Published21 hours ago
In India, girls have traditionally been raised to be good wives and mothers and the most important life goal for them has been marriage.
But a large number of women are now charting their independent solitary path by choosing to remain single.
On Sunday, I attended a lunch gathering of two dozen women at a Caribbean lounge in south Delhi. The room was filled with excited chatter and laughter.
The women were all members of Status Single – a Facebook community for urban single women in India.
“Let’s stop describing ourselves as widows, divorcees or unmarried,” Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, author and founder of the community, told the gathering. “Let’s just call ourselves proudly single.”
The women clapped and cheered.
In a country that’s often described as being “obsessed with marriage”, a lot of stigma still surrounds singlehood.
In rural India, single women are often seen as a burden by their families – the never married have little agency and thousands of widows are banished to holy towns such as Vrindavan and Varanasi.
Ms Kundu and the women in the Delhi pub I meet are different. Mostly from middle class backgrounds, they include teachers, doctors, lawyers, professionals, entrepreneurs, activists, writers and journalists. Some are separated or divorced or widowed, others never married.
The wealthy urban single women are increasingly being recognised as an economic opportunity – they’re wooed by banks, jewellery makers, consumer goods companies and travel agencies.
Single women are also finding representation in popular culture – Bollywood films such as Queen and Piku and web shows such as Four More Shots Please with single female protagonists have done commercially well.
And in October, the Supreme Court ruling that all women, including those not married, had equal rights to abortion was hailed as a recognition of single women’s rights by the top court.
But despite these welcome changes, society’s attitudes remain rigid and, as Ms Kundu says, being single is not easy even for the affluent and they are judged all the time too.
“I’ve faced discrimination and humiliation as a single woman. When I was looking to rent an apartment in Mumbai, members of a housing society asked me questions like, Do you drink? Are you sexually active?”
She’s met gynaecologists who’ve been like “nosy neighbours” and a few years ago when her mother put an ad on an elite matrimonial site on her behalf, she met a man who asked her “within the first 15 minutes if I was a virgin”?
“Apparently it’s a question single women are routinely asked,” she adds.
But single shaming doesn’t make sense in a country which, according to the 2011 Census, is home to 71.4 million single women – a number larger than the entire populations of Britain or France.
This was a 39% increase – from 51.2 million in 2001. The 2021 Census has been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Ms Kundu says that by now, “our numbers would have crossed 100 million”.
Some of the increase can be explained by the fact that the age of marriage has risen in India – which means a larger number of single women in their late teens or early 20s. The numbers also include a large number of widows, attributed to the fact that women tend to live longer than men.
But, Ms Kundu says, she’s seeing “many more women now who are single by choice, not just by circumstances” and it’s this “changing face of singlehood” that’s important to acknowledge.
“I meet a lot of women who say they are single by choice, they reject the notion of marriage because it’s a patriarchal institution that’s unjust to women and used to oppress them.”
Her focus on single women is rooted in the discrimination her mother – widowed at 29 – faced.
“Growing up, I saw how a woman, unaccompanied by a man, was marginalised in our patriarchal, misogynistic set-up. She was unwelcome at baby showers and at a cousin’s wedding, she was told to stay away from the bride since even a widow’s shadow is considered inauspicious.”
At the age of 44, when her mother fell in love and remarried, she again attracted the “ire of society” – “How dare a widow not be the sad, weeping, asexualised, pleasureless woman that she’s supposed to be? How dare she have agency again?”
Her mother’s humiliation, she says, had a profound impact on her.
“I grew up desperately wanting to get married. I believed in the fairy tale that marriage will bring acceptance and take away all my darkness.”
But after two failed relationships which were abusive – physically and emotionally – and coming within a hair’s breadth of getting married at 26, Ms Kundu says she realised that the traditional marriage where a woman is meant to be subservient to a man wasn’t for her.
Her ideal relationship, she says, is one that’s not rooted in culture, religion or community but is based on “respect, accessibility and acknowledgement”.
It’s a reasonable ask and an idea many single women I met on Sunday agreed with.
But India remains a largely patriarchal society where more than 90% of marriages are arranged by family and women have little say in who they marry – leave alone whether they want to marry at all.
But Bhawana Dahiya, a 44-year-old life coach from Gurugram (Gurgaon) near Delhi who’s never been married, points out that things are changing and the growing numbers of single women is a cause for celebration.
“We might be a drop in the ocean, but at least there’s a drop now,” she says.
“The more examples we have of women being single, the better it is. Traditionally, all conversations were about the husband’s career, his plans, the children’s school, with little thought given to a woman’s choices, but those conversations are now changing.
“We are making a dent in the universe.”
Read more India stories from the BBC:
- The good people helping laid off Indians in US
- Priyanka Chopra: ‘I’d earn 10% of my male co-actor’s salary’
- Race against time to save India boy stuck in well
- Indian men convicted for rape of Latvian tourist
- Why 1,000 crocodiles are being relocated in India
- The school dropout who became Asia’s richest man