LEAFING THROUGH PICTURES mailed by a friend, I find one of me on the beach laughing uninhibitedly with my hair streaming in the wind, and I smile to myself thinking ‘this is so me.’ I am a single woman in her thirties, have never been married and have no ‘special relationship’ with any man. Yes, at times, I do long for companionship and romance but for the most part, I revel in my being single. I enjoy the time and space I have and the freedom to explore love, life and relationships in my own way without the responsibilities that come with being a wife or a mother. Yet, living in a patriarchal society where a woman is expected to prize above all, the role of wife and mother, being single also means having to regularly encounter reactions ranging from the sympathetic to the malicious.
I do understand the curiosity others display about my personal life. I probably seem like something of an oddball to them and I’ve got used to fielding questions about the reasons for my choosing to remain unmarried. My reply — that I am single because I have not yet come across the right person and that I am against the arranged marriage system where caste and religion are of prime importance and superficial qualities such as colour of skin and looks assume greater significance than the kind of person one is — does not seem good enough. It’s usually followed by advice about why I should not be so rigid and ‘settle down.’ I have got used to that too.
The hostile remarks get to me though. Sample this. One man asked me if I was single because I was ‘tainted.’ The same man also told me that my parents had been irresponsible and if he had been in my Dad’s place, he would have whacked me and seen to it that I got married at the ‘right age.’ I have been told by male colleagues that my being single gives men fodder for gossip about me and that if only I got married, the gossip would die down. I have been let in on some of the gossip and it is hurtful. I know this happens to other single women as well. A woman’s single status seems reason enough for men to speculate about her personal life and sexuality. Then, there are times when I have had to fend off men who assume that I must be eager to jump into bed with any man just because I am single. Of course, there is the ‘frustrated spinster’ tag that is lobbed at me even when I justifiably lose my cool in the workplace or with family. Mercifully, I haven’t had to deal with worse.
I recall my visit to Ahmedabad some years ago to visit a woman friend, also single. Her work demanded that she travel frequently and she often had to leave and return home at odd hours. We were leaving her apartment one morning when she spotted a few of her neighbours talking to each other. She warned me to ignore their remarks. Later, she told me that when she walked past, her neighbours sometimes called her a prostitute.
On a similar note, I have heard of a single woman in Mumbai being summoned by the residents association to explain her ‘indecent behaviour’ as she returned home late at times. The single woman, it would seem, is expected to adhere to some unwritten code of conduct — to not have male friends, not socialise with men, not entertain friends at home, to be home by a ‘respectable’ hour and so on. It also seems that it is okay to make assumptions about her character and to subject her to verbal abuse and harassment if she deviates from this code.
Even in this day and age, even in urban India, people find it difficult to accept that a woman can choose to remain single and lead a healthy, happy and full life. The idea that the single woman is entitled to the full range of freedoms that any other adult does and is entitled to live her life as she chooses is also one that is yet to gain full acceptance in our society. I wonder when the day will arrive when the single woman can just be and people see her as she is and respect her for what she is instead of making assumptions about her and her character based on her single status.