Too pretty to be single?

How a society treats single women is an indication of how evolved it actually is

Representative image
Representative image

Kalpana Sharma

One of the key words all of us face in the ‘New India’ being forged by the current dispensation is ‘choice’. We ask ourselves: as citizens of an ostensibly democratic country, do we have the right to choose not just who rules the country but how we conduct our lives as citizens?

How free are we today to choose what we eat, where we live our political beliefs, our religious beliefs? Or even whether we want to believe in a religion or not? Are we also free to choose who we want to marry? At what age we must marry? And if we should marry at all?

I think the answers to all these questions are fairly obvious. In the new India, on paper we have many choices. But in practice, many of these choices have been increasingly precluded or predecided because of the dominant political and belief systems.

In any case, for women growing up in this “new India” or even in the older India, many of these choices were predetermined. Women are schooled to believe that their lives are incomplete if they are not married. The majority of women are also socialised or compelled to accept that they must marry within their own social group, religion and class.

Not just that, but most women grow up accepting that someone else, their parents or the larger clan or community, know best who they should marry. The question of the women asserting her right to choose the person that she will ostensibly spend the rest of her life with, does not even arise.

Against these perennial realities, as well the particular situation we are faced with at the moment in India when levels of intolerance against any marital ties between different religious groups have peaked, can we even discuss choice, marriage and women in the same breath?

Taking this a step further, can any woman, irrespective of class, caste or creed, even dare to think of making a choice that does not have marriage at the centre of it?

Our society still looks askance at women who choose to remain single. There are always assumptions about such a woman: ugly, short, fat, difficult, stubborn, arrogant etc. In other words, not marriage material. That can be the only reason she is on her own. Yet, the surprising fact is that there are women in India who have made such a choice.

If women get married and are rendered single by virtue of being widowed or divorced, once again the woman is blamed. She was unlucky. She was not willing to adjust. Yet there are several million women in India who have either never married, or are widowed or divorced and have chosen not to remarry.

Two years ago, I edited an anthology with essays by a dozen never-married single women in the book 'Single by Choice, Happily Unmarried Women' (Women Unlimited, 2019). The contributors ranged from women in their 70s to one in her 20s.

The dominant sentiment that stood out was their assertion and belief that whether they married or stayed single was a personal choice that every woman is entitled to make. No one else should have the right to dictate that choice. Society must accept that women have the brains and the ability to make such choices.

Admittedly, those who wrote in this book were women who were financially independent, had careers and therefore were better placed to make this choice. In most cases, they were also lucky to have supportive parents who upheld their right to make such a decision. Such families remain the exception and not the rule in this country although I continue to hope that this will change.

The fact of a woman choosing singleness over marriage presses many buttons in an essentially conservative society like ours. Despite the Constitution, that speaks of equality between men and women, the reality remains very far from that. Patriarchy is entrenched not just in the family but in all our institutions.

Marriage as an institution is at the heart of this patriarchal system. Even today, the majority accept that there are specific roles that the man and the woman play within marriage. Women are expected to defer to the man, apparently ‘for her own good’ because, of course, he always knows better.

So, if a woman decides to defy the very idea that she cannot be complete, happy and fulfilled outside the institution of marriage, she is touching off a nerve. On the other hand, if she is miserable, she fits the belief that she has been left ‘on the shelf ’. But if she is an independent, strong, happy woman getting on with her life, that seems decidedly odd.

One cannot generalise, but increasingly many parents are beginning to accept that their daughters can live happy and fulfilled lives even if they choose not to marry and to “settle down”. This has been my personal experience and that of many of the women with whom I have discussed issues of singleness and marriage.

In my generation, the cut-off year to be eligible for marriage was around 35. If by then you had not come across someone with whom you wanted to spend the rest of your life, or successfully fended off offers by well-wishers, friends and family to hook you up with someone, you were generally left alone.

Yet, in the end, even if you are single, as in not married, you are never really alone. Many families have embraced single women as part of the larger family. She is the indulgent aunt or adopted “auntie” of the children of neighbours and friends, or the go-to person for younger people wanting to discuss politics, careers or even personal matters with someone other than their parents.

In fact, in my view, how a society treats its single women is a good way to assess whether it is a just and tolerant one.

(Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and author. Her latest book is 'The Silence and the Storm, Narrative of Violence against Women in India')