gorgeous red powder sprinkle on the nose because that indicates a loving husband. But all this is only for parties and occasions. In daily life I don’t even wear a bindi or a nose pin.  Most of my friends don’t either, though some wear mangalsutra inside their shirts. (Inside because they realise that generally these symbols don’t go well with western clothes)

Sometimes a rare well meaning acquaintance would point out ‘bare arms‘ (i.e. no bangles).

Another one once said one should either always wear sindoor or never.


Because it wasn’t a fashion or a style statement.

No? Then what was it?

Why do women wear sindoor, mangalsutra, bangles, bichia, tali etc? To show they are married. Why do they need to ‘show’ or announce they are married?  (Please don’t bring love into it, because evn the most unhappily married women wear these). And then why are they expected to take these symbols off when their spouse dies? Do they stop being married?

Manusmriti has answers?  But of course! [will link or write another post later]

Bollywood has answers too!

Those who follow this traditionally should know what the symbols imply. For those who wear sindoor and mangalsutra like they wear lipstick and a pretty neckpiece these become what they should remain – just some pretty ethnic adornments.