Why Do Married Women Have To “Look Married?”
“You're married? You don't look like it” is a phrase I have heard way too often in the nearly two years of
being married. For the world, a married woman is supposed to look different. Her appearance is supposed
to announce her marital status. But no one has been able to answer why that is. What do these symbols
have to do with my commitment to my marriage? Has a woman wearing sindoor, a mangalsutra or a choora never cheated on her husband?
During the wedding, a bride typically wears shades of red, pink, orange and other bright colours to shout
out her status as a newly married woman. In northern India, most brides wear bright red bangles, known as
a choora, during and for some time after the wedding. Trinkets dangle off the bride's wrist, she has jewellery on her ankles, her head, her neck, her waist, and her ears. Any empty spot is taken by mehendi.
After the wedding, the bride is supposed to be heavily adorned for the first few days or months. In some cases, this situation doesn't change for years. The women who wear the choora typically keep it on for a minimum of 11 days to a maximum of a year-and-a-half. It doesn't matter if it gets in the way of showering, tears a few clothes, doesn't let the woman do her job while at work, or makes her uncomfortable. It's tradition and she must do it. The new husband, however, has no such adornment to wear. He can go right back to shorts and t-shirts as soon as the wedding is over.
I didn't wear the choora for more than two days, mostly because my arms started itching. And it was a rebellion of sorts to roam around bare-armed. Two days after my wedding, when my ears were hurting after nearly being torn apart by heavy jewellery and my body had done enough weight-lifting for a year with those outfits, I was told to decorate myself. “Kuchh toh pehno, beta” was said in a way that made me feel like I was walking around naked. Apparently, I didn't “look” like I had just gotten married. The fact that I was wearing an engagement ring and that my arms were drowning in mehendi was disregarded. The oft-repeated dialogue “aisa hi hota hai” didn't apply to my husband. Nobody beta'ed him into wearing the weight of the world in an attempt to look married.
Since I'm married into a Hindu family, many friends and acquaintances questioned me about the lack of sindoor on my forehead and the absence of amangalsutra around my neck. In the politest manner they knew, these people were questioning my intention behind not wearing all these symbols of marriage. Did I not want to look married? Was I doing this to attract other men? Did I not love my husband enough? None of that was, or is, true. All I was doing was being myself, and any such adornment did not fit my image of myself.
My wardrobe had also come into the spotlight on more occasions than one. At weddings, I was expected to be wearing the heaviest outfits from my bridal trousseau. When I didn't, the “cool” crowd told me how “cool” it was that I didn't adhere to custom, not realizing that the non-adherence was a by-product of me just being me, married or not.
Some women, including those in my extended family, face several wardrobe restrictions. From no short sleeves to no western wear, they've been relegated to wearing a lot of extra fabric on their bodies, even in the sweltering summer. Only because they're married now. How can a married woman dress as she pleases? She has to represent our family, bhai. No such restrictions exist for these women's husbands. They lead their lives dressed the same way, wear their hair however they want and have the option to not “look married.”
A woman is treated as a walking, talking platform meant to showcase her husband's wealth. You're supposed to dress a certain way because, my god, what will people think of your husband? He keeps you in rags? No one realizes that the “rags” are the woman's choice of clothes. My independence or my sole authority over my body has not diminished after marriage. I don't want to deliberately look unmarried, I just want to be comfortable. Why should I have to put a red line in the middle of my heap of curls or wear a beaded necklace while my husband has no such expectation of him? So that the world can be satisfied at the demarcation of a married woman? That this one is not to be touched, she belongs to another bro?