Women in India are often told that they don’t look married when they don’t wear bangles, vermillion or gold jewellery. This practise not only undermines the aesthetic agency of women but also limits the representation of marital symbolism to only Hindu culture. The married “look” encourages both conservatism and the objectification of women as showpieces on a mantle.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I was standing amongst a group of people, most of whom I did not know, discussing a bridge that had collapsed near our homes recently and why it would inevitably take months to fix it. My husband was standing across the group and I happened to reference him in my comment about the bridge. Immediately, a middle-aged man cut me off and interjected with the following,
“You’re married? You don’t look married!”
Despite being accustomed to hearing things like that all the time, I still asked him to explain what that meant.
“It’s a compliment, ” he said, “You don’t talk that way or look that way.”
While I enjoy invoking Socrates and playing dumb in my questioning of the problematic things I hear around me, I am aware of the social systems that encourage people to think a married woman looks a certain way. I still ask this question often, just so I can take those fragments of information and put together a collage of what a married woman actually looks like someday. The answers I get are predictable but usually dishonest. Some say that it is an allusion to youth, others say it is because I project a solitary stance and most will just call it a compliment as if looking married is like wearing a scarlet letter across your chest. The truth is that in India it is not enough for a woman to get married, she also has to look the part and this married appearance is multi-faceted hot bed of not only oppression but also religious intolerance. In many ways we see the act of committing a wedding as a commitment to a brand new life for women and with new life, she is expected to commit to a new appearance.
India being a country where the majority of the population is Hindu and secular only when reciting the preamble, we have reduced the nature of marital symbolism to only Hinduism based signifiers so if you are a woman who is Christian or god forbid, an atheist, you are immediately clubbed into a category of women who do not look married. Hindu marital symbolism involves applying vermillion, or sindoor, to the parting of one’s hair in order to invoke goddess Parvati to protect your husband. It also involves wearing bangles on your wrists at all times after you have removed the chooda that you would have put on at the time of your wedding. It also involves wearing a mangalsutra which symbolises the auspicious nature of the unity between two souls but is to be worn only by the woman. If you discuss these aspects of the tradition with new age thinkers most of them will tell you that all of these things have a “scientific” basis but what they mean, I think, is that they are historically rooted in tradition that may not have been designed specifically to oppress women but to decorate them as symbols of matrimony.
However being decorated by protocol in a prescribed manner is a burden that only married women face and not a compulsion that is put on men. Whether that is having to keep your head covered, compulsorily wearing bangles around your wrists at all times or having to weigh your neck down with heavy necklaces, it is all a form of objectification when it is made mandatory to look that way to qualify as married. The truth that no one has ever told me to my face is that I don’t “look married” because I don’t decorate myself in golden symbols of Hindu matrimony. I refuse to accept that jewellery is simply an expression of beauty because as far as I am concerned those bangles may as well be shackles. The fundamental ideal of oppression is to prescribe behaviour to the oppressed class, whether that behaviour is related to how one conducts their bodies in social spaces or how one is expected to dress, it is a layer of the same beast. The manner of enforcement is sometimes blatant and sometimes nuanced.
A young recently-widowed girl I met in a village near Varanasi once told me about her wedding. She said she didn’t want to wear the huge nose ring because it was hurting her and making her cry, twenty- minutes prior to her appearance at her own wedding her mother slapped her in the face and threatened to bring out her father with his gun to shoot her in the face. Her physical well-being was threatened because she didn’t want to wear some allegedly pretty jewellery. At my wedding, I didn’t want to participate in applying mehendi or wearing a chooda, I was not threatened. However various people accused me of being no fun when I wouldn’t let them put brown paste on my hands. Several people tried to reason with me about wearing a chooda as if women’s liberation, which is the singular purpose for my entire existence, is just a hobby to me that I would abandon for an evening of twinkling lights, and when I absolutely refused to let god intervene in my wedding, they told me they would just put a chooda in a river on my behalf. Doing things on my behalf without my consent, even when the audience for it is an unknowable entity or telling me I can’t “loosen up” enough to have fun in the manner that is told to me undermines my agency and is a form of the same pressure to conform that is sometimes enforced with a gun. Of course when you say that, no one will admit it.
No, they will use your lack of femininity to attack you instead. They will tell you, and themselves, that you don’t want to wear bangles because you were always a “tomboy” or a “very simple girl” or “one of those feminists” because accepting that a woman recognises a gilded cage for what it is and chooses not to step into it in the first place would mean we are admitting that we see it too.
This is not to attack women who choose to participate in religious symbols of matrimony by incorporating them into their attire, because that would assume I practice a form of feminist enlightenment where I am free of all influence and I know that is a lie. I am unable to find beauty or joy in tradition or religious culture, and I acknowledge that there are women who might, as they are entitled to do, but I am able to admit to sentimentality. For me sentimentality extends to broken locks and ratty old sweatshirts, and for someone who has had a more positive experience with religion and culture than I have, a mangalsutra might be of sentimental value and that is an expression of their authenticity that I would be loath to attack. Attacking a symbol, is not my attempt to attack individual women, but an institution that refuses to acknowledge and validate the existence of women that fall outside its norms.
Besides, my indictment of the married look is not limited to jewellery or religious symbolism, it extends to a social prescription of attire and behaviour as well. Married women tend to or are expected to dress more conservatively, the best way to observe this is to look through the photo albums of our mothers and take note of the distinct difference in their attire after they were married. In India married women are also expected to stop dressing in “western” clothing, and when we don’t stop them altogether we introduce them to the concept of “fusion” wear, comfort below and Indian beauty on top. In many cities across India women refuse to choose clothes with the ideal of looking married when they dress, but they are talked about. Even in our families, we’ve all been privy to snide discussions about that one married cousin whose dresses always shows too much boob. If you are that cousin, I am sure you have been told you don’t look married.
Married women are expected also to be better attired at all times. The standards for dress at weddings or festivals are different for married and unmarried women. My sister can wear junk earrings she bought on the side of the street (or to be more exact, I bought and she stole) but I might be asked to wear nice jewellery set in precious metal. Before a woman in India gets married, she is expected compulsory to participate in a shopping spree whether she wants to or not. This practice transcends socio-economic class and religion, it is carried out at varying levels of expense in every section of society. I still have 20 untouched sarees in a closet in my house because when I insisted that I would never need them, I was given a list is “scientific” reasons why women need expensive sarees after they get married. It was given many names — love, culture, need, tradition — but to me it was and will always be, a cheque we may as well have set on fire. A forced imposition of material joy to achieve the goal of transforming a woman into married woman is not love, it’s an inability to listen to what a woman really wants and to tell her what love and relationships look like instead because relationships are expected to change us in predictable ways.
Marriage is meant to ground people, make them stable, and if you are an outspoken, always half-outraged sort of woman, it is expected to calm you down, and that calm is part of the appearance of the married woman that I and other women like me, don’t project. We don’t speak softly, we express our opinions in conversation, we don’t glance at our husbands to validate our opinions when standing together in a group, we participate in social interactions with people of all genders, and when they stand around a woman like that and communicate with her, they are unable to view her as married. They jump up in surprise and exclaim their horror at the idea.
“You don’t look married,” they tell you.
I wish they would tell me honestly what they mean by that because to me it sounds like they are saying something much more sinister. It sounds to me that they are telling me that I am not tagged as property. That I am not decorated as per my product description. That I am not representing as Hindu and therefore not real enough to be an Indian woman. That I am not being properly woman. That I seem to have retained the curse of an individual identity despite having had the ceremony to rob me of it.
That is insulting to me, and to the women who do “look” married, because it is not a look, it’s a legal status of being. If your legal status of being husband doesn’t come with a look, as a wife, why does mine?