All the Single Ladies
Relatives, rentals, and man-repellants
Full disclosure relevant to this week's theme - I am married. I know. What a loss for men everywhere who wanted to hear about womaning day and night.
But there was a time when I was single, and how. I come from a Punjabi family and, as Bollywood has reliably informed the entire country, Punjabis live to dance at weddings. I, however, laid all shava shava dreams of my relatives to dust by staying single well beyond my marital expiry date.
Naturally, members of the extended family - most of whom I had never met before - were losing a lot of sleep over ‘How do you solve a problem like Mahima?’ The sordid matter was all but declared a pandemic - and I duly social-distanced myself by taking up a job halfway across India to avoid it.
My job was exciting and allowed me to travel all over the country. While I was busy enjoying the good life, a guy I met asked me out. I thought he was cool, so I said yes. A few days later, I casually mentioned over an online chat with him that I was planning to write the UPSC exam the next year. He made some customary encouraging noises, but the date we were supposed to go on was never brought up again.
"No man wants to marry a woman smarter than him.", he told me later.
I did not want to break his heart by telling him that almost every man in the world is married to a woman smarter than him.
Being a single lady is a minefield of societal judgment, parental pressure, and prospective-groom ego management. Whether you are single by choice or just waiting for the right person to come along, relatives you have never met before will definitely engage in some very public chest-beating over your delayed nuptials. And while being smart / successful / rich are considered great assets among single men, in a single lady they are seen as man-repelling character flaws.
“Beti ki kamaayi” (The daughter's money)
Shweta was single for most of her 30s and as such, was used to people looking at her during social gatherings like she was an unspeakable tragedy. Aunties would come up and start asking probing personal questions about her relationship status, offering unsolicited advice. A particular case she remembers is the mother of a friend who told Shweta to quit her high-paying job immediately because it was evident that her bank balance was scaring away all the men.
Shweta had lost her father when she was just 2-years-old and, after her elder siblings moved out, she started running the household financially, and caring for her wheelchair-bound ailing mother. She would notice that her mother's health deteriorated further every time certain relatives visited.
She later found out that these relatives would taunt her mother whenever they met her, "Beti ki kamaayi ka khaa rahi ho, isliye uski shaadi nahi kara rahi ho?" (You are happily living on your daughter's money. Isn't that why you are not getting her married?)
Their words would cut her mother so deep that she would stop eating for days, affecting her health. Shweta could not believe the poison these people who called themselves her well-wishers were injecting in her life. She wondered if they would ever say the same thing to a mother who was being supported by her son.
"Do you want to come to my room?"
Parvati, 35, works as a senior marketing professional with a multinational consumer brand. She spoke to me about the professional hell that gets specially curated for single women at the workplace, thanks to people's assumptions about them.
A common assumption, for example, is that single people have no life, and can therefore put in long hours to pick up everyone else's slack. (Parvati recalls a colleague once telling her, "You can work all night because what else is there for you to do?")
But sometimes these assumptions can lead to traumatic experiences for the women and seriously threaten their safety at work. A dangerous example is men thinking that a single woman is a promiscuous woman.
Parvati recounts a disturbing incident that took place at a corporate retreat. The company had thrown a party at a resort where, a guy from another team came uncomfortably close to her and asked, "Do you want to come over to my room?"
Panicked and not sure how to react, she ran away from the party and locked herself up in her room. Later, she found out that the guy was a married man, who seemed to have interpreted her single status as her availability for him.
"We are not sex workers"
It is not just men who consider a single woman Seduction Central. Sharada's boss's wife would routinely accost her at office gatherings and tell her to get married, or ask if her parents weren't worried about her marriage. In an obvious attempt to put the office enchantress in her place, she even suggested Sharada lose some weight because "men like thin women", and added for good measure, "I thought my husband would hire a better-looking girl than you."
Sharada wonders if any single working man out there has ever received such unwanted attention from his boss's husband. (If that last sentence is taking you an extra second to process, it is because our brains are wired to read the word 'boss' as male. Think about that, brain.)
Sharada has faced another problem common to the demographic - single women are the pariahs of the real estate world. Even though the average flat occupied by single women looks (and, quite frankly, smells) a few hundred times better than the average bachelors' pad, it is nearly impossible for unmarried women to find a homeowner willing to rent to them.
At one hard-earned rental she shared with a few others, the landlord called to say that the downstairs neighbour had asked him to evict them, on the grounds that they had male visitors over. While he was inclined to let them stay, he couldn't just ignore the neighbour either. Chartbusters like "this is a family society" were bandied about, and Sharada decided to confront the complainant herself.
She told her, “Yes, we have male friends as much as we have women friends. Just as your 15-year-old son has some friends who are girls and some who are boys. It is a pity that I have to even say this, but we are not sex workers."
That seemed to encourage the complainant to keep her nose firmly where it belonged in the future.
Recently, Sharada got married and was even more frustrated to discover how easy it is, in comparison, to find a rented house as a couple. "I am the same person but somehow, now that I am married, society seems to consider me worth a lot more respect", she says.
"A man up for the challenge"
Karrie, 37, spoke to me about social life as a single woman in a world where being married is some sort of a badge of honour. She said that the very nature of our social gatherings is such that it makes a single woman feel unwanted.
"At weddings, we are our mothers’ chaperones. At birthday parties, we are the designated baby-sitters. We don’t always have dates so we can’t go to couple-themed parties. We, the single, rape-able women of city life, are hard to invite to late night dos because what if we need to go home and no one is there to drive us?"
When Karrie's brother and sister-in-law throw parties, she often finds herself sitting alone in her room, listening to the party rage in the rest of the house. She is invited, she says, but that is mostly lip service. They know she won’t come. And she knows they don’t have space for her single self.
Karrie was very close to her late grandmother.
When she was around 21-years-old, her grandmother looked over at her fondly, and said, "The way you are turning out, it is going to be difficult to find a man who will be up for the challenge."
Karrie says that that was meant to be a compliment, and she took it as such. She is living her life on her own terms and would not compromise that for any party in the world.
"Marriage is not equal to happiness"
Ritu, 31, has worked in India, North America and the Middle East and is now pursuing her PhD overseas. Financially independent for over a decade, she is still used to hearing the phrase “You are not settled” from friends and family.
She recalls a man her parents introduced to her for an arranged marriage. On paper, he was the perfect man - highly educated, attractive, settled in Europe. The two started texting and talking to get to know each other better.
Ritu works on issues of violence against women. Her work is not just a job to her - it is her calling.
One day, she was talking passionately about her research when he interrupted her and said, "I hope you don't bring all this stuff home. Because if you do, we will have a lot of fights."
Ritu tried to explain to him how feeling unsafe just walking down the street is not an academic idea - it is an everyday reality for her and billions of women all over the world. But it became obvious that he was not willing to take her work any more seriously than a 'hobby'. He clearly wanted a wife who will be obedient, subservient, and have little or no opinions of her own. So that was the end of that.
Ritu’s parents fix her up with so many guys that she says she may have forgotten more men than many women have met in their entire dating life. Sadly, she finds that a subservient wife is an all too common expectation, even among highly educated men.
Recently, Ritu has experienced an unexpected reprieve from the marital pressure.
"In the last one or two years, at least six of my friends and cousins who got married at the 'appropriate age' got divorced. It is sad, but this has relented some of the parental pressure on me. It seems they have finally begun to understand what I mean when I say that marriage is not equal to happiness."
Quote of the week
Recommendation of the Week
For many more womaning stories that echo Sharada’s real-estate woes, watch the 60min film Bachelor Girls on Netflix. Trailer here.
Have a Happy Christmas, and see you in the new year! Special love and cakes for all the single ladies reading this!