The Real Significance Of ‘Ek Chutki Sindoor’ For Hindu Women

Posted on August 26, 2014 in Society

By Sohini Chatterjee:

A luscious red in the middle parting of your hair sends a simple message – you are married. But is the message really that simple? From the moment that a woman is smeared with the sindoor at the time of her wedding, socio-religious norms dictate that it must stay with her, or she with it, as long as her marriage lasts. From a woman’s forehead, the symbol cries out her non-availability. It vouches for her fidelity. Her marital status is confirmed by it and others accompanying the package, like the mangalsutra, bangles made of conch shells, red corals, toerings, nosepins etc. It is the proof of monogamy, her loyalty towards her husband. The warning is implicit in the message the sindoor sends out – Do not mess with the woman, she “belongs” to another man. A cold shiver runs down my spine as I write this. Even if nobody lays down the implications of the vermillion powder in so many words, it is not too difficult to comprehend. In a society where a woman’s “no” makes little difference, sindoor can be a powerful tool to keep the unwanted attention at bay, many seem to believe and forcefully argue in social circles. This argument especially finds favour with the self-professed custodian of Hindu traditions, rituals, customs and morality. The most common argument posited by this lot is that signs of marriage worn by a woman ensures her husband’s long life. But this is not the most forceful of their contestations. They often refer to the security that this sign of marriage brings to women in society. It’s less idealistic, and hence more acceptable. These arguments seem banal when one tries to read the implications of sindoor.

Picture credit: Anamika Singh
Picture credit: Anamika Singh

A woman is treated like an object. The father gives her away at the wedding to the husband who must henceforth bear all her responsibilities. He procures charge of her life and she wears signs of marriage in consent. No matter how “independent” she is, the sindoor from the parting of her hair screams that she is sexually available to just one man. But no such customary commitment is forced upon the husband who can only confirm his marital status on being asked. This non-egalitarian arrangement is deeply problematic. The obligation of monogamy is exclusively extended to the woman. The man, on the other hand, is under no ritualistic obligation to profess his fidelity. This leads one to suspect that since humans are not naturally monogamous, men are given some leeway as it is not compulsory for them to wear signs of marriage. But the same courtesy is not extended to women whose libido was, and still is, a fearful and shameful reality best kept under the wraps. Since a married woman is viewed as an object rightfully owned by her husband, she must bear proof of his authority. But the master is under no such obligation. It indicates strongly uneven power dynamics between the sexes which persist in a marriage between them. What ideally should have been a relationship based on equality is coloured, quite literally, in favour of men. There are numerous arguments that approve of this superficially harmless understanding through the use of gender-specific signs of marriage, but they most often have little foundation in facts.

The apparent “security” that the sindoor is thought to bring is a myth, since newspaper dailies almost everyday report incidents of married women being sexually harassed. The sindoor cannot bring women safety. Even if it did, the ground on which it would be provided would be deeply insulting to women. Those who defend the sindoor by the obvious feeling of ease it provides, do not realise the dangerous implications of their defense. Their argument reeks of patriarchal arrogance, a woman can only hope to be safe if she willingly prioritizes her identity as someone’s wife before she can speak in the capacity of an individual whose marital status is so unimportant that it is rendered useless. Their argument is part of the larger societal expectation which makes a woman identify herself in relation to a man by apply the sindoor. Since women are considered inferior units in the family and society with little or no respect for their distinct identity, no matter what their accomplishments are in the 21st century, patriarchy has made it so that women have to yield to normative values to win protection from their husbands to successfully ward off undesirable propositions. Common knowledge dictates that women are incapable of protecting themselves, hence must seek it from their husbands. Even if the husband does not perform the duties a marriage brings, he is represented by the sindoor and is considered borderline invincible. The only way women can taste freedom is by applying the sindoor, otherwise men roaming the streets are free to hinder their mobility. No matter how ludicrous or unreasonable, such are the arguments in favour of sindoor. If security is provided by sindoor alone, then such luxury would not be afforded to single, divorced, or widowed women. What we need to understand is that women’s separate identities are hard for patriarchal structures to accommodate and hence they must be given a less scarier shape under the shadow of women’s legal male partners.

What is shocking in this day and age is that even though women are finding employment in large numbers and are more economically independent, their submission is still commanded by male authority for their own good, as is claimed. Being able to wear the sindoor makes married women distinct from women who do not have the same “privilege” and offers them a higher status in society. It is considered a huge accomplishment for a woman to die with the sindoor on her forehead intact and she is given a royal farewell on her good luck even today in some parts of the country. In the past century, it could have really been a matter of good luck for a woman. Employment or educational opportunities were not readily available to women and they were entirely dependent on their husbands for sustenance. However, times have changed, but it’s worrying how little modifications have been made in age old customs and practices. They remind us of a time we do not wish to remember. These stubborn customs and practices often embarrass the dignity that feminism has provided women with.

As I write this, I am reminded of the controversy Rekha had to face on wearing the sindoor casually at an award ceremony. A valid point was raised on the occasion – even if worn for decorative purposes alone, can the sindoor be shorn of its socio-religious implications? The voice of sanity questioned. On the other hand, the self-confessed righteous, scrupulous defenders of Hinduism took Rekha to task for apparently harping on the privilege only secured to married women. This goes to show the sindoor after all is not as vacant of meaning as the turn of century had had us believe. At the very outset, the denial of the privilege to Rekha goes to show that it is not to be seen as merely ornamental. It is not devoid of meaning. It would be wrong to assume that it is just another practice that has been so naturalized by women generation after generation that it does not seem threatening to the least in their identity construction. The passionate defenders of the Hindu culture believe men can rightfully validate women’s existence and women should comply. It’s a matter of great defiance to do otherwise. But Rekha’s bold stint of wearing the sindoor, even when unmarried, was largely subversive. She made re-signification of the sindoor possible and that is what irked the guardians of the Hindu morality. If the sindoor is only worn for its aesthetic appeal by women regardless of their marital status, it would cease to be the signifier of male authority over women. The sindoor is the glaring proof of a woman’s lack of agency and that is precisely why patriarchy resists its re-signification.

It is time to question and problematize the rituals, customs and practices we have internalized. It is precisely the lack of awareness on which they thrive. Let’s make it clear once and for all. Mindless compliance for social convenience would lead to the perpetuation of women’s inferior position in society and perpetuate the myth of male superiority. Signs of marriage, like the sindoor, can come in conflict with women’s self-hood and their experiences that are so often inconsistent with their marital status. A woman’s marital status need not be confirmed before her achievements are. She need not be known as someone’s wife or mother to gain social acceptance or reverence. What men take for granted, women have to earn through defiance. But the struggle must continue. One tiny step at a time.