At the seminar organized by ShethePeople TV, the women are swapping tales about their successful start-ups—the struggles to get investment, find acceptance and assert their voice.
Then, one of them says something that unsettles me: “Be wise in your choice of whom you marry. He—and his family—will determine the success of your career.”
I’m startled because surely this is 2017 and we’ve moved beyond the whole marriage-completes-women dialogue; surely these amazing start-uppers are smashing stereotypes; surely nobody at a women’s dialogue will suggest that marriage remains an inevitable life goal and success or failure at work depends on the choice of a husband (wives, of course, are expected to fall in line).
Then, the shock wears off and I realize that her advice is practical, in good faith and in line with Indian social reality, yes, even in 2017.
Yet, despite the centrality of marriage to our lives, 74.1 million single women in India—never married, divorced, separated, widowed—comprise nearly 12% of our female population. It’s a demographic that is rapidly expanding: Between 2001 and 2011, there was a 39% increase in the number of single women, according to Census data.
Women are marrying later, marriages are breaking up faster and we now have the largest population of single women in the history of our country.
The lives and experiences of single women vary dramatically depending on their socioeconomic status and where they live. For instance, widows and abandoned wives in rural India might be labelled as dayans (witches). In urban India, unmarried women could be seen as fast and loose. What is common, however, is social ostracization.
“There is an attitude that a woman is incomplete without marriage,” says 44-year-old Binita Parikh, an independent communications professional based in Ahmedabad. “The fact that I can be single, successful and happy is just not acceptable. People feel that there must be something wrong with me because I’m not married.”
Parikh, who has never married, is writing a book on being a single woman in India. In response to a survey she sent out as a part of her research, nearly all 400 respondents spoke about stigma, she says. Single women can be denied rental accommodation or refused membership in clubs on grounds that they are single and, therefore, of questionable character and would “lure” men, she says.
There are other problems. Financial security, for instance, perhaps the most visible manifestation of which are the abandoned widows at Vrindavan.
Women who are deserted, separated or divorced very often find themselves back at their parental home at the mercy of fathers and brothers.
When they ask for their rights, maintenance or inheritance, they are labelled as quarrelsome troublemakers.
Sexual harassment, faced by all women, is magnified because she is seen bereft of a “protector”. And, of course, everybody thinks it’s their birthright to ask single women what they do for sex—or to use a euphemism, their “natural urges”. “Nobody seems to ask married women about their sex lives,” says Parikh wryly.
Meanwhile, India’s single women are finding, and fighting for, their own solutions. At the national level, the National Forum for Single Women’s Rights has representation from 10 states and one Union territory and advocates with the central government for policy and legislative change.
The oldest organization for single women, the Rajasthan-based, 55,530-member Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan founded by Ginny Shrivastava in January 2000, helps women access government entitlements, creates awareness about legal rights to land and property and advocates for changes in cruel caste and community customs.
But, most crucially, says Shrivastava, “It helps women get organized to solve their own problems.”
The women meet every month, says Shrivastava. The change is slow, but steadily they begin to not only assert their own rights but mobilize other single women in demanding their rights too.
In May last year, the government’s draft national policy on women recognized for the first time single women as independent entities.
It talks of creating a “comprehensive social protection mechanism” for them. Shrivastava says she would have preferred the use of “empowerment” to “protection”.
Still, it’s a start. In the US, where there are now more unmarried than married women, single women are shifting politics and culture, writes Rebecca Traister in All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. In India, we’re still a long way off from that influence.
But don’t count on things remaining the same indefinitely.
Namita Bhandare writes on social and gender issues.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare.