It was just before spring, in the winter of 2012, I heard Anu Verma speak for the first time in our all women gender class at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton. I had seen her severally and for most times, I admired her because just like me, she mostly adorned her traditional attire, the Indian Salwar kameez in cold England. Over time, she became even more remarkable; her passion for single women issues shined through her questions and contributions in our small group sessions. I appreciate Anu Verma, I think she is pretty and brave but I was very weary of her arguments which presented Single Women as a relevant category for marginalized persons. I was weary because I wondered if the experiences of being a single woman could be conceptualized as marginalization.
Being in my early 30’s, I have been single for quite a while. In my part of the world, this status certainly comes with more unpleasant than pleasant experiences. On the pleasant side, my status has opened unique doors of life to me and strengthened my individuality. But there are loses too. On the altar of marriages, many valuable relationships are slaughtered; I have lost the individuality of my friends to marriage. I feel strategically isolated by married friends who litter their conversations with stories of their husband and sometimes children but rarely of themselves. For comic tickles, our girlfriends when engaged like to display their trophy rings to spite, at the cost of seeming disabled in one hand 🙂 . Over time one becomes a sex prey for married men, and ego booster for single men. As a single woman, I tread carefully, walking on eggshell amongst married colleagues lest I get personal and excite their partners negatively. Pressure from family and friends can be stifling; I am reminded that a lonely old age is staring me in the face. To make it worse, the social identity constructions of a single woman lacks dignity; she is either a whore or unlucky in love. All my other achievements crumble like cookies every time I hit the speed bump question; are you married, why are you single, when is he coming forth…?
All of these experiences though psychosocially disturbing and indeed destabilizing could not justify my being a voice for single women as my friend Anu Verma. I often wondered if other single women had similar experiences. Will they be unashamed to openly identify with these experiences, or be willing to hold extended discussions on these phenomena? I have been unable to write or identify with Anu’s cause because I felt this issue will be easily derided as idiocies.
Despite all, I have been a happy nullipara, never-married single woman, who is not ashamed to flaunt this status and the dividends therein. Between heartbreaks, pressure, ridicule, distress and the pain we humans feel, there is a moment of rupture. Amid my fractured lines of rupture, are busted marriage myths that has liberated and strengthened me from living under this marriage pressure that always hanged like a heavy mist over our lives. But such freedom and happiness do not go unchallenged. Indeed my confidence in my status was challenged when my right to shelter was severally denied, not because I had no money, but because I was single and not married. All these years, being single seemed like a social problem that has no name, but my inability to rent a house in Ibadan (a Semi-Urban town in Nigeria) gave it a name; Marginalized! In that moment of discrimination, I realized that Anu had a case and I was willing to research more on other people’s experiences.
My search led me to many extensive works done by a fantastic woman, Jill Reynolds (RIP). Her book ‘The Single Woman, A discursive investigation’ contributes to the understanding and experiences of the stigma attached to the Single Woman Identity. Learning from social diversity, the experience of being single differs and has critical intersections of gender, culture, religion amongst others. For single women in the developed world, it might mean being a wo-man without man, living a man free life, suffering social drought and having less sex. But for women in developing countries like India, Pakistan and others, it means a denial of basic human right and a threat to survival.
There are no United Nation’s Conventions on this issue, but there are interests expressed by groups and individuals. With the support of Action Aid Gujarat, Anu’s research paper also made a strong case for India’s Dalit Single women. Titled We are told we have rights…but where are they! , this research chronicles a reflection on the life threatening experiences of exploitation, hardship, chronic poverty, lack of education and livelihood opportunities for these women as life with dignity becomes their major struggle. Their threatened well-being, loneliness, shame and vulnerability reminds us of the need to make them an agenda in literature.
Situating Dalit women in Manusmriti system (a prescribed code of conducts for Hindus), some disturbing verses were quoted;
‘By a girl, by a woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house… her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence’ (Manusmriti V.174 & X.3)
The quote captures the tough patriarchal society these women are up against. The normalization of this perpetuates the continued isolation of this category of Dalit Women to the margins of social structures for the sin of being unwed women. Collective action enacted in the Dalit Single women group/Sangathans is helping. In India, they now have 7 states/provinces with more than 80,000 single women association striving for social change with their own movement.
My scope of enquiry was extended to literary fiction. How have writers presented the single woman character in their work? Are writers reinforcing the stereotypes or challenging it? Can I clearly find a single woman character in literature who is admirably happy, and whose source of unhappiness is anything else but a man, marriage or children? This was a challenge as I suffered a dearth in the severe drought of such characterization. The plots of many literary works focus on single women’s struggle to find lasting love, or manage love and its heartaches. Their lives are woven around men, clinging on the happily ever after myth that begins with being the woman in white, ending with them finding love or beginning a new life after being unlucky in love.
Unlike their western counterparts, African women writers, though very militant with their feminist writings, also align with the above plots as seen in our review of the models of femininity in Africa’s popular fiction. Marylyn French, a renowned feminist whom I admire, authored her novel ‘In the Women’s Room’ in 1977. It was described as an influential novel of the modern day feminist movement. Yet, the major character Mira Ward is a conventional and submissive young woman in a traditional marriage; we are entertained by her divorce and gradual feminist awakening. The story of Mira and many others may be captured in the voice of ‘Amaka’ in ‘One is Enough’ by Flora Nwapa:
‘… I don’t want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife. There is something in that word that does not suit me. As a wife, am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife, am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul… I don’t want to go back to my ‘wifely’ days. No, I am through with husbands.’
But the question that the character Nnu ego in ‘The Joys of Motherhood’ by Buchi Emecheta asked God is the same question I am asking writers. She said;
“God, when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?” she prayed desperately. “After all, I was born alone, and I shall die alone.”
Why do writers of popular fiction invalidate happy single women characters? Is it a tale sign that books with such characters will be unaccepted or perhaps make poor sales? Considering the role of writers in influencing development, it is disillusion and myopic to promote false dichotomy. As children and teenagers, we had no one model of a happy single woman in the press, media or even in our school books. We have all been educated to become the woman in white and just marry, but the reality of our present day lives contradicts these models.
According to Eric Klinenberg’s ‘Going Solo’, there are more single people today than anyone could think. In fact, being single is the world’s biggest social change in the last 50years. This is true with huge possibility of being a continuing trend in the coming years. The alterations of lives and social impact this will have in future are unimaginable.
Let us remove the covers and blinders that are obscuring reality; there are lots of people out here who by choice are single, living fulfilled lives with no plans for marriage. We must acknowledge that we are first a person, before anything else. Not everyone will be married and if we are to marry, life’s trajectories are different, so are the ravages. Many will be single for longer than others. No one is married all their lives, hence there is a time to be single. How can a society ensure the psychosocial well-being of persons living single either as a phase or permanently? How are we protecting the human rights of those whom marriage does not fit their lives? How do we as individuals hold them in honour and give them a better worth?
If I smell your thoughts, my writings may stink of anti-marriage views, I am not anti-marriage; I detest social conventions which do not appreciate that life’s trajectories are different for each one. While I agree marriage can be good, the over-privileging of marriage and long-term partnerships in our society contributes to the marginalization of persons like the Dalit Single Women, among others as Anu’s research and other literature captures.
I am by choice, a happy single woman who continues to negotiate her identity, refusing to allow society inject shame into her. I now understand the challenges of people like myself, but again because of my education, I feel the responsibility of my privileges compared to the Dalit Single Women. Thus, through this writing, I wish to validate the Dalit Single women. I am saying they are not outsiders, they too belong here. Life is not an unaccompanied journey because you are single, you do not travel alone, I am with you.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye