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CategoriesVoicesVulnerability and Sexuality

STAY SINGLE. STAY SAFE.

Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.

Oscar Wilde

Question: Are a majority of women killed by intimate partners and family members?

Answer: YES.

Here is a chilling finding from a United Nations Report: A total of 87,000 women were intentionally killed in 2017. More than half of them (58 percent)  ̶  50,000  ̶  were killed by intimate partners or family members… More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner   ̶  someone they would normally expect to trust. (italics mine)

Vulnerability: woundability, a state of being susceptible to injury or attack.

I want to share a Vulnerability Story:

She met him at a relative’s wedding. He asked for her phone number. They became friends. After a few months, they got married. The wedding took place a month before the pandemic hit. Covid turned their lives upside down. His fledgling catering business came to a standstill with no weddings happening. She lost her job as a sales person in a mobile phone shop. They were stuck with each other under the same roof 24/7. Arguments about money began. When she argued back, he resorted to violence. One day, a little over a year into their troubled marriage, things escalated to a point of no return for her.

Strangulation? Suicide? Abetted suicide? Homicide?

No charges have been pressed against the husband. He’s a free man.

You could call it a Covid-facilitated fatality. But Covid didn’t cause her death. Covid exacerbated the economic situation that exacerbated her vulnerability, her woundability. But did she deserve to die? Her parents, and she herself, were relieved that she was finally getting married after several failed match-making attempts. Marriage, the only pole of respectability to aspire to for all unmarried women, was going to hold her up too. Relatives who had taunted her at family weddings, “When are you going to get married?” would finally shut up.

The largest contingent of voiceless, lonely women with limited agency in the subcontinent must be its married women. If they’re fortunate enough to be born and reach adulthood, a woman’s parents and society make sure she becomes an adult brainwashed into self-alienation and self-loathing. She’s not their child. Her birth-home is not her home. She’s paraya dhan (another’s property). She’s groomed as a product-on-loan by her parents. To be eventually packaged off to her husband’s home.

Patrilocal marriage, the most common form of marriage in the subcontinent, makes a woman relocate to live in or near her husband’s family. She tacitly commits to love, honour, and serve her husband and his family for the rest of her life. Patrilocal marriages contribute to a large chunk of low self-esteem, loneliness, isolation, and increased vulnerability to violence among married women. To whom can they turn to in times of crises? Usually nobody.

If marriage is heaven on earth, why are so many married women killing themselves?

Forget homicide. In 2019, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, almost 60 housewives died by suicide every day (calculation mine, based on the available NCRB data). Housewives were the second largest group to die by suicide after daily-wage workers. This sorrowful statistic is likely to have gone up during the lockdown. The pandemic year has been a year of unprecedented oppression and family violence.  Seriously, does anybody think that raising the age of marriage for girls to 21 is going to render the institution of marriage much safer for women?

We are still telling our daughters there’s no future for them sans marriage. We parcel them off blithely, to live in the homes of strangers who, overnight, become their new family. We don’t wonder whether such a move increases their vulnerability to mental and emotional breakdown. What does it say about our intelligence? Oscar Wilde was so right to call marriage a triumph of imagination over intelligence. We are besotted with the idea of marriage as the best and only possible way for women to sacrifice themselves.

Does a husband usually agree to relocate to live with his wife’s family? Does he commit to love, honour, and serve his wife and her family? Why not? Because patriarchal marriage is not a bond between equals. But here’s a puzzle: Why, in the face of overwhelmingly negative outcomes for marriage for women, is the educated, professional, and financially independent woman still opting for marriage? Why, why, why? Our collective cultural imagination continues to triumph over our innate intelligence, and will do so for decades to come. Perfectly sane women will turn into desperate wives and continue to get killed or kill themselves.

P.S. The handful of men who do relocate to accommodate their partner’s career or social-familial needs, I am all admiration for you.

On a less grim note, here’s a marriage joke.

A daughter asks her mother: What is marriage?

Mother: Marriage is a fancy word for adopting an overgrown male child whose parents can’t handle him anymore.

Wouldn’t it be the dawn of wisdom if more South Asian mothers said this to their daughters? If they stopped them from playing nannies to overgrown male children? Wouldn’t it be welcome if intelligence finally triumphed over imagination?

Lest you think I’m an ‘anti-love’ feminist, let me make this clear: I am all for love. I am only against compulsory patriarchal, patrilocal marriage. I support the union of hearts and souls and bodies, be they queer or non-queer, inter-caste, inter-religious, inter-class, or inter-national. Provided such unions are entered into consciously by consenting adults, and are mutually respectful and loving. And when they stop being so, can be dissolved.

But until the institution of marriage evolves to become such a union, an expectation that belies experience, let marriages, if they must take place, be social contracts renewable every few years by mutual agreement.

Who controls your life?

To married women, or single women about to get married, do ask yourselves: Who controls your life? Who will control your life once you’re married? Are all your needs being met in your marriage? Are they likely to be met through marriage?

According to the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, people have five levels of needs. [1] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is:

  • Basic survival needs, such as food and shelter.
  • Security needs, such as freedom from harassment, violence and physical dangers.
  • Social or relationship needs, such as intimacy, acceptance, understanding, and love.
  • Achievement and success needs, such as ways to feel creative, productive, and have healthy self-esteem.
  • Selfactualisation needs, which one can aspire to only if the first four needs are met. A self-actualised person experiences a sense of wholeness, completeness, and overwhelming moments of joy or “peak” experiences.

 

How many married women’s basic survival needs are met through marriage?

How many married women eat what they want to eat when they want to eat?

Do they have fixed hours of housework with enough time for rest and recreation?

Are their lives secure and free of physical, sexual, and psychological violence?

Are they really in control of their lives?

Are their needs for intimacy, sex, love and understanding met?

Do they have opportunities for expressing their individuality and creativity?

Do they have a healthy sense of self-worth?

How many married women aspire to Maslow’s fifth and highest level of needs: self-actualisation needs?

How many married women are having any kind of “peak” experiences?

We know most married women in our culture consider themselves lucky if they get enough food (even if they eat leftovers after feeding the men in the family) and shelter. So what if many are subjected to occasional physical, sexual and/or psychological violence? That’s part and parcel of the marriage package, they think, as long as it doesn’t kill them.

The twenty-one thousand, four hundred, and twenty-four married women who killed themselves in 2019, were they alive today, would have borne testimony that very few of their needs were met. No wonder they preferred to die.

For those who think non-marital, live-in relationships are more loving, mutually respectful, and safer for women, I would not vouch for it. If you are in doubt, refer to the UN stats on intimate-partner violence at the beginning of this essay.

As Notzake Shange[2], in the poem latent rapists, part of her larger choreo-poetry work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975) baldly put it:

Women relinquish all personal rights

In the presence of a man

Who apparently cd be considered a rapist

Especially if he has been considered a friend

Cuz it turns out the nature of rape has changed

 We can now meet them in circles we

frequent for companionship

we see them at the coffeehouse

we cd even have em over for dinner

and get raped in our own houses

by invitation.

Explore Alternatives. Redefine the Family. Redesign the family.

Urbandictionary defines family as “a group of people, usually of the same blood (but do not have to be) who genuinely love, trust, care about, and look out for each other. Family is not to be confused with relatives sharing the same household who hate each other. (italics mine)

Key words here are: trust, care, look out for.

How many blood families do you really know that are unconditional storehouses of mutual love, trust, care, and support?

 

So, if your family of origin (FOO) isn’t what you thought it to be, have the wits and guts to design a family of choice (FOC).

Therapist and life coach, Carol Juergensen Sheets, asks us to rethink what family means:

“Are there people who you could call in a heartbeat if you needed a favor, or needed to talk? Is there family in your life who would come to your rescue if you needed them? Unless your life is filled with support, it may be time to rethink your relationships…. A family of choice is a group of people who are in your life to empower you. They feed your self-esteem instead of depleting it. They are folks who are there for you during the tough times, and also during the celebrations in your life. …. It doesn’t just happen, you have to set it up that way.” (italics mine)

Any group of commitment-minded adults (age, caste, religion, gender, etc. no bar) ready to make the commitment to shared co-existence under one roof, willing to share household work and expenses, can set up an FOC. Couples can also do this. It’s a social contract. Renewable. If it doesn’t work, you have the option to leave. No need to stick it out till death parts you.

What about kids? Isn’t that what family is all about? Having and raising kids? If the nurturing instinct overpowers you, there are options. Adoption. Volunteering. IVF. Surrogacy. Non-human companions. Plants.

What about sex? Why should marriage be the only socially legitimate way to have safe and pleasurable sex? Ask the married women. Ask them if they’re having pleasurable sex with their husbands. Ask them how much sex is consensual, how much performed as a duty, how much coerced.

Live alone and like it.

My recommendation for the single women in their 20s and 30s and 40s who are despairing of finding Mr Right: Stay single. Stay safe. Most of your friends and cousins are already settled, or look settled anyway, and you’re scared witless thinking you’ll end up as a ‘lonely spinster’. You’ll be an unloved ‘old maid’ nobody bothers with

Take heart. This is not the truth. The truth is: You can positively, actively plan for a single and contented life.

The key concept for living as a single woman is good planning. Planning is essential for all Live-aloners, a term coined by Marjorie Hillis, the writer of an advice manual for single women way back in the early 20th century. Marjoris Hillis’s Live Alone and Like it: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman[3], is a little jewel of a life-skills guide packed with upbeat, witty, and no-nonsense advice for the woman who wants to stay single. By choice. Intentionally. Not depressed. Not moping. Not pitying herself. Not waiting for Mr Right. Says Marjorie, “To live alone successfully, you must have a PLAN. Decide what kind of life you want. Then make it.” Marjorie, who lived as a single woman herself in New York City, calls such a life a “life of solitary refinement.” A woman who lives a life of solitary refinement uses her wits to design her life. She makes friends and a family of choice she can rely on in times of need. She socialises. She invites her friends to dinners and teas. She works for social and political causes she believes in. She has company when she wants it, but also has her solitude when she wants it.

Sounds too good to be true? It is too good to be true. Even in the 21st century.

“When you live alone, nobody arranges anything for you. Nobody will make a fuss over you, but you will also have nobody to expect you to make a fuss over him, when you are tired. You can indulge yourself unblushingly,” writes Marjorie. “Anyone who pities herself for more than a month on end is a weak sister, and likely to become a public nuisance besides. With a mental picture of ‘poor little me’, all alone in the world, you will be an outstanding example of the super-bore. Concentrate seriously on: friends, hobbies, books, and whatever keeps you interested.  Stay interesting. Make contacts. Join women’s organizations. Take courses. Join musical circles. Be a communist.  Be something.”

My personal favourite from Marjorie’s DIY manual is the Chapter titled: Pleasures of a Single Bed.

“It is true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar. Think of things that you, all alone, don’t have to do in bed. You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read because somebody else wants to sleep. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep. You don’t have to lie awake listening to snores. One of the great advantages of living alone is that you can be alone when you want to. Lots of people never discover what a pleasure this can be. Perhaps it was because of its possibilities that the much used expression, “enjoy yourself” came into being.” (italics mine)

To turn the light on or not used to plague me all the years I shared my bed. I would wake up in the night, especially during my menopause years, sweating and unable to sleep, and unable to turn on the light to read a book, for fear of waking up my spouse.

Another gift not to scoff at, according to Marjorie, is a bathroom of your own. In South Asia, a small percentage of people are fortunate enough to have a proper bathroom, let alone a bathroom of their own. But if you do have a bathroom to yourself, it is unquestionably one of life’s great blessings.  A personal bathroom where you don’t have to clean up a man’s pee from the seat may seem like an unimaginable luxury, but, inshallah, if womanhood progresses, a bathroom of one’s own will inch into the category of necessities.

Research is validating Marjorie’s century-old advice: Stay single and stay happier! Behaviour scientist, Paul Dolan of the London School of Economics, says there’s no correlation between being married and being happy. Women are much happier without a spouse or children. But the stigma and negative labelling around singlehood make many women doubt their happiness.

As an older woman who has spent more than three decades in a patriarchal, patrilocal, heterosexual marriage, my heart-felt advice to all women who can stay single and financially independent: Don’t trash your azadi (freedom). Your azadi is its own reward. Don’t settle for the mostly false and flashy trinkets of married life. As a single woman you are not only safer, you are also likely to live longer and feel a lot less depressed in the long run.

Don’t buy into the cultural crap that tells you otherwise.

I would like to end with a few lines from Deborah Miranda’s poem, Torch

I follow my hunger, my emptiness, the flame
on my forehead not betrayal but reminder:
it’s not wrong to want, to ask – not wrong –
I keep the beacon lit so love might see me.

By all means honour your hunger for love, keep your emptiness alive, your beacons lit so love might see you when it arrives. But if you think the only way for love to arrive is with band, baja, and baraat (aka the big fat Indian Wedding), you need to do a lot of rethinking.

 

[1] Adapted from Effectiveness Training for Women (ETW) by Linda Adams (1979). See also: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html#gsc.tab=0

 

[2] Ntozake Shange: For colored girls who have considered suicide/ the rainbow is enuf. (1997) Scribner Poetry

 

[3] Live Alone and Like it: The Classic Guide for the Single Woman (1936) by Marjorie Hillis. Available online from archive.org

Cover Image: Unsplash

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Article written by:

Nighat Gandhi is a writer and psychotherapist. Her most recent collection of short stories is :WAITING (Zubaan, Delhi, 2019).

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