Sindoor: Empowering or Oppressive?

Recently I met a girl who stared at me for a while before asking, “why do you wear sindoor? For me it is mandatory, but why do you apply it when you don’t have to?” The word mandatory made me stop and think as I noticed a recurring theme. I had met another girl, several months back, and she said to me something similar, “we hate having to wear these marriage symbols, but we have to, why do you wear them?”

When my husband applied sindoor to my hairline for the first time, I knew nothing of it’s significance. I had no history with sindoor, no background, no experience. As a child I didn’t see my mother apply it to her hairline every morning, I wasn’t told that once I became a wife it’s mandatory for me to wear it. I only saw the love behind my husband’s eyes and the fact we were now married. Sindoor became part of my personal journey and when I had to move back to England for a while after our marriage, wearing sindoor became a source of great comfort.

applying sindoor english wife indian life

Applying sindoor at our wedding.

The ancient tradition of sindoor is said to symbolise the love and devotion a wife has for her husband, the red symbolising his life force. I didn’t consider that for some women (however much they may love their husbands), sindoor could be seen as an oppressive symbol which they “hate having to wear” . When you don’t have a choice, when something is mandatory, forced upon you against your will, you probably won’t be happy about it. I strongly feel no adornment should be mandatory. Sucks the romance right out of it doesn’t it…

I must admit that when I first moved to India I felt a lot safer when I wore sindoor, it’s perfectly visible that I am married and I don’t want anyone flirting with me. Yes, I felt a lot safer, but am I actually safer when I wear sindoor? What about the widows and unmarried women who are not “allowed” to wear sindoor? Sadly we cannot deny it, for various reasons, in India a woman’s status largely depends on having a husband.

I started to think about what sindoor means to me. I have never been pressurised to wear sindoor, so why do I continue to apply it? I actually feel powerful when I apply sindoor, I feel like a warrior applying war paint, but where is that coming from? 

I thought about it for a long time and same image kept appearing in my mind, the image of Goddess Kali, the Goddess of revolution, change, creation and power. I thought about the colour of blood-red sindoor, always seen on this powerful Goddess, which to me symbolises the life force in all of us as well as woman’s ability to menstruate, give birth and create new life. I started to see sindoor as a symbol of the sacred feminine that dwells within all of us, shakti. In this patriarchal world, it’s important for women to remember their power and divinity (with or without applying sindoor).

The sindoor is a 5000 year old and sacred symbol, but like all symbols there is a certain degree of subjectivity depending on our experiences and opinions.

kali empowering menstration goddess sindoor red life creation

I wrote this post several months ago but felt compelled to publish it tonight, the night of the new moon and the annual festival dedicated to Goddess Kali. Goddess Kali is a symbol of power, freedom and equality, she is Mother Earth and the destroyer of egos. 

Happy Kali Puja!

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33 thoughts on “Sindoor: Empowering or Oppressive?

  1. I guess in India people forgot what “sindoor” actually symbolises other then the “fact” that it is worn by married women. But who am I to comment, am a male, don’t need to wear it.
    Btw , have u heard ‘come to me’ by goo goo dolls? It’s really nice song.
    Take care

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  2. It’s just a beautiful post I agree with u Lauren, im not married yet but i would love to wear sindoor, as you mention in your post, ( and on my mind as well ) to wear sindoor is more than a “marriage symbol” there is a deeper meaning of it .
    And I’m glad you are back blogging, i really love reading your post 🙂

    Kind regards and Happy Prosperous and filled with lots of love Diwalli 🙂

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  3. I am not pressurized to wear it..I dont like wearing anything that shows that im married. …I am not religious so I dont feel any sentiments that are attached to all these symbols…I do keep it wen I wear sarees….it goes too well with sarees… 🙂

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    • I agree that sindoor looks particularly striking when you wear a saree!
      Well done you for doing what you are comfortable with, I think it’s so important!

      I hope you are well, sending love xx

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  4. Yes! I love this article. I totally agree that as a foreigner in India you feel safer displaying a symbol of marriage to discourage wannabe suitors – to a smaller degree it is the same in any country including our own, however in India if you look different it can make you more of a novelty and for whatever reasons you tend to get more male attention!
    I know that many of my Indian female married friends don’t feel the pressure to wear marriage symbols but maybe they are in a more modern, less conservative circle in the city or liberal Goa. Many of them do wear by choice though and here is an interesting one – many of my Catholic friends wear red bangles – a Hindu symbol of marriage as well as their wedding rings.
    While it is fine to wear marriage symbols for whatever your own reasons are – spiritual, personal, romantic or warding off admirers, I think it is a sad thing that many women feel pressured to and oppressed by wearing something that should be a symbol of love. Some of this goes back to the tradition of arranged marriage which is not always a choice for some women.
    As women we need to take back these traditions and make them our own once more – like the Karwa Chauth and Vat Savitri Vrath fasts – so many stories and traditions that celebrate and tell of the power of the goddess get reinterpreted by some as something to oppress women and make them feel submissive. By spreading a different way of thinking and injecting a bit of goddess Shakti into the world I truly believe we can make it a better place 🙂

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    • Thank you so much, Cotton!!
      Yess, I have in the past put a ring on my wedding finger (before marriage) in the UK haha, it’s not only India where this is sometimes necessary!
      I know a Muslim lady here in Nagpur who wears a Mangalsutra!! It’s interesting isn’t it! 😀

      I definitely think it’s time for women to reclaim things that have been, I sense, tainted by patriarchal society! Maybe we should start the hashtag #reclaimsindoor 😀

      I hope you are well, thank you again for your lovely and interesting comment!!!
      Sending lots of love xx

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  5. I have only worn Sindoor on my wedding day. I do love and wear Bhindi’s when I am in India, my mother-in-law and even my husbands sisters -in law liked to see me in a Bhindi. I usually wear it when I leave the house, however I do not wear with western clothes or when I am at home in the U.K. I think we all have to find a way in which we feel comfortable, I don’t believe in a right or wrong way. I really enjoy wearing a bhindi but because I choose it. It is important to me to feel good in something and I do seem to resist when people use words like must or should. My husband has no religious beliefs and feels neutral on whether I wear it or not, I have no religious beliefs either so again I don’t really see it in that way, but I realise that is my own very personal experience. I think Sindoor looks beautiful when worn with a happy heart, likewise bhindi !! You look beautiful in Sindoor Lauren and it obviously has a deep and very special meaning to you and your husband. Loving your blog and reading all the comments section also, I am learning a lot, so thanks !!

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    • Tracey please don’t consider me rude, but I couldn’t help restrain myself, You have written ‘bindi’ as ‘bhindi’, In Hindi bhindi’ is vegetable ladyfinger. Maybe you are pronouncing ‘bindi’ as ‘bhindi’.

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  6. I love what it means to you. I can totally see how some women might not like it and feel forced. I find that at school whenever we HAD to read a book, I never enjoyed it no matter how good it was. Later in life, when I pick my own books to read I find they are much more enjoyable. I even re-read some of those high school mandatory books and enjoyed them.

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  7. @ Lauren

    happy diwali to u and family. about sindur we have grown up seeing our mothers wearing it. We have also been told that if married women does not wear sindur or ornaments it brings misfortune to husband a and we kind of believe it whether or not it happens is another matter. can’t help it belief I suppose.

    Indian society was never women friendly and the popular interpretation of the incidents are patriacal. However due to economic liberalisation people became more prosperous and confident about our culture and since then we have been trying to repackage seemingly Patriacal festivals like karwa chatty. now even girlfriends and husbands fast. good and sign of changing times.

    about goddess kali when she was uncontrobble shiva laid down before her. When she felt that she has stepped on husband she stuck out her tongue acknowledging her mistake which shows that women are never without feelings even in the most desperate circumstances. she is a mother and cannot remain in the destructive mode. even a powerful goddess is bound by relationships like mere mortals.

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    • Happy Belated Diwali, Friend!
      I read in a book ages ago (by Devdutt) that Kali had been tamed down a little to make the British feel comfortable. I will have to find what he said exactly because it was very interesting. I know there is some different theories regarding Kali’s tongue, the one that resonates with me the most is that she shows her tongue because she used it to lick up the blood of a demon who multiplied every time his blood touched the Earth and therefore can remove your demons too. The tongue doesn’t feel apologetic to me whenever I have taken her darshan 😛

      I hope you all had a gorgeous Diwali!!! 😀
      Take care,
      Lauren

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  8. “I actually feel powerful when I apply sindoor, I feel like a warrior applying war paint, but where is that coming from? ”
    When you give importance to certain things they become a big deal. As simple as that.
    “I thought about the colour of blood-red sindoor, always seen on this powerful Goddess, which to me symbolises the life force in all of us as well as woman’s ability to menstruate, give birth and create new life.”
    How can you symbolise the colour of a mere marital adornment with the above mentioned abilities of a woman? What’s ability got to do with red colour? You’re being ridiculous.
    “Goddess Kali is a symbol of power, freedom and equality, she is Mother Earth and the destroyer of egos. ”
    Wow. I do not even want to know how you derived this conclusion but let me tell you, A smart person uses his sense of logic to recognise his creator not by simply following and doing things because he likes it or thinks it’s right because he feels it’s right.
    This also happens when the person sometimes doesn’t want to even know what is right or wrong. Being stubborn won’t get you anywhere.

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  9. Hi Lauren,

    I recently came across your blog and I instantly fell in love with your blog 🙂 I am an Indian living in the US for over a decade now and I can relate to you on so many different levels (wil write in detail which aspects I felt connected to you the most) I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and it is very interesting to see India and our rituals from your perspective. Also, I must thank you for articulating the importance of sindhoor so elegantly. I follow most of the rituals because I was told and seldom asked “why”?

    I was brought up in a very conservative and traditional south Indian family and I followed the customs very well when I was in India. But after coming to the US and getting married, I neglected a few of these rituals. But now, after having my daughter (for the past 4 years), I have been realizing the importance of rituals, traditions and trying my best to hold onto these traditions. I have never taken off my mangalsutra, toe rings, bangles and of course the wedding ring. I was never pressurized to wear these but I knew my parents would be happy if they see me with all of these. I felt that “bottu” (dot on forehead) does not go with western outfits and also I dint like the fact that colleagues kept asking me about the importance which at that point I could not articulate very well. So I stopped wearing it when I wear western outfits. But when I am at home, it is very important for me to wear bottu as it makes me feel complete. Somehow, sindhoor was never regarded as the most important symbol of marriage in my family and I occasionally wear it. But reading your post I am inspired to wear it as much as possible now 

    BTW, I was giggling here reading your cheek pinching post. But I must tell you that I felt you were exaggerating it a little bit. It is not that bad. We (Indians) are just affectionate people and to express affection we “pinch” 😉 Thinking back, I might have pinched a few of my American friend’s babies here. Now I am thinking that they might have been super mad at me for pinching their newborns. But no one ever complained to me. I will think of you every time I get the urge to pinch a baby now.

    Please keep the posts coming and I wish you and your family a very happy and prosperous Diwali.

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    • Thank you sooo much, Dasika!

      I am so glad you we able to get back in touch with your roots and it’s making you happy!!! Thank you so much for sharing!
      I really wish I was exaggerating on that post, I think the Nagpur pinches must be harder than the part of India you hail from haha, my poor little sister was red raw! I am sure you have been very gentle though 😀

      I hope you had a gorgeous Diwali, thank you again for your lovely comment!
      Sending love xx

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  10. I definitely think sindoor is a very empowering symbol. To me it depicts strength and courage yet at the same time the right amount of subservience just like kali ma. I love sindoor and the way it looks

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      • Ok I think subservience was the wrong word. What I meant to say was maybe submissiveness ? Or rather like an acknowledgement that we cannot always be in charge and sometimes we have to let our partners take the lead, like a devotion to our partners in a sense. Just like how when kali ma overstepped her mark in a sense she submitted to lord Shiva. Does that make clearer sense?

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  11. No one should be forced to do something they don’t want to do, or wear something they don’t want to wear. And likewise, if someone wants to do something that makes them feel good, and wants to wear something – they shouldn’t be judged harshly for that. We all deserve free will.
    When it comes to sindoor, I also wear it – and I love it! It also reminds me of when my husband applied it for the first time. Every day I adorn sindoor, I marry him again. It’s personal, romantic, and beautiful for me.

    I also like wearing makeup and painting my nails, but if I was forced to do that (which I sometimes am in the joint-family home) then YES – I would probably be bitter about it too.
    I think sindoor looks very beautiful on you. From now on, I hope people see you ONLY with accepting eyes. ♥

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    • Thank you so much, Crystal!!
      Sindoor looks so gorgeous on you ❤

      Ahhh, it's funny isn't it how we work. I have been told I *have* to wear a saree several times and it put me off wearing sarees for a while, I had to shake myself to remember- I love wearing sarees!!!

      😛

      Sending love xx

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  12. Pingback: Diwali Sparkle - English Wife Indian Life

  13. Nothing is mandatory Lauren. If you give me your email address I will send you a soft copy of our wedding ceremony mantras and vows and you will see every ‘ritual’ has a very good reason. We ( I and my English wife) were married in India less than a month ago. It was a beautiful ceremony. Every word had meaning.

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  14. Your “sindoor” post reminded me of something from years ago. I was like , eight years old or something so I don’t remember half of it.I have this uncle who stays in the United States and has a wife who happens to be of american origin. So , right after they married , Aunt Emily found out about how married women in our country apply sindoor ( also known as vermilion ) every day and started doing it right away. When my uncle learnt about this newly developed habit of my aunt…he…well…he got a nice shock. He then told her that she needn’t to this . I have never seen her with vermilion on her hairline ever since.

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