As soon as she climbed on to the bus, all the women started staring and talking among each other.
“I then realised it was because I was wearing the Bindi [red dot applied between the eyebrows on the forehead as a sign of marriage] and had Sindoor [red pigment applied on the forehead and into the hairline by married women]. Some went a step further and began to laugh while pointing at me. I could have told them that as per the country’s Constitution, I have every right to profess my religion and dress up according to my culture and traditions. But I stayed quiet, thinking they wouldn’t get the message anyway.”
Peshawar-based Hindu schoolteacher Mamta Kirmani’s anecdote is all too common for women from the country’s Hindu and Sikh communities who dare to venture out in public spaces in their traditional attire, except maybe in interior Sindh which features several Hindu-majority districts.
The Constitution’s various articles ensuring fundamental rights assure minorities of protection and equal access to public spaces, yet, unfortunately, they remain bound by the ‘restrictions’ imposed by society.
Faulting the lack of awareness, and thus acceptance, among people, Mamta acknowledged that while the laws are there to protect her freedom, the public’s general reaction towards her when she’s adorned in her traditional way drives too much unwarranted attention. “This is why I only wear them while being among my community.”
Subhash Education Foundation’s head, Subhash Chand, explained that it comes down to personalities — those Hindu women who are bold enough to withstand the public onslaught, in terms of stares and murmurs, can dress according to their rituals when venturing outside of the community. He accepted that while there are no legal limitations in doing so, the discomfort forces many Hindu women to dress like the majority and not stand out.
Sharing the religious significance of Sindoor, Bindi and Mangal Sutra [a necklace tied around the bride’s neck by the husband at marriage], Subhash said the seven rounds around a fire which a Hindu man and woman undertake at their marriage symbolise lifelong companionship, which is further ordained for the wife in the form of a Mangal Sutra, Bindi and Sindoor.
Aneel Chand, the information secretary of the Peshawar Hindu Panchayat Rajput Welfare Society, said that a Hindu marriage remains incomplete without the practice of wearing Sindoor and Mangal Sutra by the wife.
“These items are given to the wife by her husband and signify the marriage,” he stressed, adding that they remain with the wife for the rest of her life or until the marriage is intact.
He shared Subhash’s views of Pakistani Hindu women not donning them for fear of getting too much attention drawn to themselves. However, he added that the reason for not wearing them all the time — as would be the case in a Hindu majority country — could also have to do with the fact that Peshawar’s Hindus have been residing here for over seven decades and though one’s culture and religion is very dear and always remains an integral part of one’s life, eventually the majority culture seeps in and that is the case here.