A normal human red blood cell (RBC) when trapped with a linearly polarized laser, reorients about the electric polarization direction and then remains rotationally bound to this direction. This behavior is expected for a birefringent object. We have measured the birefringence of distortion-free RBCs in an isotonic medium using a polarizing microscope. The birefringence is confined to the cell’s dimple region and the slow axis is along a diameter. We report an average retardation of for linearly polarized green light (). We also estimate a retardation of from the optomechanical response of the RBC in an optical trap. We reason that the birefringence is a property of the cell membrane and propose a simple model attributing the origin of birefringence to the phospholipid molecules in the lipid bilayer and the variation to the membrane curvature. We observe that RBCs reconstituted in shape subsequent to crenation show diminished birefringence along with a sluggish optomechanical response in a trap. As the arrangement of phospholipid molecules in the cell membrane is disrupted on crenation, this lends credence to our conjecture on the origin of birefringence. Dependence of the birefringence on membrane contours is further illustrated through studies on chicken RBCs.