Indian girls are raised to be wives and mothers. Their most important life goal is marriage.
A large number of women, however, are choosing to remain single in order to chart an independent and solo path.
I was invited to a luncheon gathering of twenty-six women at a Caribbean Lounge in South Delhi on Sunday. The room was full of laughter and enthusiastic chatter.
They were all members in good standing of Status Single, an Indian Facebook community for urban single women.
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu was the author and founder the community. She said, “Let’s stop describing ourselves in terms of widows, divorcees, or unmarried.” “Let us just be proudly single,”
The women cheered and clapped.
A lot of stigma surrounds singlehood in a country often described as being “obsessed by marriage”.
Rural India is a place where single women are seen as a burden to their families. Many widows are forced to flee to holy places like Varanasi or Vrindavan.
There is a big difference between Ms Kundu, and the women I meet at the Delhi pub. These women come mostly from middle-class backgrounds and include doctors, lawyers professionals, journalists, activists, writers, writers, and lawyers. Some are widowed or separated, while others have never been married.
It’s becoming more common for wealthy urban single women to be seen as an economic opportunity. Banks, jewellery manufacturers, consumer goods firms, and travel agencies are wooing them.
In popular culture, single women are increasingly represented. Bollywood films Queen and Piku as well as web shows Four More Shots Please featuring single female characters have had a successful commercial run.
The Supreme Court’s October ruling that all women, even those who are not married, have equal rights to abortion was celebrated by the court as an acknowledgment of single women’s rights.
Despite these changes, society’s attitudes continue to be rigid. According to Ms Kundu, being single, even for the most affluent, isn’t easy and they are judged constantly.
“As a single woman, I’ve been subject to discrimination and humiliation. As I was searching for an apartment to rent in Mumbai, members from a housing society asked me questions such as, “Do you drink?” Are you sexually active?”
She’s known gynaecologists she’d rather not have met, and when her mother posted an ad to an elite matrimonial website on her behalf, a man asked her “within fifteen minutes if I were a virgin.”
She says, “Apparently it’s an question single women ask regularly.”
However, single shame isn’t an option in a country with 71.4million single women, as per the 2011 Census – a figure that is larger than either the whole population of France or Britain.
This represented a 39% increase over the 51.2 million recorded in 2001. The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the 2021 Census. However, Ms Kundu states that our numbers would have surpassed 100 million by now.
One reason for the increase is the rising age of marriage in India. This means that there are more single women in their 20s and 30s. This is due to the longer life expectancy of women than men.
Ms Kundu claims that she sees “many more single women” now, not because of circumstances. It’s this “changing face” of singlehood that’s important to recognize.
“I’ve met many women who claim they’re single because they don’t want to marry. It’s an institution that’s unfair to women and oppressive, which I have encountered.”
Her focus is on single women because of the discrimination her mother faced at 29 when she was widowed.
“Growing up, my father saw how a woman who was not accompanied by a male was marginalised in the patriarchal and misogynistic society. At baby showers, she was never welcome. And at a cousin’s marriage, she was warned to avoid the bride’s shadow as it is considered inauspicious.
When her mother, aged 44, fell in love with her and remarried, she once again attracted the “ire” of society – “How dare she not be the sad, weeping asexualised, pleasureless widow that she is supposed to be?” “How dare she give her agency back?”
According to her, humiliation by her mother had a profound influence on her.
“I grew up wanting to be married. I believed in the fairy tale of marriage bringing acceptance and removing all my darkness.
But Ms Kundu, who was in two bad relationships and came within one hair of getting married at 26 years old, realized that the traditional marriage where a woman must be subservient and submit to a husband wasn’t for them.
According to her, the ideal relationship is one that doesn’t rely on culture, religion, or community but instead is based upon respect, accessibility, acknowledgement, and agreement.
It’s a reasonable question and one with which many single women I met on Sunday had agreed.
India is still a patriarchal country, with more than 90% marriages arranged by the family. Women are not allowed to choose who they marry or even if they wish to marry.
Bhawana Diya, a 44 year-old life coach from Gurugram, Gurgaon, near Delhi, believes that things are changing. The growing number of single women in Gurugram is reason to celebrate.
She said, “We may be a drop in an ocean, but at the very least we’re a drop now.”
“The more examples of single women, the better. In the past, conversations were dominated by the husband’s career and plans. Women’s choices are not being considered.
“We are making a dent on the universe.”