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, stayed single well beyond my marital expiry date and laid all shava shava dreams of my relatives to dust.
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 the country to avoid it.
My job was exciting and demanded extensive travel. A guy I met around this time asked me out. I thought he was cool, so I said yes. A few days later, I casually mentioned to him over text 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.
Months passed, and our conversation petered out. I wrote and cleared the UPSC exam, quit my job, and was about to leave town for the civil services training academy. The day before I was leaving, we met for a coffee. He congratulated me and also mentioned that this was why he never asked me out again.
"No man wants to marry a woman smarter than him.", he told me.
I had one foot out the door so I did not break it to 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, there is no escaping it. 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. She also took on the responsibility of being the primary caregiver for her wheelchair-bound ailing mother.
She would notice that her mother's health deteriorated further every time certain relatives visited.
“I later found out that these relatives would taunt my 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 into her life.
“They would never say such a thing to a mother who was 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 she goes through, thanks to people's assumptions about her as a single woman.
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.
“A disturbing incident 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 me and asked, "Do you want to come over to my room?"
Panicked, I ran away from the party and locked myself up in my room. Later, I found out that the guy was a married man. He had clearly interpreted my single status as my 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 retire her perceived The Office Enchantress, she even suggested Sharada lose some weight because "men like thin women".
She 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 conditioned to read the word 'boss' as male. Shame on you, 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) miles 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.
I 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."
Thankfully, this encouraged 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 as I was a week before my wedding. But somehow, now that I am married, society seems to consider me worth a lot more respect and real estate."
"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?"
Karrie was very close to her late grandmother and remembers an interaction fondly.
When I was around 21-years-old, my grandmother looked over at me, 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 Ph.D. 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, and 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, I was talking passionately about my research when he interrupted me and said, "I hope you don't bring all this stuff home. Because if you do, we will have a lot of fights."
I 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 my 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 my family has finally begun to understand what I mean when I say that marriage is not equal to happiness."
Quote of the week
Have a Happy Christmas, and see you in the new year! Special love and cakes for all the single ladies reading this!