Girls in India have been taught to be mothers and wives. The most important goal in life for them is marriage.
However, a lot of women choose to be single and chart their own independent path.
Two dozen women gathered at a Caribbean lounge south Delhi for a Sunday lunch. There was much laughter and excited chatter in the room.
All the women were members of Status Single, a Facebook group for single urban women in India.
Sreemoyee Piu Kundu (author and founder of the community) said to the gathering, “Let’s not refer ourselves as widows, divorcées, or unmarried.” Let’s be proud to be single.
The women cheered and clapped.
Singlehood is still stigmatized in a country that is often described as “obsessed” with marriage.
Single women in rural India are often considered a burden by their family. The never-married have little agency, and thousands of widows are exiled to holy towns like Varanasi and Vrindavan.
The women I meet in Delhi’s pub with Ms Kundu are very different from the ones I met. They are mostly middle-class and come from a variety of backgrounds including doctors, lawyers, professionals as well as teachers, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, activists and writers. Some are divorced, widowed, or separated. Others never married.
Wealthy urban single women are becoming increasingly recognized as an economic opportunity. They’re being wooed and marketed by banks, jewelers, consumer goods companies, and travel agencies.
A growing number of single women are being represented in popular culture. Bollywood films like Queen and Piku, and web shows like Four More Shots Please that feature single female protagonists, have been commercially successful.
In October, the Supreme Court ruled that all women had equal rights to abortifacition. This was seen as recognition of single womens’ rights by the highest court.
Despite these positive changes, society’s attitudes are still rigid. Ms Kundu said that being single is difficult even for the wealthy and that they are constantly judged.
“I have been humiliated and discriminated against as a single woman. Members of a Mumbai housing society asked me questions when I was trying to rent an apartment. Is your sexual activity active?
She’s had the pleasure of meeting gynaecologists that have been “nosy neighbours”. A few years back, when her mother placed an ad on a matrimonial site for elite women, she met a man who asked “within 15 minutes” if she was a virgin.
She adds that “apparently it’s something single women routinely ask.”
Single shaming is not an acceptable way to go in a country that, according to the 2011 Census has 71.4 million single females – more than any other country.
This 39% increase was from 51.2million in 2001. Ms Kundu claims that the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the 2021 Census, but she says that “our numbers would have passed 100 million by now”.
The increase in marriage rates in India can partly explain the rise in single women in their twenties and twenties. A large number of widows are also included in these numbers, which is due to the fact women live longer than men.
Ms Kundu said that she is now seeing more single women, and not only by circumstance, and it is this “changing face” of singlehood that is important to acknowledge.
“I have met a lot women who are single out of choice. They reject the idea of marriage as a patriarchal institution that is unjust and oppressive to women.
Her focus on single women stems from the discrimination that her mother, a widow at 29, faced.
Growing up, I witnessed how a woman without a man was marginalised in our patriarchal, misogynistic system. At baby showers, she was not welcome and was asked to leave the wedding of a cousin. A widow’s shadow was considered unlucky.
She was 44 when her mother got married and she fell in love with another man. She is a sham.
She says that humiliation at the hands of her mother had a profound effect on her.
“I was born wanting to marry. I believed that marriage would bring me acceptance and remove all my dark thoughts.
After two abusive relationships that were both physical and emotional, Ms Kundu realized that traditional marriages where a woman is expected to subordinate to a man weren’t right for her.
She says that her ideal relationship is one that is not rooted in religion, culture, or community, but is built on respect, accessibility, and acknowledgment.
This is a reasonable request and one that many single women who met me on Sunday were comfortable with.
India is still a patriarchal society. More than 90% of marriages in India are arranged by families. Women have very little control over who they marry, let alone whether or not they want to get married.
Bhawana Dhiya (44-year-old life coach) from Gurugram (Gurgaon), near Delhi, says that things are changing. She points out that the increasing number of single women is something to celebrate.
She says, “We might not be the most important thing in the ocean but we are at least one drop now.”
“The more we see women single, the better it will be. Traditional conversations revolved around the husband’s plans and career. Little thought was given to the wife’s choices. But, that is changing.
“We are making an impact on the universe.”