The women of Tamil Nadu can rest in peace. There is a gallant male army at hand to protect their honour. These men know precisely where Tamil honour rests: in the thaali worn by Tamil women as a symbol of their marital status. In fact, these male guardians seem more anxious about upholding the honour of Tamil women than the women themselves are.

The belief that the thaali is the essence of Tamil culture is very useful. It is comfortable to believe that fidelity, truthfulness and integrity, traits long forsaken by the Tamil male, are in the safe custody of the woman who wears the thaali, a talisman against  all moral trespass. What would be the fate of society if that trust is broken? Who can be called a Tamilian who does not respect a tradition that has its roots in a culture that is 5,000 years old?

That's why these protectors were alarmed earlier this month when the Puthiya Thalaimurai television channel began to run 30-second promos for a talk show scheduled to be telecast on March 8, International Women’s Day. The subject was "Is thaali a necessary jewel to be worn  by a married woman?” The promo showed a bunch of Tamil women  declaring that the thaali ‒ the counterpart to the mangalsutra worn by women in other parts of India ‒ had lost its relevance. One woman said says that after 40 years in a failed marriage, wearing the thaali made no sense. The promo enraged some men who allegedly belonged to a Hindu fundamentalist group. How could such blasphemous ideas be uttered on Tamil soil ?

The self-styled culture vultures attacked the channel not in only words merely but in physical action. On Thursday, they hurled crude bombs at the offices of the channel in the wee hours of the morning.

Refashioning history

It is ironic that such attacks have come to pass in a state that saw the first "self respect movement" led by a radical EV Ramasamay Naicker in the 1920s. EVR, as he is better known, defied caste hierarchy, rejected gods and rituals, mocked superstitions and urged people to do away with them, the thaali included. EVR even introduced "self respect marriages" among his followers in the Dravidian movement, which dispensed with Vedic rituals and the custom of tying the thaali.

Scholars trace the origins of the thaali back to an era when hunting was the way of life, and chivalrous men wooed women by presenting their women with garlands strung with a tiger tooth. The story of Kannaki, which is championed by Tamil chauvinists and Dravidian politicians as the symbol of Tamil culture and womanhood, contains a mention of a sacred thread worn by the heroine. This is assumed to be a thaali.

In the tale, Kannaki waits patiently for the husband who had deserted her for another woman on the day of their wedding, and welcomes him with open arms when the rogue returns as a pauper. What's more, she is outraged when he is wrongly accused of theft by the Pandiyan king and her boldness in questioning the king and demanding justice for her husband has always been a source of comfort to Tamil men.

Symbol of identity

Kannaki has become a valued symbol of Tamil identity, a symbol of female sexual purity. As a woman’s chastity has been transformed into an emotive issue and a political weapon, wearing the thaali has become a symbol of chaste womanhood. Tamil films have perpetuated this idea, making it impossible for women in unhappy marriages to even toy with the idea of breaking away from their husbands. In the end, the thaali always wins.

Protest and attacks on women who air liberal opinions are not new in Tamil Nadu. When popular actress Khushboo mentioned in 2005 that she was not averse to the idea of premarital relations, all hell broke loose. On that occasion, the attacks were led by the Pattaali Makkal Katchi political party.

Everyone seemed to have a view on the issue, and papers and magazines wrote thousands of words about the issue, but no group of any consequence came out to oppose the bullies. The CPI [M]'s women's wing, for instance, refrained from pointing out that it was Khushboo’s constitutional right to express her views. Political parties maintained a deafening silence, wary of antagonising the PMK.

Even the Film Actors Association distanced itself from the actress. When actor Suhasini Mani Ratnam, wife of film director Mani Ratnam, decided to support Khushboo, she too was attacked for having insulted Tamil women. The attitude of the Tamil film industry wasn't exactly out of character. Tamil films are notorious for their machismo. The movies are hero-centric films, portraying women as mere dolls, or as  a picture of feudal obedience.

Cleared of charges

Approximately 28 cases or so filed against Khushboo for her statement, though she has, over the years, been absolved of all the charges.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that all the political parties in Tamil Nadu, be they conservative or radical, have no compunctions in toying with the sentiments of the electorate. This has resulted in caste identities being ritualistically asserted even more strongly. With the Bharatiya Janata Party having assumed power at the centre, it seems like some Hindutva groups believe that they can get away with explosive declarations of their agendas.

In the midst of this, educated women have been caught in the crossfire. They have found themselves forced to make a choice: whether to wear the thaali or keep it glittering safely in the cupboard.