October 22, 2009

Single in the City

Ramapriya

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.

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About: Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan

Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan is a lawyer in the Madras High Court working on labour rights, environmental and human rights issues.

32 comments to Single in the City

  • Yes ramapriya, the core of the problem is religion. any society is a paternal society that has its roots in religion. south india generally being more conservative, compared to the north.. obviously has got it worse.

  • gm

    The North is just as bad, I think. Our whole country puts on this act of being so conservative and family-oriented. Though I am married and a mother, I hear my mother’s friends often complain about how their daughters refuse to get married and should take the plunge without further adieu. I always request them to leave their daughters alone. They politely listen, then promptly continue as before or worse yet chide me for not doing more to ‘talk sense’ into my friends.

  • True madam ji,
    Now-a-days men are also finding it impossible to stay single :-( ….North/or south its the same….cross 25, and the societal pressure starts ..for women it is about ‘character’…for men it is about ‘does he earn less’? ‘does he have defects’?

  • Pooja Pillai

    I completely sympathize with the girl who was hauled up before the residents’ association. My flatmates and I have had to deal with that problem where we live too and I’ve heard similar stories from a lot of my friends. In fact, when we were looking for a new place to rent, we were rejected by a society because they didn’t want to let out the house to single women. Is there anything, legally, that we can do to prevent or ward off such harassment?

  • It is sad to have to read about what a single woman has to endure. And as a single woman who is trying to find the right guy, I can say that I’m still blessed to live in a city where I’m allowed to my opinions and way-of-living.

    I live in New York City, and had a blind-date last night. This gentleman’s believes were the complete opposite of mine, yet because I was confident about who I am and what I believe in, I told him about my political/religious/life views. We agreed to disagree and left it at that. So, maybe the next guy will be a better match.

    But as a white woman from Germany, I was never brought up to feel less equal or superior to anyone. It doesn’t matter what color or sex one is, we’re all human beings. And hopefully, we’ll find that one special human being that will suit us just right. :)

    -Nadja

  • [...] to accept that a woman can choose to remain single and lead a healthy, happy and full life,” tells Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan at Ultraviolet. She explains the difficulties a single woman face in [...]

  • single men are also questioned. but the talk[ atleast openly] is quashed when told . i am working to get to the point to ”settle” . i have heard some friends say this and tried it once. and it worked :) haha. but unfortunately women dont have this ”excuse” it seems. why? cause the man is ”provider”. what can i say. where do these people live? is there electricity there or is it the dark ages still.
    india as with most south Asian countries has many stigma’s and tags. the discomfort level is rather high when someone [ whether man or woman i may add] dsnt follow the norm outrightly.
    for Nadja in New York or in Germany things are v v different.
    in india it is very different[ and rather more difficult depending on which town/city you live in]. and places like Afghanistan its ghastly. there is no single women, or any such idea even. all women are possessions to be bartered or battered.

  • apu

    So relevant this piece is. I remember looking for a house to rent (in Bangalore) when I was around 23-24 and the landlord asked me to get a list from my father, of people who were “approved” to visit me!! A friend of mine in Chennai was thrown out because a male colleague visited her. For that matter, an apartment association in Bangalore recently put up a notice asking male tenants not to let women friends visit them. So, in general we are repressed when it comes to male-female interaction except under the ‘hallowed’ portals of marriage or family, and as with all things, the standards are tougher for women.

  • K. Vasuvenkat

    I am confining my response only on the way that this article/posting has been articulated. In my opinion, Ramapriya has distractd herself in the subsequent paragraphs from what she had started. The first paragraph was captivating and I was expecting her to share the experiences of a near middle aged single woman (by choice).
    In the remaining paragraphs, like a carefully drafted legal document, she has included every ingredient of a proper complaint against a patriarchal society. The rest of the story was easy to guess..As easy as the response of a tinsel town star for the question what he/she would have become had he/she hadn’t taken to acting.
    Only time has been a witness, each and every successful person of whatever field has been rediculed at some point , for not behaving in accordance with the unwritten laws of the society. It is equally impossible to find even a single instace where a person has lived to his/her passions and still escaping gossip.
    After reading this article/posting, I have to think twice to say that I’ve known the author for I have to run the risk of being branded as one among those who had passed an irreverential comment.
    Dear Ramapriya, the glass is still half full. I hope you would find time to look at that part of the society where we would leave you alone honouring your choice. Give us the benefit of doubt. I hope that you would write nicer things about yourself, your choice and the world as you see it. It would be fun to learn that.

    • just an observation

      At least you admit that you belong to “that part of society” which does not leave women (whether single/ double/ triple, etc) alone. Now thats a start!

  • Bangalore Dude

    As a single man of 32, I face similar problems, but thankfully not as extreme as those faced by the author. The issues I have faced have been:
    1. A lot of questioning on “when are you getting married” (like I have a crystal ball to see the future with!) and a lot of unsolicited advice on the lines of “get married soon otherwise ladki nahi milega”.
    2. When my employer rolled out a mandatory online training on sexual harassment for all employees, several people asked to attend the course (which I did). When I asked them if they had, the reply: “We don’t need to, we’re married”.
    3. Questioning and insinuation on my sexual orientation.

    @K. Vasuvenkat, what are you trying to say? That the patriarchy is above criticism? And, what is the response of a tinsel town star for the question what he/she would have become had he/she hadn’t taken to acting? That is not obvious to me!

  • K. Vasuvenkat

    @Bangalore Dude: I have summed up what I wanted to say in my last paragraph. Criticize the Patriarchy to your heart’s content, I don’t hold a brief for this society. But I would love to see people (particularly those I know of)being positive about their preferances than going to a website and whining about the problems they face in this Patriarchy.

  • Bangalore Dude

    @K. Vasuvenkat: then why don’t you practice what you preach and be positive yourself instead of coming to a website and whining about other people whining?

  • Ramapriya

    Dilip, gm, mister, Nadja, Kunal, Apu and Bangalore Dude-Thank you all for your comments.
    Pooja- While the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the basis of gender, the prohibition is confined to the state and its agencies. It also extends to private persons in so far as it concerns access to public places such as shops, restaurants, hotels and other places of public entertainment owned by private persons. India unlike some other countries does not have any specific law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in the matter of housing, by private persons. For instance, the U.S seems to have federal as well as state laws that prohibit discrimination by landlords/real estate agents, on the basis of gender in the matter of lease/rental/sale of houses/apartments. On a more general note, it may also of interest to you to read the article Legal Responses to Discrimination by Housing Societies, by Tarunabh Khaitan that discusses discrimination by housing societies, on the basis of religion. Apart from this, in your case, it would be worthwhile to examine the bye-laws of the concerned society. If there is any clause in the bye-laws that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, that could pave the way for initiation of legal action by petitioning the Registrar of Societies (i.e if it is a registered society) for a start.
    Vasu-While I find the manner in which you choose to trivialize what I have written and the language you have chosen to employ rude, I do not wish to engage in a war of words with you. All I want to say is that it is sad that you have completely missed the point.

  • K. Vasuvenkat

    I haven’t trivialised anything in my comment, I haven’t been rude either.
    I had merely commented on the way the article was written.
    I haven’t and do not dispute the verasity of the statements made in the article.
    I had more expectations from the author whose erudition I am aware of.
    It is my misfortune that I have been thoroughly misunderstood.
    I am sorry if my comments have hurt the author and Bangalore Dude.

  • K. Vasuvenkat

    I haven’t trivialised anything in my comment, I haven’t been rude either.
    I had merely commented on the way the article was written.
    I haven’t and do not dispute the verasity of the statements made in the article.
    I had more expectations from the author whose erudition I am aware of.
    It is my misfortune that I have been thoroughly misunderstood.
    I am sorry if my comments have hurt the author and Bangalore Dude.

  • gramicidin

    I saw this article through a link on feministing.com. Its like you have written about my life and thank you for that. I’m going to send this article to my parents, because I have been unable to articulate my choices like you have. I currently live in the US so have not faced the blatant discrimination you talk about but will be prepared for that when I return. Thanks again.

  • Ramapriya

    Gramicidin, I just felt the need to point out to you while what I have said is based on my experiences and that of some other people I know; it is well possible that other single women in urban centres in India may not have faced such situations at well.

  • Ramapriya

    I just posted a comment. The last word in that should read ‘all’ and not ‘well.’

  • Chitra

    Ramapriya, thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I always find it fascinating to read about the experiences of other Indian women around the world and in India – although your account troubles me. It seems so odd that a country trying to “modernise” (whatever that might mean) is still intent on maintaining societal structures that police people, and their bodies. Living in the diaspora, I certainly experience this – but moving away from my small community has allowed me a lot more freedom to express and be myself. I only hope that constant education will create the change we seek in our communities in India and elsewhere.

  • [...] Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan talks about the problems with living alone as a single woman in urban India. [...]

  • Meera

    Yeah, our society is still sticking to the old norms, but women like you are crusaders of a change. Slowly, people will learn to accept the fact that some women would love to stay single. I’m sure the reactions can sometimes be malicious. There was a woman lecturer in my college who chose to stay single. Whenever she criticized any male student, the other guys used to hush-hush that she was ‘frustrated’.

  • Hi Ramapriya. I’m late in adding my comments to the rest. For some reason this site is difficult to open. I really liked your post and identified with it very closely. Mine is what is termed as a ‘late marriage’ and until last year I was also single. I felt the same angst and anger at the subtle discriminati still single’. One even went so far as to say ‘I’m sorry’ won that I felt and probably did not deal with very well.

    The constant questions from friends and relatives ‘ why are you still single’when I said I was unmarried!!! I lived alone in Ahmedabad and remember one incident. I had shifted out of my old apartment and into a new one. One day I met a woman from the old apartment. We were only nodding acquaintences. She immediately asked me ‘ why didn’t you get married?!’ – I mean no hello how are you? Straight to the heart of the matter.

    I only know too well the ‘spinsters are frustrated’ refrain. I had a colleague who made the mistake of using these words in my presence. I gave him a piece of mind which I hope he will remember.

    I don’t understand this obsession with ‘settling down’. I mean-mud settles down! Sediments settle down. When are we going to start respecting personal choices of women (and men) who chose to stay single and leave well enough alone?

  • Jayalakshmi

    Pathetic mentality of middle class.

    Just ignore and march ahead. The world is for people like you. (thumbs up).

  • SG

    gud, u r able to do wat u want to. Somehow the article gives a feeling that all those who also independently chose to get married and have families made a bad choice.

  • Ramapriya

    SG,
    I am surprised that you got that ‘feeling.’ That was hardly the idea.

  • Rekha Goel

    I think it is everybody’s right to live a decent and meaningful life.It could be in a marriage or being single. In a marriage there can be all sorts of emotions, positive as well as negative. If negativity with hopelessness is there for too long, then it becomes unbearable. Being single may be fun but after some years one might want to have companionship.

  • [...] human rights lawyer Oishik Sircar, Anthropologist Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, Madras High court lawyer Ramapriya Gopalakrishnan and foreign journalist Martin Lehmann-Waldau to name a few. But it also encourages general readers [...]

  • Mary Efremedis

    I was married to the love of my life, who, unexpectedly passed away 10 years ago. We dated for five years, got married and he unexpectedly passed away 3-1/2 months later. I was 29 at the time and my late husband was 31. Needless to say, dating over the past 10 years has had it’s ups and downs. As much as I would like to meet another special someone and engage in a meaningful relationship, I am grateful that I can also accept the possibility of this not happening again in this lifetime. Yes, people tell me that I am being too picky, that I should go on the internet to meet someone and to stop comparing potential dates to my late husband. It seems like others are sometimes more eager for me to find a special guy again than me. When I think of this, it kind of baffles me. I guess with the passing of time, I’ve learned to accept certain things in my life whether I like them or not. I sometimes think that others believe that life is incomplete without a special someone in it. Well, I’m an old fashioned woman who believes in fate. Because of this, I strongly believe that if there is another special man out there for me, I’ll meet him without having to do all this work like looking for him on the internet. I don’t say this to discourage any single woman from using the internet to find their soul mate; it’s just a personal belief. There are just some things I prefer to leave in the hands of my higher power. So for today, I’m just going to trust in the process, even though it may be super slow, and try to live a happy, peaceful, content and satisfying life to the best of my ability as a single woman. I hope you all do the same and remember that we’re all special/with or without a man in our lives. By the way, I am not an Indian woman. But, I found your site to be interesting.

  • arvind

    in a sense, the questions are not unwarranted (though the gossip is).

    If you truly don’t feel the need for companionship and intimacy – and sex is the most intimate one can get – then you really aren’t normal. Understand, I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just that most people feel an almost permanent ache for companionship and intimacy – myself included, even though I’m more introverted than most. It’s just that your standard for happiness differs from most.

    If you’re denying you’re need for a man (or a woman if you swing that way) (even feminists marry occasionally) then that self-denial may not be the healthiest thing. You’d best find some way to salve that need for intimacy.

    But If you really don’t have that need, and enjoy more solitary pleasures, then good for you, just enjoy you’re life the you know and be happy.
    As for the gossip – they say the best revenge is living well.

  • just an observation

    @ Ramapriya: Made for an interesting read! Kudos to you and many many other brave women!

    @ Arvind: please define normal

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