Debbie Paul has been called headstrong, stubborn and selfish for not having a husband, but the 47-year-old development professional, who lives alone in New Delhi, is among a growing demographic in modern-day India: women over 30 who choose to be single, despite societal expectations.There are more single women in India today than at any time in recorded history, with widows, divorcees, the never-married and the abandoned accounting for an estimated 21 per cent of the country’s female population.
At the turn of the century there were only about 51 million unattached women in the entire country, according to census data from 2001, but this number increased by almost 40 per cent over the ensuing decade to reach 71.4 million in 2011’s census.
Single women have more freedom to get an education, pursue their careers and live life on their own terms – free of the family pressures and subservience that so often accompany married life for women in India.
They also avoid being trapped in abusive marriages or becoming victims of domestic violence, but observers say the growing number of singletons does not necessarily equate to an increase in female empowerment.
Indian society is still largely rooted in patriarchy and gender inequality, with single women often stereotyped as choosy, morally loose or headstrong, according to Patricia Uberoi, a Delhi-based sociologist.
“The idea remains that a single woman unaccompanied by a male [relative or spouse] poses a risk to herself, to family honour and to society at large,” she said. “Though many women now and in the past have broken the stereotype, they have done so at their own risk.”
reemoyee Piu Kundu, a columnist on gender and author of Status Single: The Truth about Being a Single Woman in India, said many of the close to 3,000 women she spoke to for her book regularly faced prejudice and social exclusion in their daily lives.
“Some of the women who had agreed to be interviewed pulled out at the edit stage of the book because of the fear of families finding out their true feelings, [while] others wanted to not have their identities revealed. What I found is that women were not really proud of being single,” she said.
“Singlehood is also about loneliness, mental health, the reality of being denied housing or a bank loan or the right to have an abortion, which is why I decided to write the book.”
On her YouTube channel, Kundu regularly highlights the stories of successful single women such as social scientist and activist Kamla Bhasin and Sreela Das Gupta, diversity and inclusion lead at Tata Consultancy Services. But many Indian women, if they do choose to marry, find themselves having to fill very different roles.
“Most men I have met want a mummy substitute, a punching bag or a trophy girlfriend,” said Preeti Zachariah, a 34-year-old Chennai based educator and writer. “I want a highly evolved, supportive, kind partner and haven’t met him yet. I have a wonderful circle of women friends and the older I get, frankly, that becomes more important than a romantic relationship.”
Because marriage is often thought of as a safety net for women in India, those who are single frequently have to contend with relatives, friends and even neighbours who imagine themselves matchmakers.
People “cannot accept being single is a genuine choice”, said one Bangalore-based doctor who asked not to be named. “[They] want to find out if I have commitment phobia or someone broke my heart in the past.”
Renu Addlakha, a professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies research and advocacy institution in Delhi, said the desire for “education, employment and freedom” was leading many Indian women to “push the age of marriage beyond their 20s”.
“With the break up of family networks and traditional matchmakers, the job of finding a partner falls on the women themselves,” she said. “Most Indian women want it all and, not finding it, decide to remain single rather than compromise.
Yet as journalist Kalpana Sharma – who edited an anthology of 13 essays by single women titled Single By Choice: Happily Unmarried Women! – pointed out: “Indian culture expects all women to be married by a certain age”.
“So if you are single, you are viewed either as an object of pity, or as stubborn and difficult. Rarely is a woman who chooses to remain single accepted as someone capable of making such a conscious choice,” she said, adding that the one thing that “stood out” about the women featured in the anthology was “the fact that all of them had supportive parents who encouraged them”.
Even in India’s most cosmopolitan cities, single women have it tough – facing harassment from men who assume they are sexually promiscuous, and discrimination from prospective employers, landlords and the like. Yet life is even harder in rural areas, where single women “have to constantly battle societal prejudices and fight for survival”, according to activist group the National Forum For Single Women’s Rights.
Joanna Lobo, a 34-year-old journalist, has experienced both sides of the coin, having moved to Mumbai from Goa when she was 18. She said it was easier to be single in the big city, but she was still a “little cynical” about finding a “soulmate”.
“In reality, marriage – at least in India – is all about compromise and adjustment and loss of identity for women,” she said.
A rule change in 2017 made it easier for single women over the age of 40 in India to adopt by fast-tracking their applications. Previously, even rich and famous single women had struggled with adoption – actress and model Sushmita Sen, 44, had to wait two years before the courts allowed her to adopt her first daughter Renee in 2000.
Moves such as this show that “Indian society is generally more accepting of single women than before,” said Addlakha, the professor, “but women pushing boundaries and challenging patriarchal stereotypes has also set off increasing violence against women”.
According to the latest available figures from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, reports of crimes against women increased 83 per cent from 185,312 in 2007 to 338,954 in 2016. Reported rape cases, meanwhile, increased 88 per cent from 20,737 to 38,947 over the same period.
Courtesy – SCMP