Woman in Red

The many-layered meanings of red

To walk the streets of Kathmandu’s morning market is to swim in a sea of red as women draped in crimson saris and scarlet glass bangle bracelets go about their daily business.  Red is an auspicious color in Nepal, permeating everyday activities as well as weddings, sacred ceremonies and Hindu festivals.  While the color carries a sensual connotation in Western culture, women in Nepal wear it as a sign of purity, dignity and honor.  The color is especially meaningful for married women as the red sari and other adornments visibly convey their cherished status.

The first time a Nepalese woman dons red arraignment is for her wedding.  Brides wear red wedding saris embellished with beadwork and gold-thread embroidery. The saris are more than beautiful garments — they represent the transformation from adolescence to womanhood. This transformation begins with the Mehndi ceremony, a significant pre-wedding ritual for Hindu brides. During the ceremony, the bride-to-be’s hands, arms and feet are painted with reddish-brown henna ink in intricate patterns. 

Red lavishly colors every aspect of the multi-day wedding celebration. For the ceremony, the bride and groom are draped in red fabric to declare their union before family and friends.  After kanyadaan, when the father hands over his daughter to her husband, the groom applies vermillion powder, sindoor, to his bride’s head.

As the ceremony begins with red, so must it end. Before stepping into her new home, the bride’s bare feet are dipped in red water to wash away her singlehood and bestow upon her the color signifying her heightened status as wife.

Married women wear red in various forms every day of their lives. Each morning, a wife applies  tika (a red dot) to the center of her forehead to convey feminine energy and protection for herself and her husband.  She paints the center part of her hair with vermillion sindoor powder as a declaration of her status. Women smear vermillion paste on the portals of their homes. They also apply it to foreheads of family members as a blessing; they receive the same blessing from priests during daily temple visits.  Wives wear red cotton saris while buying vegetables on the streets of the local market, saving their silk or chiffon dresses for more festive occasions.

Because of the enormous significance the color red holds for a woman, losing the privilege of wearing it when her husband dies is devastating. A widow, viewed as a harbinger of bad luck, endures a shaming ceremony in which her mother-in-law or older sister wipes the sindoor from her hair and the tika from her forehead.  They remove her rings and smash her glass bangles.

The red sari and other bright colors, jewelry and embellishments of a married woman are banished from the widow’s life. Drab-colored clothing broadcasts her shame, marking her as dry, empty and barren. 

Even today, most widows in Nepal are forced to endure this “social death.”  Widows are forbidden to remarry. As a sexual being no longer under the protection of a father or husband, she is constrained by a set of strict codes enforced by other women.  A widow may be banned from attending public ceremonies and forbidden to speak to men outside her family. These women often find their fate — and that of their children — lies in the hands of the men in their dead husbands’ families. Many lose their inheritance, land or property and become victims violence or sexual abuse.

When Nepal’s 10-year civil war ended in 2006, it left hundreds of widows in its wake.  As the country writes its constitution, a single-women’s movement advocates policies to improve widows’ lives.

Groups are being formed to educate villagers about women’s rights.  At one group meeting, women embraced a young widow by rubbing vermillion powder onto her head and wrapping her in a red shawl.  Her mother-in-law said, "Girls wear bright colors and bangles before they get married. Being happy is not just a privilege of marriage. My son is dead, but my daughter-in-law is not." 

The advocacy group for single women’s rights took a defiant stance at a recent rally. On the steps of Singha Durbar, home of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, each widow proudly wore a bright, red sari.

A graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service, Julie is currently living at the intersection of her passion: fiber, color, cultural preservation and women's empowerment. She owns The Red Sari, a socially responsible design company based in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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