When My Sister-In-Law Asked About American Marriage Culture

When My Sister-In-Law Asked About American Marriage Culture

Recently, we took a trip home, to Jhansi.

A few days into our stay, both of my husband’s sisters, and their children, came. When the eldest sister came to talk to me in my room one night, she was a little put off that I wasn’t wearing my bridal earrings. I told her that I take them off when I sleep, and I must have forgotten to put them back in. (I only take them off because they once got caught on the pillow, ripping one of the dangling ornaments off.) She did not seem satisfied with my reply.

Next, she said, “And where is your engagement ring?”

I wasn’t sure whether she meant the solid gold ring my adopted Indian family gave me for our wedding, or the gold rings that my husband and I exchanged. Either way, I don’t wear either of those rings daily – and neither does my husband.

I explained that both of our rings were safe, but she did not seem pleased with my answer.

“Is it compulsory for married women in America to wear jewelry?” She asked, casually.

“No, it’s not mandatory. Married or unmarried women wear jewelry if they want to. Married men and women wear their wedding rings, in most cases, as that is our symbol of marriage.” I replied.

“Well, it’s compulsory here.” She added, ending the conversation.

Here we have an American Wife and her husband.
Here we have an American wife with her husband.
photo by Luke Wisley via Flickr.com

Later…

A while later, she returned. “Can you explain marriage culture in America?”

Assuming she wanted to know what life was like if you are married in America, I explained like this…

“Marriage in America is quite equal. The man and the woman can define what their individual relationship will be like, but in general things are very equal. Both the man and the woman are expected to earn money,” I began.

“Outside of the home?!” She asked, surprised.

“Yes. Both the man and the woman are expected to earn money, as in a job outside of the home, to earn money for the house and family. And families are different… Married couples don’t live with their parents. A man and a woman live together, separately, in most cases, and their young children, if they have children. Some people may live with their family, but in most cases, they don’t. Husbands and wives equally do housework, or have equal responsibility in the home somehow. Husbands and wives raise their children together, and even share cooking responsibilities. Of course, it’s different for everyone.”

Her face was curious, but doubtful, and she was soon called away.

The next night, as we were preparing for a house party, I got ready, had help putting on my saree. When I was all dressed, I brushed my hair and put it in a simple bun. I don’t know any hairstyles. I don’t (waste) dedicate my time to my hair and makeup like other girls do. But that’s hardly acceptable as a married woman in India.

His cousin-sister noticed me trying to style my hair and then giving up.

“Would you like some help?” She asked.

“Ah, yes…” I replied. Only to find that she had no intention of helping me. She was just trying to prove a point to our other cousin-sister that I could not do my own hair. She walked away in giggles, talking trash the entire time.

When the younger of his two sisters came in, she offered to fix my hair. After playing with it for awhile, she said, “It’s just going to be covered by the pallu anyway,” and put it back in a simple bun.

Sigh.

Then his eldest sister came in again.

“Kajal? Lipstick?” Which more or less means, “Where’s your makeup? Why aren’t you wearing makeup?”

I sighed and went to the mirror to apply my eyeliner. When I finished, satisfied, I sat down.

“And lipstick? Why don’t you wear lipstick? Will your husband be angry if you wear lipstick?” She giggled.

Annoyed, I thought I would let them know that, in fact, my husband does not like when I wear makeup, and he prefers me without makeup. But that aside, I have never liked wearing makeup. I was an eyeliner-only kind of girl my whole life.

Eldest sister again chimed in with, “Well what do you do when you have a woman’s occasion in America?”
The tone of her question implied that, not only does she think a woman should be made up every where she goes, but that in America we have no sense of beauty.

Still annoyed, I replied with, “We wear what we want to wear and look how we want to look. It’s not a beauty competition. If there is a special occasion, we get dressed up, but we don’t wear sarees. We wear makeup if we want, but it’s not mandatory. And it’s fine.”

She may have sensed that I was a bit offended by her tone, and she seemed to back off.

I’d like to clarify that I don’t mind Indian makeup or beauty standards, I just don’t think it should be mandatory. I think a made up Indian woman looks elegant and beautiful, but I don’t think I should be judged for not wearing earrings when I’m at home and there is no occasion, and I think it shouldn’t matter whether or not I wear makeup. Well, not just me, but all brides.

With this mindset, your appearance is to please other people, and more or less, families can show off their beautiful bahu, husbands can show off their beautiful wife… It’s… like a competition. As long as I am respectful, modest, and kind, what does it matter whether or not I wear lipstick?

Fellow partners of Indians, what do you think of the Indian beauty standards for married women? Do you comply?
Fellow Americans, what do you think about beauty standards for married women in India?
Indians, your thoughts?

For more information on marriage symbols, see Alexandra’s article: The Symbols of Marriage

Featured Image by Jakob Montrasio via Flickr.com

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25 thoughts on “When My Sister-In-Law Asked About American Marriage Culture

  1. When I was in India, I did think that Indian women were gems. They were the diamonds of India, the part of India that is undeniably beautiful. It almost seemed out of place at first. Dirt roads, cars and motorcycles everywhere, dust in the air, men all seeming to dress normally in pants and long sleeve shirts… and then these women in the brightest colors, decked out in jewelry, eyeliner, and lipstick. Like exotic flowers in a desert. As gorgeous as they were, because my culture is different, and an all natural woman is very accepted and celebrated and found to be beautiful, this was different for me. I really did find myself actually wondering… why? Why dress up ALL the time? Why have make up on all the time?

    When I was there is was SOO hot. Make up would have not stayed nicely on my face. I am grateful for choice.

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    1. I remember, “Jewels of India” you first said. And you were spot on. Surprisingly, I have found makeup (here in India) that is sweat-proof! Certain eyeliner and bindis require me to physically remove them, as they wont even come off in the shower!
      But it is a hassle, and I also value natural beauty.

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  2. Concerning wedding bands and jewelry…. again I am grateful for choice. Sometimes I don’t like the way jewelry fits or feels on me. When there is a big event, I will dress all up but sometimes I can’t wait to take it off. My skin is sensitive too, so jewelry all the time would NOT be good for me.

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  3. Indians love to assume all kind of things about westerners. That is very sad. Also they tend to think that whatever is not their way is the wrong way. Not everyone of course, but it’s more often than I would like.
    About makeup and dressing up… This whole year I have been fighting for my freedom of choice. I am not talking weddings or other important functions.. I will wear whatever they want me to wear, because it will take some attention off of me. But at home and going out I do get in fights with my MIL. I have heard from her all these things “Earrings? Where’s your ring? Don’t you want to put some lipstick on? Your hair is messy. Dupatta? Don’t wear this shirt.. You wear it too often!” I don’t like jewelry and makeup… I find it uncomfortable. Especially in summers, when makeup sweats off and I look worse than without makeup, my mangalsutra stinks to my chest, I sweat under bangles… Who needs this!? I do agree for makeup more often in winters though. I have also sinned by refusing to wear saree after my marriage, because I am not Indian and I sure as hell am not a lady. I just can’t pull it off. I look awkward and stupid in it. Last winter I was asked to leave my woolen jacket in the car when we were going to an event… It was winter and I was freezing. I asked “but why?? It’s really cold and I am not wearing anything else that will give me any kind of warmth!” I got a reply “ladies don’t wear jackets on party wear. they put up with cold.” Needless to say I was outraged. And I am not talking puffy winter jackets.. A simple cardigan that we westerners wear all the time…
    I always try to explain that how you look is not the most important thing ever and that if someone has a problem with how I look when I look like a mess, then I simply don’t want to be around them. A concept of not caring what others think is very foreign in India.
    I am sorry for this long comment.. But this is one topic that I have most of problems around. With all this being said my MIL is a great sport and she has come a long way to accept my ways and given me a lot of freedom. Not without struggles a discussions, but freedom nevertheless. She still asks me to do some stuff here and there, but that’s fine.

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    1. Wow, Agate! Actually, I love that we can talk about these things together.
      It is indeed unfortunate that beauty matters more than comfort, in India. I wear suits most of the time, and sometimes sarees, but mostly on occasion. I would love to wear sarees more, as long as they are casual sarees, but it is not possible financially.
      The fancy sarees are extremely uncomfortable. The border of one of my sarees makes my skin itch and turn bright red. It’s embarrassing.
      Do you follow ghoonghat, or cover your head in front of elders (mostly elder men)? That’s when it becomes really bothersome for me. An already uncomfortable tradition, blended with the pallu of an uncomfortable saree. God help me if it has a thick border.
      I’m glad you were able to negotiate some freedom, and my God, I know it’s not easy to make them understand and possibly meet us in the middle.
      And bless them when they do. ♥

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      1. My husband is north indian and we are also intercultural couples with very different cultural and even lingual backgrounds. I totally understand what you all go through. I have gone through such things and felt the same way. I have gotten very frustrated at times. This kind of imposition had led to a lot of marital problems as I am someone who values freedom of choice more than any culture or tradition. One thing that I have learnt over a period of time is that you should not be afraid of politely saying “no” when you need to. You will be tagged as a bad person but you know in heart what is right. So follow it and move on. Don’t feel guilty for saying no and let people talk whatever they want to. They are going to talk anyway. May all your dreams come true. Cheers,

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      2. How right you are, Shen. Intercultural relationships are quite challenging, cultural assimilation aside! You are right, sometimes we do have to politely say no. My husband knows my intentions are always good, and I guess that’s what matters. ♥

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      3. I found your blog recently and I am sorry to find out about all the racism and sexism that you girls are facing. Unfortunately it looks like you got married into conservative, lower middle class families from the North. You must have noticed there is a huge difference in the social classes here as well in a fast changing economy mindsets change every 5 years. I feel sorry for your mother in laws and sisters in laws, they are ignorant and let us hope that you teach them a thing or two about equality and respect. Love them but still teach them about right and wrong. Stay strong.

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  4. I had to ask my husband what ghoonghat was. So there’s your answer ;D
    Ladies of our family cover head only in temple. I found out that this is a thing only through you some time ago.
    I have two sarees… One of them I wore twice. Once just because people wanted to see me in a saree and second time for my wedding. First of all it is quite heavy and I feel suffocated in it. And it has a thick border with quite big beads hanging off of it. In my wedding I kept stepping on the border, which was quite hurtful, so I basically hate it. 😀 Other saree I bought when I thought I will give another chance to a saree, but my MIL said the fabric is bad so it’s in her room somewhere. 😀 And I pretend that I don’t remember that we got it.

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  5. My partner says he prefers me with no make-up also. I can’t believe the cousin-sister was so mean to you about the hair thing- pay no attention to such immature attitudes. I’m sure as you get to know your new family more they will come to understand not to judge you on your appearance or choices in hair/make-up/earrings. They may well have never met anyone like you before so it might take some getting used to for them as well as you but I hope you will all end up friends in the end! 🙂

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  6. I don’t think make up is that “mandatory” but traditionally only married women wear make up, it is the passage from girlhood into adulthood. And like everything in India it is a status symbol. A married woman who doesn’t wear make up is considered odd, in some communities it could even mean you are a widow. That said, I would not have put up with your SIL’s snarky and rude comments. I know plenty of women in Mumbai who don’t wear much or any make up.

    I myself don’t give a hoot about these traditions that are steeped in patriarchy to begin with. I rarely wear jewellery, when I do it is the cheap funky style, I take off my engagement ring often because my finger swell and I don’t do a single marriage symbol. I know my own status and worth, I don’t really feel like advertising it for all to see the way it often done in India. Not my cup of chai at all.

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    1. Well I’m glad to have your feedback on it. I’m so shy and nonconfrontational – that’s how people think it’s okay to be unkind to me in the first place.
      I wear the mangalsutra, toe rings, nose ring, choori, anklets, bindi and sindoor. lol You’d think I could catch a break for not wearing earrings!

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      1. I can’t believe your sil was so openly mean to you! That’s awful. I’m so glad my sil is a such a sweetheart because I would not have had your restraint, I would have told her off.
        Kudos to you that you put up with so much more than I’ve had to. In my husband’s community we don’t wear mangalsutra just sindoor.
        My mil also tells me off for not wearing jewelry but she’s also pretty laid back. She says I should wear my gold earrings but doesn’t push (they hurt b/c the posts are so big). She also doesn’t say anything about nose piercing or toe rings. She’d like it if I did wear it though. One thing I did not get away with was bangles. A couple days after my wedding she realized I don’t own any gold bangles. I said I was ok with fake but she was having none of that. She took one of her off her own arm and stuffed it on me. To this day we both wear one half the set.
        This started as a reply about jewelry but really turned into a post about how much I love my family…. Sorry

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  7. From experience, the more you do, the more they will ask you to do. I have been there, trying to please my in-laws being as Indian as possible. Until I not only realised that it was me doing all the work and they were not meeting me in the middle I also started to question why I had to turn Indian to be accepted. As if being a foreigner is that by default evil that must be corrected at all cost! I didn’t feel too hot about my own heritage and culture being belittled and dismissed as second rate.

    Needless to say I don’t try as hard. really what would people do? force DH to divorce me for not wearing a salwaar suits and all marriage symbols day and night? We all know divorce is probably even worse than gossip about the firangi not wearing lipstick anyway 🙂

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  8. I think Indian women already had access to colourful clothes, accessories, jewellery so they kind of inherited it. Which women does not like to dress up?? But on an average, western women wear more makeup than an average Indian women, I mean it is more elaborate, they have access to more varied beauty products and western women seem to have some sort of makeup all the time.

    There was time when only movie stars wore makeup in India, some forty to fifty years ago. Movie business was looked down upon, as it involved dancing, romance and all that, so by default makeup was considered undesirable/taboo. Even now many middle class Indians do not approve of make up. Ordinary Indians had to manage with telcum powder, Kajal pencil and bindi. Makeup like everything else in those times was expensive and beyond imagination.

    In India the newly wed women are expected to dress up all the time wearing all the marriage symbols. It is believed that with marriage her status has elevated, it is a great achievement and it must be advertised. However, it depends from community to community. Those communities which are conservative/show offs, do expect these things. However, certain other communities who are not into show off business have a culture of little makeup. The symbols of marriage are also limited to something as innocuous as a bangle or sindor. This makeup fetish is more a north indian thing.

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    1. Thanks for the information, friend. I have seen that it does vary between communities and families. However, I have also seen south Indian brides made up. I guess maybe it’s just moreso a north thing than a south thing?
      However, I had a lovely girl, fiancée of my father’s business partner, tell me that my wedding saree would not be a “real” saree – rather an embroidered “north Indian saree”. As if real sarees are only worn in the south. Real meaning made of silk.
      I’ve seen ladies from the south made up, adorning jewelry down the length of their braid, jasmine dangling from their hair.
      I’m guessing there is a bit of an obsession in the south as well, just in a different way. 🙂

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      1. North Indian communities especially punjabis in delhi do have a inclination towards makeup. They have been using makeup more often in daily life.Nothing wrong I guess it is a cultural thing. As far as south indians are concerned, dressing up is for that is for special occasions. For special occasions, all women in India dress up. Now ofcourse with access to better beauty products, more women wear makeup.

        As far as sarees are concerned, the most famous saree which is a dream dress for all brides is a red Benarsis sari made of silk from the north indian holy city of Beneras. Beneras is famous for silk sari. Actually silk sari from Benaras is legendary. South Indian silk sarees are also very famous. Silk saris look magnificent and there is some prestige and heritage associated with it. I understand that north indian saris are little lighter and more flashy especially the part to which you inlaws belong to. Benarisi silk saris are more like family treasure. The mother keeping her silk sari for her daughter’s marriage. I think you should check out cotton saris from Bengal and Orissa as well.

        https://www.google.co.in/search?q=bengali+cotton+sarees&biw=1164&bih=839&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIv6qugYyKyAIVpd-mCh3yFQDV

        https://www.google.co.in/search?q=bengali+cotton+sarees&biw=1164&bih=839&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIv6qugYyKyAIVpd-mCh3yFQDV#tbm=isch&q=Orisssa+cotton+saris

        About the post on ghunghat, I would like to say personally most Indians are against it. However, there is something called which is more like feminine behaviour/grace. Femininity in India is often associated with it. In a positive sense it means feminine more graceful behaviour. In conservative families, it becomes cumbersome and oppressive. Like goddess durga, feminine, beautiful but extremely powerful. Delicate as flower but strong as steel.

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      2. Thanks again, friend. I will have to check out the sarees. Yes, it is graceful and beautiful to see. Some ladies wear it rather well and certainly represent the Goddesses well! 🙂 I will do a bit more research about the silk sarees in Beneras.

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  9. Ooooh dear ❤
    None of the ladies in my Indian family wear make up but a saree is a must during festivals, people are always concerned about my lack of jewelry though lol.

    I guess with time everyone will get used to your way of doing things, picks your battles wisely I guess. You look gorgeous with or without make up! ❤ xx

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  10. Don’t worry! All of us are going through the same ordeal…
    Me and my husband both are north Indians though from different states and communities. We both live separately in a different city. But whenever I visit my ILs I too have to keep all this in mind. The good thing is none of them are mean about it. But they do expect it nevertheless. And since I have to comply by it for a little while, I do so. But I have set limits….
    After having read your post and all the comments, I few things occurred to me:
    Firstly, Everywhere, in every community, people have tried to look beautiful. For some reason jewellery, saree, and in makeup kajal, sindur, bindi and lipstick have been the way to deck up (shringar) in india . Traditionally, it has been like that. Therefore you wouldn’t actually find women as much, infact almost never, around the whole concealer, foundation, eye makeup, eyeliner, eye shadows zone. Its almost always kajal bindi lipstick.
    Secondly, depending on which communities, which areas, and which particular families, have moved on /’ahead’ the least, are the most stringent with this when married women need to be all decked up is concerned. Most youth today, having moved out from their towns, having shifted and living separately in the big cities, like to do this less and less everyday. But since most of us don’t have to live with it everyday, dressing up in the traditional style is our guilty pleasure. I actually really like doing it on family gatherings and occasions.
    Thirdly, since my IL knew that their bahu belongs to a comparatively more liberal community and family and is what is called in India as ‘modern’, they expect the least from me. I however can’t imagine being without a bindi, sindoor and at least two bangles in each arm in front of them, basically everything the absence of which would be right in their face. You wouldn’t believe, last summer, my MIL was visiting us for around 15 days and I thought maybe this is the best time to show her that this decked up person is not actually ‘me’. That when alone, I don’t live like this. SO I tried not wearing any bangles and I managed to do it for two days giving her allergy excuses. But I could only do it for two days. She wasn’t being mean or bossy but she was bothered so much pleading me to wear at least one that I couldn’t carry on like that. I found it easier to satisfy her. I could call it her whim, but the truth is she is a wonderful person who has been brought up and lived her life having been fed these things as superstitious. This is what she BELEIVES. Belief is such a strong and complicated word.
    Fourthly, all this is expected from a married woman. Single women maybe considered beautiful without these. SO I think its almost as if an individual doesn’t actually judge somebody’s beauty by checking out the jewels and makeup, but it has sort of been fed and registered in the psych as, ‘it doesn’t matter how beautiful you are, if you are married and you don’t have the symbols of marriage on you, I can possibly not look beyond that. To me its inauspicious.’
    I am just trying to understand and explain how this probably works. But there is no doubt, that I, like many other young Indian women find this extremely problematic. There is no doubt that we find our rituals and customs very very beautiful, and find ourselves and others extremely beautiful in them, but not being able to see a woman beyond it, as an individual, bothers me to no end. I would rather have these things treated as just ornamentation and nothing more.

    P.S- You write really well! It was a very thought provoking read. I had no intention of writing so much but I couldn’t stop. Hope that’s all right.!
    P.S.S- Its really interesting to see these things from your, a foreign, perspective.
    And its really ironical that you coming from a completely different culture all together are expected to comply by these customs (ghoonghat, hiding the face), when many Indian women are now putting their foot down ( or at least trying to) and are successfully able to dodge all this nonsense. (By many, I don’t mean the majority).

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    1. I’m so glad to read your point of view! It really helps me digest these expectations. I also feel a sense of obligation to wear at least bindi and sindoor in front of them. I wear bangles, toe rings, anklets and my mangalsutra by default. I’ve just gotten comfortable wearing them, and going without them just feels strange.
      As far as the ghoonghat, my father-in-law kept telling my husband to let me do whatever I was comfortable doing, even if I didn’t do ghoonghat. But in a home where every woman does it, it just felt wrong to ignore the custom. I chose to at least give it a chance.
      I hope that one day, the tradition slowly fades in my family, but until then, I take part. It is by no means easy.
      Anyway, so glad I could see your perspective. Dressing up does feel good sometimes, that’s for sure. ♥

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  11. there is a custom in which widows are stripped of their sindhoor bangles broken (plastic ones) and made to wear no jewellery. and wear only a light white sarry. so wives are expected to be the pride of the man and even the way she dresses is considered to be his social standing and love for his wife.(beliefs as varied as even to extent that chastity of his wife protects him from harm in fishermen communitues who go fishing in small unmotorised boats)maybe thats why your inlaws insist on these. unmarried girls status is elevated literally in indian culture and sindhoor and magalsutra and even in some places saree is worn only after marriage… shows other men to stay clear of wooing anothers wife.proclaims she is already taken???
    its a patriarchal system and u may find it very hard if you are living in rural areas and in presence of extended family members quite large is the family lol) whereas in metro cities when u r not around ur extended family these are often paid little heed…except if ur husband insists…..
    and congrats on ur motherhood…..

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