According to various sources that gather large-scale data, this is the first time in history we are seeing a rising number of single women in India. According to census data from 2011, the number is estimated to be around 71.4 million, quite a significant figure. Women included in this group are divorced, never-married, widowed, or abandoned, and amongst this group, the number of women choosing to stay single is growing. Being single by choice is a growing trend around the world as well, but it is of significance in Asia. Asian societies have tended to put a great emphasis on marriage, they still do. However, there is a growing number of single people on the continent.
In a country where marriage is often seen as the default option for adults, being single takes courage. From unwanted advice about how terrible life is, to prying questions about intimate aspects of one’s life, single people, especially single women, become everybody’s punching bag. Single women often find themselves being socially excluded, and are often infantilised, with little to no regard to their agency. For Indian women marriage and childbearing has given them a status of respectability. Marriage has been thought of as the only acceptable outlet for women’s sexual desires.
Being single is a choice people are making for a variety of reasons. However, society seems to be stuck with the idea that marriage is the only fulfilling relationship for an adult. In the case of women, it is assumed that we are biologically destined to marry and raise children. Feminist writer and academic Yasmin Nair, in Friendship in the Time of Love, writes about how marriage and romantic love have come to dominate our discourse about human worth.
While many people are getting married later in life or opting for live-in relationships, many are choosing not to marry at all. There are obvious concerns about falling birth rates, but with a global population of seven billion, I think it is safe to say humans aren’t going extinct anytime soon.
If like me you are single, I am sure you aren’t living your life bombarded by statistics, and most likely, you have well-meaning family, friends, and even complete strangers being judgemental and offering you unsolicited advice about your life choices. Most people I know express pity and shock, and click their tongues disapprovingly when I tell them I am not married.
Then, some start giving me a lesson in sex-ed and explaining how difficult it will become to have children later in life. While I usually defend myself with sarcasm, I am well-aware of how difficult it is for some women to respond to the constant devaluation they experience. From being made to feel unwelcome in their own homes to people not renting property to single women, there is a genuine fear and hatred of singlehood, and of single women in particular.
Popular culture is full of messages that reaffirm that being single is an aberration. Single women on screen are almost always career-driven and out to seduce men or ‘pathetic’ women who need the right man to rescue them. Both western and Indian media reinforce these stereotypes. We have all watched television shows and films where single women may enjoy great professional success but continue to harbour an inner longing for marriage. It is almost always implied that a relationship or marriage has the power to transform personal failings.
Singleness represents eschewing all that patriarchy imposes on us in the name of emotional and financial protection. Women who decide not to marry defy age-old ‘wisdom’ mixed with terrible psychological and biologically-backed explanations. We live in a heteropatriarchal society that constantly demands conformity to its ideals. Not only must people conform to stereotypical notions of gender and sexuality, but they must also constantly prove their worth through marriage and child-rearing. Heteropatriarchy affects people of all genders, however, women, transgender people, and non-binary people are most affected by these rules. Constantly asserting one’s right to exist is draining, it does take a toll on one’s mental health. It also takes away from time spent building oneself up. To comply with the rules of heteropatriarchy is one thing, we are also expected to enforce those rules on others. Mindless conformity is a way of draining our erotic core, as Audre Lorde calls it. According to Audre Lorde, ‘the erotic’ is a resource that lies within us and in a deeply female and spiritual plane. Women who have tapped into this power are often feared or vilified. Singlehood is an exploration of the erotic, which explains why it is often treated with fear and contempt. Singleness can allow for the exploration of one’s self in relation to others and our tap into our deepest strengths.
Evidence suggests that education and economic independence often influence women’s decision to marry or to not marry. Which does beg the question, was marriage a means of controlling women, relegating them to the domestic sphere? Does our subjugation stem from the fear that we will overhaul a system that robs us of our individuality?
Being single is a means of exploring new cultural territory. It involves creating our own culture, with its own set of mores. Whilst writing this piece, I have been carrying the voice of Gloria Anzaldúa in my head. In her seminal book, Borderlands, Anzaldúa explores her identities from a queer feminist perspective. Unravelling two cultures (North American and Mexican) within her book, she critiques the hegemony that patriarchy (in both her cultures) and whiteness exerts over women. Being a woman of colour, an immigrant, and queer, Anzaldúa creates a new territory for herself: the borderland. This space is her creation, it embodies her identities, while at the same time providing a space for creative transgressions. In the same way, exploring singleness, in our society can be a means of creating one’s own culture.
My dear sisters, I propose this: that we join forces wherever we are. Let’s build each other up while we explore this new state of being. The world will tear us down, it will make us question our sanity, and negativity will wear us out. Let’s not reinforce stereotypes about each other, we can direct our energies to build ourselves and each other up.
Here is what I propose:
Don’t let people shame you for not conforming to societal standards.
Take pride in your achievements, however small they might be.
You don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you made the choices you did.
You don’t need to feel guilty for dating or not dating.
And, similarly, you don’t need to feel shame or guilt for expressing your sexuality in the way you feel comfortable.
Celebrate and love yourself.
Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power by Audre Lorde. 1978.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldúa. 1987.
Cover Image:Photo by Urmi (License: Creative Commons BY)