Patriarchy written large: Tattoos showing 'ownership' of women | Milaap

Patriarchy written large: Tattoos showing 'ownership' of women

A surprising cultural norm prevails in the villages of Rajasthan: Women inscribe their husband's name on their forearms soon after the marriage. A commonly inscribed tattoo reads that she is married to the man.

The English word, 'tattoo', was yet unknown to the tribal communities in India when they started practicing 'godna' (burying the needle). Of course, around the world, the age-old practice was a part of an ancient and universal tradition of self-decoration and expression. In India, it was also done to protect women from the men of other tribes.

In the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, faces of young girls are tattooed to make them unappealing. It was solely done to ensure that they are not abducted by the rival tribes in the neighboring district. Although the practice was banned by the Indian government in 1970, it is found to still exist within the community. In another tribe of the northeast, Singhpo, of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, different rules are in place for a married and unmarried woman. According to it, unmarried women are not allowed to get inked. However, once married, both their legs are tattooed from knee to the ankle. In the case of a married man, his hands are tattooed. The Dahunks of Bihar also resorted to a similar practice to keep their women far away from the eyes of other men. In some communities in the north, tattoos are also used to strengthen the marital relationship between couples. The temporary tattoo art of mehendi (henna) is a ritual among several north Indian communities during a wedding. Days before the wedding, the bride's hands and feet, are tattooed with the henna. It is popularly known that the bride gets the name of her husband-to-be written at the time. It is also commonly believed that darker the color henna left on her palm, stronger will be the couple's bond.

It could not be established when and why exactly the women in the villages of Rajasthan started to ink their forearms, but Sukhiya (27) got it done after her husband asked her to. "I got it done in a fair in Bagru (a town in Rajasthan) after five months in our marriage. We (her husband and she) had gone to this fair, and there were people who were getting tattooed. My husband also asked me if I can. It was then we both decided to get it done. He also got a tattoo written on his forearm," she said. She added that her husband got both the names -- his and hers inscribed. While she got 'Mohanlal ki aurat Sukhiya. (Mohanlal's woman Sukhiya)' written on her forearm.

Sukhiya, who belongs to the Sapera community (snake charmers) of Rajasthan, was nearly 16 years old when she got married. She is now a mother of three children - a daughter and two sons. "In our community, women are married at an early age. It is feared that, otherwise, the girl would run away with someone else."

Many other women of her community in the area were quick to smile and laugh over being noticed with a similar tattoo. The story repeated. They all got it done in a fair in their town, where they went with their husbands. Naturally, none thought there was anything remarkable about it. 

"My best friend also got it done," Sukiya added.

At a distance away, Geeta, who is a Gujjar, has got 'Jadishji patni Geeta (Jadhish's wife Geeta)' written on her forearm.

Here is the selection of photographs of the women with the tattoo.


Sukhiya outside her house in Bagru, Rajasthan.


Mohanlal ki aurat Sukhiya (Mohanlal's woman Sukhiya) is written on her right forearm.


Meera outside her house in Bagru town of Jaipur district in Rajasthan.


Omnath ki aurat Meera (Omnath's woman Meera) is written on her forearm.


Sugna outside her house in Bagru town of Rajasthan.


Dinanath ki aurat Sugna ( Dinanath's woman Sugna) is written on her forearm.

Anjaki outside her house in Bagru town of Rajasthan.


Deennath ki Anjaki (Deennath's Anjaki) is written on her forearm.


Geeta outside her house in Bagru town of Rajasthan.


Jagdish patni Geeta (Jadish's wife Geeta) is written on her forearm.