Stories from the 1% in India: Women Who Stay Single for Life

What is it like to stay single for life in a place where 99% of the people get married?

In many places around the world, staying single for life is becoming more commonplace. In Australia and New Zealand, for example, as of 2010, 14% of women – 1 out of every 7 – got to their late forties without ever marrying. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it was 13%, and in Europe and North America, around 11%.

In central and southern Asia, though – including places such as India, Iran, and Afghanistan –that number is just 1%. Marriage is nearly universal.

The differences among different regions of the world are not just demographic. There are also enormous cultural differences between, say, India and the United States.

Writings about single life are overwhelmingly based on Western nations – particularly the writings that get attention in those nations. But the experience of living single can be strikingly different in different places. That’s one of the reasons why voices from all around the globe are so very important.

In Single by Choice: Happily Unmarried Women, edited by Kalpana Sharma, 13 happily single women in India describe their experiences. They have very different backgrounds and life stories, so each essay offers a unique contribution to our understanding of what it means to be a woman who stays single in India.

The most sobering story, to me, was the one told by Bama, a celebrated Dalit author. (Dalits are members of a stigmatized caste; they used to be referred to as “untouchables.”) Bama got a good education and considered herself lucky to have done so when so many others did not. Her motivation for staying single was this:

“I wanted that the new social consciousness and knowledge that my education gave me, benefit my people, too. If I got married, I would be forced to confine myself to the narrow circle of my child, husband and family and be of no use to my people.”

It took “much struggle and great difficulty,” but Bama did become a teacher. The challenges of living her life as a single woman were daunting. Even the most basic components of a safe and secure life were hard to attain.

Finding a place to live was difficult and painful.

“As I was an unmarried woman and a Dalit,” Bama said, “nobody would rent me a house. Finally I managed to get a small room in the house of a Dalit couple who subjected me to indescribable humiliation and restrictions.”

When she was ordered to vacate immediately, and given no reason, she decided to take on the “huge challenge” of building a small home of her own. She succeeded, but her accomplishment was met with hostility. People around her openly made comments such as “She is wasting her money building this house just for a single person…she should get married; otherwise she will be sitting in her empty house like a lonely owl.”

She was asked to work at remote and dangerous places.

As a teacher of small children, it was Bama’s duty to stay until every child had been picked up by their parents. She was also expected to stay until the end of school functions that sometimes continued late into the night. Getting home could entail a walk of several miles along dark and dangerous roads. Yet school officials wanted to assign her to work at a remote village school, “saying that it would be difficult for a married woman teacher to get to school on time. Since I had no family responsibilities, I could make it.”

When she needed surgery, she was ridiculed and did not get much help from others afterwards.

After Bama had a hysterectomy to have fibroids removed, a woman who came to visit her at her home insisted that she remove the clothes covering her abdomen and show her surgical scar. When Bama refused to do so, the woman reinforced the rumor in the village that Bama had had an abortion, not a hysterectomy.

After other surgeries, Bama occasionally had help from a friend or a sibling. Sometimes, though, she was left to fend for herself.

Sexual harassment was relentless.

The threat of sexual harassment was an ongoing issue for Bama, requiring “constant vigilance” and resulting in “continuous apprehension.” She noted that married women are often sexually harassed, too.

Other people jeopardized her safety.

Bama is careful about telling others that she lives alone, because “such information puts my safety in jeopardy.” Yet other people sometimes volunteered that information, for no good reason.

Despite all the obstacles Bama faced, and the hardships she acknowledges, Bama embraces single life and explains why she finds it so fulfilling. Some examples:

  • “I liked being myself; I didn’t want to lose my self, my being, my freedom and identity, for anyone.”
  • “My single womanhood has helped me tremendously to be a duty conscious, responsible and devoted teacher…I looked upon all my students as my own children and cared for their well-being.”
  • “I live a life that gives me full control over my body, sexuality and feelings.”
  • “I have a small lovely nest of a home where I can freely single, dance, laugh or weep.”
  • “Another blessing this life has given me is the possibility of, and the opportunity to, live in harmony with nature. I wake up to the chirping of sparrows and the soulful sound of the cuckoo…”
  • “I feel proud of…my life alone…I think of it as a life well lived. I hold my head high because there is an undercurrent, a silent river of joy, beneath all the negativities of life, and because I have kept my self-hood and identity.”
  • “…it has been an immensely meaningful and satisfying life.”

I, too, think of my single life as immensely meaningful and satisfying. Would I feel the same way if I faced the same harsh circumstances in my life that Bama has in hers? I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. In any case, I am inspired by her.

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