Intersections: Life Without Marriage: Actualities of Unmarried Women in Delhi
Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 22, October 2009

Life Without Marriage:
Actualities of Unmarried Women in Delhi

Tanya Caulfield

  1. The emergence of single women is a gradual but increasing actuality in many middle-class, urban societies in contemporary India. Despite the existence of single female modes of being, in the past and the more recent history of India, it is within the modern context that different female identities and lived experiences are acknowledged and begin to transpire. Through the processes of modernity and the partial integration of tradition with these processes, many women now seriously consider a life without marriage viable. Single women in Delhi are an emerging social phenomenon despite traditional concepts of appropriate womanhood and the prevailing familial and social expectations for women to marry. Although social perceptions of single women still generally regard unmarried women as abnormal and ill-fated, single women are beginning to shape and negotiate their ways of being in contemporary Indian societies.
  2. The actuality of single women in India is not a modern occurrence; there has been a long tradition of women remaining single by choice and/or circumstance.[1] Yet it is within the range of contexts created by processes of modernity that women are beginning to redefine their individual circumstances, allowing them to remain unmarried. Women’s lived experiences and identities are multiple and complex and, therefore, it is necessary to recognise, evaluate and explain the differences between women in order to highlight that not all women marry in India. Despite the dominant ideologies that shape women’s life trajectories towards marriage, this article considers the reasons why some women may want to remain unmarried. Based on single women’s interview-responses, I examine the ways in which single women negotiate their social modes of being as modern middle-class women living in Delhi. The responses reveal a partial understanding of why women may deviate from the traditional path defined for women. These deviations highlight the multiplicities of women’s lived experiences and individual desires, as well as the actuality that women can, and do, lead positive and rewarding lives as single women in contemporary Delhi society.

    Research framework
  3. This research explores, from a contemporary internationalist feminist perspective,[2] the phenomenon of middle-class, single Indian women, focusing on Delhi as a case study. I argue that there are multiple female sexualities and modes of being yet these are rarely taken up within conventional Delhi society. It is accepted that women will follow established customs and social practices in ways that do not depart from tradition. Women who engage in varied sexual practices are considered different, deviant and/or ‘loose’ by society and are perceived as sexually dangerous, as are widows and sex workers. The social control of women’s sexuality contributes to women’s subordination. Established ideologies of appropriate womanhood limit women’s individual expressions of different female sexualities. Women who observe the codes of appropriate female behaviour are socially regarded as respectable and moral. However, women who do not conform to normative conceptualisations of Indian womanhood are constructed as abnormal. As single women are not defined in relation to a male guardian, they are socially situated outside acceptable forms of womanhood.
  4. While my research highlights how difficult it is to categorise, analyse and examine women’s expressions of different female sexualities and modes of being, because of ongoing life experiences that are reflected in the shifting of meanings within women’s responses and through informal conversations over an extended period, the research also demonstrates the potentiality for and of diverse kinds of female modes of being and for women’s ability to shape their lives in varied ways. Single women’s responses reflect and express a feminist reasoning of the multiplicity and complexities of being female in contemporary Indian societies. The women who shared their happy and sometimes traumatic lived experiences with me illustrated through our conversations that women’s modes of being are constantly adapting to familial pressures and social systems that are strongly geared towards marriage. The ways in which women respond to close family and broader social factors are persuasive constraints to the ability of many single women to shape their lives independently and autonomously.
  5. The limitations of my research may be seen to endorse a heteronormative view, since extra dimensions, such as, lesbianism have not been factored in this research. I recognised that lesbian women were an important part of the category of single women yet quite separate from just being single. While the subject of homosexuality did not arise in my discussions with women, one informant told me that some single women might remain unmarried as they identified with a non-heterosexual orientation. From my experience of initiating interviews with women who were unmarried, I understood that being single in India was socially perceived as abnormal and improper. From continually being told that all women marry I realised that I was researching a sensitive, yet emerging issue. The difficulties I encountered in trying to locate single women and the defensive approach of hostel wardens in defining their position on my research, whilst informing potential informants of the likely distress that such discussions with me could cause, reinforced social perceptions towards women who are not located within a heterosexual, familial context. While the single women with whom I spoke were independent and confident women and satisfied with their actual situations, it was the socio-economic milieu in which single women lived which constituted their being single as problematic. If being single was complicated, I realised being lesbian was even more difficult. For this reason, I did not speak with women about their sexual orientation, unless the women themselves raised the issue.
  6. Women’s accounts of their lived experiences expound the complexities and ambiguities of being single in India and the ways in which women’s identities are shaped and framed by the interweaving of traditional belief systems and contemporary modes of thought. My conversations with women emphasise the possibilities and limitations that women may perceive and experience in organising and living lives as single women in India. The responses given by my informants accentuate the possibilities of diverse female lived experiences, the variations of actual situations that may be manifest in established structural and cultural arrangements, and how women might construct their lives in the context of prevailing notions of femininity and pressures towards marriage.

    Setting the scene
  7. I conducted fieldwork in Delhi in 2002 and returned to follow up and complete my research in November 2003. I interviewed middle-class women aged between twenty-one and seventy years. The majority of my informants were Hindu, but I also spoke with women from Muslim, Christian, and Sikh communities. The majority of my informants were not of Delhi origin. Many women told me that they came to Delhi to complete their education or for work commitments. Delhi is considered a metro city which refers to its cosmopolitan and modern lifestyle. Although I was told by my informants that Delhi’s social attitudes towards women resembled broader patriarchal ideologies in India throughout, single women believed that it was easier to remain unmarried in Delhi as opposed to their natal home. Many women argued that they faced fewer problems as single women living in Delhi due to the relative anonymity and lack of gossip. Shohini[3] claimed ‘Delhi is a metro city so here I feel people are not bothered if you are single or not. It depends on what you are doing.’[4] Likewise, Gayatri said, ‘An unmarried woman is not considered good. However in Delhi it is not applicable as one is hardly bothered who is married and who is not. What matters here is the way she is able to cope with the society.’[5] Many of my informants argued that living in Delhi enabled them to escape family pressure to get married and the social gossip that being single generated. Living in Delhi offered my informants an easier lifestyle and greater life opportunities and although, as I soon discovered, social attitudes towards unmarried women were generally unfavourable, single women worked to negotiate their lives free from family constraints and social gossip. Nonetheless, their social beings were, by and large, shaped by the patriarchal structural constraints that limited women’s capacity to fully live in individual ways that were perceived as different and/or nonconforming. The lived experiences of single women reveal the complexities of being single through women’s multiple and diverse perceptions of what it means to be female in contemporary Indian societies. Single women’s responses to my queries demonstrate the ways in which women negotiate, manipulate and/or conform to normative ideologies and values of appropriate womanhood and the ways in which society responds to difference.
  8. I obtained data primarily through semi-structured interviews with my informants. My questions were open-ended which created an in-depth and expressive examination of my informants' understanding of their lived experiences. I interviewed women individually and, in most cases, spoke to the women only once. However, in some cases, an informant invited me to further informal meetings, such as for lunch or coffee. This often led to further discussions about particular issues, which may have been shaping their lives at the time. Apart from the informal meetings, all interviews took place in the hostels in which my informants lived.
  9. The majority of my informants lived in working women’s hostels run by government and independent organisations that were situated in inner-city locations and provided housing to women of all religious, caste and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many women told me that single women found it difficult to rent or purchase properties in Delhi; that property owners did not want to rent their properties to single women as unmarried women were suspected of indulging in unacceptable practices. My informants told me that as people would also talk or gossip about single women’s behaviour and the type of people they invited into their homes, their privacy in rented properties was limited. Sadly, buying a house or apartment was often not an option for many due to limited incomes and the increasing property prices in Delhi, so hostels were designed particularly for working women who were unmarried, widowed, divorced, and from other regional locations. The hostels offered reasonably-priced housing and provided a secure and comfortable environment in which women might maintain happy and friendly relationships with other women. My informants told me that hostels were safe spaces where like-minded women came together, and that the hostels gave them the freedom to live as single women in a society that restricts women’s socio-economic potential.
  10. Listening to my female informants’ responses, I became aware of the different experiences and outlooks of each woman. Whilst their differences shaped and framed the women’s lives, I also recognised that many of their responses encased thematic coherences that expressed similar desires and perceptions of their middle-class existences. Although the content of each woman’s response was specific to her social modes of being, I identified broader analogies and correlations with which women negotiated their single identities. Although each theme was expressed in a specific way by each individual woman, and not all themes were evident in shaping every woman’s mode of being, in many cases the themes continually overlapped and interrelated with each other. In order to unpack the ideas and lived experiences expressed in each theme, I examine each separately and, in so doing, work to provide a comprehensive analysis and complex portrayal of single women in Delhi.

    Women's Reasons for Being Single
  11. For many of my informants, a career was an important and necessary component of their lives. Women’s careers provided them with economic security, a social identity and the freedom to pursue an independent life. For many of the women, their careers were a significant factor which enabled them to negotiate their specific lifestyle choices. Despite the customary spaces marked out for women in socio-economic spheres, employment outside the home for many middle-class women is an actuality in contemporary Indian societies. More women are now entering the employment market due to changing perceptions regarding socially accepted norms that have established traditional female social positions and status.
  12. Many professional working women may be pressured by the conflict between the responsibilities and duties demanded by their families and the expectations of their employment. However, for my female research participants this conflict was often absent. They told me they were able to pursue personal activities and arrangements in ways that were regulated and negotiated by their own needs and desires. These Indian women believed their own personal goals and requirements were the priority in their lives. For example, Pritam, who was in her late forties, told me

      I would not be willing to give up my life and career as a teacher for an unhappy marriage where I would have to sacrifice my work due to household commitments. My work as a teacher allows me to enjoy many aspects of life, such as overseas travel, which may be unattainable for some married Indian women.[6]

  13. Pritam’s career shaped her social identity as a professional and conferred on her social status as an independent woman. Although the beginning of her career was hampered by her good looks and youthfulness, particularly when she was teaching in a school for boys, Pritam said ‘employers believed my looks may be problematic for myself and the boys, that is, relationships or interest from both sides may occur.’[7] Pritam told me that, due to her confidence and determination, she succeeded in achieving her career goal.
  14. For many Indian women, the desire for a career may be their main motivation for working. Having a career may be conceived of as a lifetime objective involving specific qualities and responsibilities. For my female research participants, a career was described in various ways. Sita’s career as a classical dancer and musician, for example, defined her personal and social lives. ‘My interest in dancing is from childhood. I would never think about marriage when I was growing up as I was thinking about my profession, my career.’[8] Sita’s objective in life was to have a career in dancing. ‘Through my work, I have been able to achieve other interests in my life such as teaching and travel.’[9] In her fifties, Sita’s career has provided her with independence, happiness and a youthful spirit. When asked about marriage, Sita abruptly dismissed the idea claiming ‘marriage would have been an obstacle in my life, particularly in my career.’[10] Sita’s career has enabled her to negotiate a public life which she believes is only possible for single women.

      Single women have a very broad life. They have contact with different types of people, different types of work, and have a social life. So they have experience in life. So I think that this is better than married life because you have the experience out of the home.[11]

  15. Likewise, Olivia’s career offered her a degree of independence which she believed unattainable in marriage. Separated from her husband at the age of twenty-eight, Olivia stated that her work as a Customer Care Executive in Telemarketing gives her satisfaction and promotes her self-esteem and confidence. Although her work does not offer much financial reward, Olivia said that working allows her to be independent which, as a result, makes her happy. This happiness, Olivia told me, does not come in marriage. Married women have to depend on someone else to look after them.

      You should move ahead and rise up as much as possible in your job and try to be independent as much as possible. Even if you are married, ultimately you have to look after yourself. I realise that now at the age of thirty-one. I realise that you come into this world alone and you leave this world alone.[12]

  16. For Olivia, marriage did not provide her with the security and respect that she had worked for prior to getting married. Arriving in America with her new husband, Olivia found that she had lost her self. She claimed ‘I felt worthless and was only there to cook and clean the house. I sacrificed my ambitions for a career because my husband wanted a non-working wife—a traditional Indian woman.’[13] Since her divorce, Olivia’s work has given her the confidence and fulfilment which are necessary, Olivia maintained, ‘for leading a healthy and contented single life.’[14]
  17. Although many women took on paid employment in order to supplement their families' incomes, as single women, my female research participants regarded a career as imperative if they wanted to remain single. Some of my participants maintained that their careers were the economic justification as to why they were able to remain single; their economic independence was a reason not to get married. During the 1960s when remaining unmarried was uncommon for women, Nalini’s parents, although desperately wanting her married, agreed to her remaining single due to her economic stability and her independence. Nalini told me ‘financially I was sound and I am not handicapped and I can do everything so then I don’t have to marry.’[15] Now retired from her government office work, Nalini said that she had been able to achieve many goals and lead the type of life she has wanted. Although enjoying her work, Nalini said that she had achieved her career goal and now wanted to direct her attention to other important issues, such as, helping others less fortunate than herself.
  18. Because of her career and her earnings, Nalini told me that she has been able to make choices in her life that many married women may not be able to make. Her independence and confidence enabled Nalini to negotiate and shape her own life experiences and modes of being. By focusing on a career as a life goal, many Indian women are able to choose not to marry and to use economic independence as a prime explanation for their choice. Sixty-four year old Indira told me,

      I never wanted to get married because I had certain goals in my life, one of which was a career and I always wanted to learn about new issues and subjects. I moved to Delhi from West Pakistan after Partition with my family. My family always tried to force me to marry. But I was very strong minded and set on the idea of remaining single.[16]

  19. By pursuing a teaching career and obtaining economic independence, Indira was able to accomplish her career goals and continue her learning experiences. Indira stated, ‘I was very focused on my life and did not want to be like married women who only have their marriage on their mind and can only talk about marriage.’[17] Because of her socioeconomic independence, Indira has been able to travel in India extensively. Indira was proud of her single status and regarded it as an achievement in her life. Yet she did not perceive the notion of being single as different. ‘People do not understand this concept. People do not understand difference. They only know what is the common way; that is marriage. They do not believe that a woman can remain single all her life.’[18]
  20. Even though social perceptions of Indian women are limited to women’s traditional roles within the home, Jani, a fifty-five-year-old university lecturer claimed, ‘My only goal in life was an academic career. Due to my career and my single status, I have been able to travel overseas numerous times and continue my involvement with NGOs which focus on women’s development.’[19] Jani maintained that despite the processes of globalisation and Westernisation, marriage is still perceived to be the destiny of many Indian women. However, Jani accepted that due to her single status and her attainment of a successful university career, people respect her social and economic potential. ‘Because of my career, I have been able to live a comfortable lifestyle as a single Indian woman.’[20] Similarly, Sita’s primary life objective was to have a career in dancing. Sita told me that the monetary benefits she obtained from her dancing enabled her to live as a single woman. ‘I am enjoying my single life, not lonely but single. Whatever I wish to do, I do. Whatever I want to take, I take. I have no force from a husband. No force from children.’[21]
  21. Single women’s careers shape important aspects of their social modes of being and frame their lived experiences. Radha’s career, for example, became an economic necessity for both herself and her family. Talking to me at the age of fifty-five, Radha is from Tamil Nadu, but was educated and currently works in Delhi for her brother’s Information Technology business. Radha told me ‘my decision to work was due to my father’s death and my mother’s ill-health.’[22] Coming from a strict community in the south where marriages outside the community are not permitted, Radha has remained single due to the difficulty in finding a compatible partner from the same caste in Delhi. Economic independence for Radha is, therefore, a necessity. ‘As I live in an inner-city hostel, I am required to pay for rent and living expenses as well as send money home to my mother in Chennai.’[23] However, Radha perceives her career as beneficial. ‘Not only does my career provide economic benefits, it has also given me the chance to meet new friends on whom I rely for support and company.’[24]
  22. As this and other research suggests,[25] women have entered the public workforce in order to pursue careers for specific reasons. However, this has been possible for the majority of professional women due to female education. Education has given women alternate life opportunities and the capacity to fulfil their personal objectives.
  23. For many of my female informants and their parents, education was regarded as an important and necessary part of women’s development. Pritam, for example, was brought up in a liberal family that encouraged freedom in thinking but not in behaviour.

      My parents always encouraged me to further my education and my reading. Because of this I completed my education by obtaining a university degree. My early education was in an Irish missionary school. The Catholic nuns and the curriculum that was taught influenced my thinking and behaviour. Because of the nuns, I was introduced to Western texts on philosophy and social theories. I was also inspired by the strong and determined character of the nuns. I think that these are attractive qualities for women. My interaction with the nuns and my reading, I believe, have contributed to my beliefs, particularly about women in Indian society. This is what my father was frightened of. Although they encouraged my studies, my father wanted to see me married before he died. He was always concerned about my freewill, strong opinions and confidence. What man will accept this type of woman?[26]

  24. Pritam’s confidence and independence has contributed to her social and economic achievements. From her education and her interest in reading, she has developed an attitude, which she believes is unconventional for Indian women. As a single woman, Pritam argued that she needed to be strong and independent.

      It is a different type of woman who remains single as compared to the married woman. Single women are stronger as a married woman is more complacent to follow traditional path. It is a male-dominated society and women must be prepared to take what is rightfully theirs. Single women must create their own spaces.[27]

  25. Although Sita’s education was not typical, her education in dancing and music provided Sita with the ability to expand on her interest and talent in her field. This form of education was invaluable to Sita’s career as a classical dancer. Sita believed that her life as a single woman is relatively easy due to the training on which she has been able to build her career.

      Single women’s lives are easy, but you do have some protection from your family. As a single woman you have confidence and are stronger. If you have studied for your work then you can earn money. For a married woman, they have nothing to rely on, such as, work experience, so they have no protection. But this also depends on the woman.[28]

  26. Sita’s education, therefore, was primarily directed towards her career as a dancer. Radha’s education, however, was primarily focused on learning women’s roles, which her father considered necessary. Radha was educated in Delhi up to university standard, as her parents wanted her to obtain an education so she could be independent later in life. However, independence was defined by an education that taught women how to cook and sew as this work is considered generally to be a ‘woman’s job.’ A domestic education was given to women so that when they went to their husbands’ homes, they were already proficient in these skills. Radha told me,

      Our father used to always tell us about all the things a housewife should know, such as, stitching and cooking. He didn’t even let us have any diversions such as going to a movie or a club, which would divert our minds. Even college was a problem as they said ‘go to college and study and then come back – don’t look at others.’ Some other communities or cultures may not have that many restrictions and they thought that if we mix with them we may change. All my South Indian friends’ parents are like that. They want us to go to college and study because they need us to stand on our own feet. In education, women were taught to cook and stitch as this was considered to be a woman’s job in the community. So if we went to our husband’s house there would be no problem. In South India, girls were taught at school how to do these things.[29]

    The primary reason behind Radha’s education, therefore, was the attainment of traditional skills, which are assumed to be significant to women’s work. After completing her education, Radha told me that as a result of her father’s death, she was forced to get work in order to look after her mother.
  27. However, unlike Radha whose education was primarily for marriage purposes, Olivia was educated in order to pursue a career. Coming from a Muslim family, Olivia realised that one day she would marry due to her mother’s discussions with her. But Olivia decided that she wished to pursue a career prior to marriage and, therefore, an education was essential. ‘My sister obtained her medical degree and is working in a major hospital in America. However, my engineering degree was cut short when I married an Indian boy who was studying in America.’[30] Although Olivia returned to India after her separation, Olivia told me that she was thinking about returning to America to complete her studies. She said,

      An education is the ticket to a good career. My father strongly encourages me to consider moving back as he believes that I would have better and more prospects in America. He was a doctor in London for many years, so he knows what it is like. I, too, think America would be better for me because I can pursue a career as a single woman there without any problems.[31]

  28. Although Olivia’s education was abruptly terminated due to her marriage, Indira obtained a double Master of Arts in Economics and Sociology at Delhi University. Because of her education, Indira claimed that she was able to continue and accomplish many of her goals. Although remaining single for younger women in contemporary Indian societies is easier than it was in her time, Indira told me ‘my education made it possible and easier for me to lead an independent and problem-free life as a single woman. I have been able to ignore the attitudes of people.’[32] For Indira, her intellect and self-assurance shaped by her education has enabled her to ignore and overcome social attitudes and behaviour regarding conventional perceptions of single women. Her softly spoken words revealed a strength, which was unique to a woman who had achieved much in her life but believed there was more to learn.
  29. The majority of middle-class Indian women with whom I had contact had received some degree of tertiary education. Their education allowed them to pursue a career in their chosen fields and provided varying degrees of social and economic independence irrelevant to their future marital status. Economic and emotional independence was often an important factor for some of my female informants in remaining unmarried. Although women’s education and career contributes to their independence, my informants’ responses suggest that their social and economic independence was significant to their being single.
  30. By examining the responses of my female informants, I became aware of the emphases women placed on their social, economic and emotional independence in contemporary Indian society. For many women, independence was defined as being able to conduct their movements and behaviour as they saw appropriate and to spend their income on necessary and enjoyable items without family pressures and constraints. The majority of my informants regarded social, economic and emotional independence to be an indicator and characteristic of single women. Single women, therefore, were not dependent on a male provider and, thus, were able to shape their own social modes of being by providing and sustaining livelihoods which were negotiated by individual desires and needs.
  31. Although many women perceived marriage to be a form of social and economic security, many of my female informants told me that their being single was an attribute of how they experienced security. In Sudha’s words, ‘Women are becoming self-sufficient and financially independent. They have started using their brains and taking decisions about their lives themselves.’[33] Whilst many of my informants suggested that social and economic security were fundamental aspects that allowed their being single, women argued that their singleness was also shaped by emotional factors. Pritam understood her independence as a contributing factor to her happiness as a single woman. From her education and career as a teacher, Pritam enjoyed many aspects of life. ‘I have travelled overseas many times which, I think, has strengthened my independent personality and liberal thinking.’[34] As Pritam told me,

      I have had numerous relationships with men, many of whom wanted to marry me. But I refused all of their marriage offers because I believe in getting to know the person properly without the false pretenses of material objects which many men offered me.[35]

  32. On her refusal, many of the men had harassed and threatened Pritam with numerous phone calls and uninvited visits to her hostel and workplace. Pritam claimed that although she would consider marriage if she came by a suitable offer, ‘I would not sacrifice my independence and life as a single woman for an unhappy marriage.’[36] That is the main reason, Pritam explained, that she has chosen to remain unmarried. Pritam argued that single women, like herself, ‘are more confident, strong-willed and independent than married women. They need to be strong to be able to exist in Indian society due to male dominance.’[37]
  33. Sita also believed that as a single woman, she too had a stronger character when compared to other Indian women who follow the traditional path of marriage. ‘This strength is due to my independence. My dancing offers social and economic security unaltered by the demands of a marital family.’[38] Although Sita agreed that not all women are the same, she perceived single women to be confident and strong-minded. These qualities are attained due to the distinct individual nature of single women.
  34. Both Pritam’s and Sita’s independence shaped their social beings and framed their lived experiences as single women. Similarly, Olivia’s experiences of being single after her divorce had given her opportunities and experiences, which she would not have got as a married woman. Due to her independence, Olivia believed that her self-esteem and identity as a single woman have improved. Whilst acknowledging that her experiences of divorce were still painful, Olivia claimed that she had become decisive and confident as a result.

      Women who are really independent are very happy being single. Even though I am single, I do not feel the pressure on me to get married again. There is the pressure on the girls to get married before the age of twenty-five otherwise she is considered an old hag. There is so much pressure on her.[39]

  35. For Olivia, being a single woman has meant that she is able to look after herself. Her career has provided financial security and a sense of independence, which allow her to be happy and maintain her individual identity. ‘One should take responsibility for their own actions and be prepared for your moves. You mature a lot if you have a job and are looking after yourself.’[40] Olivia’s independence was an important aspect of negotiating her identity as a single woman. However, Olivia questioned her future as a single woman in India and believed that it would be better for her to return to America to pursue her career. ‘I am frequently told by my friends in the hostel that I am getting old and time is running out for me, so I should remarry quickly.’[41] From the constant reminders of women’s conventional life trajectories, Olivia told me that it was difficult to ignore social and family pressures to get married. Yet she argued ‘I am much happier being single and I am more confident and enjoy my independence.’[42] Like Pritam, Olivia has had relationships with men although she did not consider them to be serious. ‘Because of my marriage experiences and my taste for independence, I do not want to marry again as I want to have my own life.’[43] Since her marriage, Olivia has achieved an independent socio-economic being and argued that this achievement would be lost if she remarried.

      In India, women have to stay with their husbands no matter how unhappy they are. Divorce is very uncommon. That is why I feel that there must be people laughing behind my back. But I have had to become strong enough to ignore such comments.[44]

  36. Unlike Olivia who had the experience of marriage, Indira’s status as a single woman had shaped her independent nature, which had enabled her to accomplish many things in her life. Indira told me that ‘remaining single has been easy for me due to the independence which comes with being unmarried. I do not have any restrictions in my life, movements, behaviour, or attitudes.’[45] Subsequently Indira had been able to obtain a lifestyle, which was pleasing to her. She said,

      Since the death of my parents, I have been living in hostels. Hostels give me a certain amount of freedom, security, and female companionship. I have never had problems due to my single status. I have been confident and independent enough to ignore the attitudes and behaviour of society.[46]

  37. Living in the same hostel as Indira, Nalini claimed that she was satisfied with her single status. Because of her independence, Nalini acknowledged that she had been fortunate enough to do what she wanted and to shape an individual and unique lifestyle. Many of Nalini’s married female friends had told her that she was wise not to marry, as she was not restricted by family obligations.

      I feel independent, I feel stronger I can do whatever on my own. I do not feel that anywhere I have faced this problem that ‘she is a single woman, keep away from her.’ I have not faced that but many women face that—a single woman may snatch away their husbands or disturb their families. I have not faced such a situation.[47]

  38. Nalini’s independence contributed to her strong nature and ability to ignore social attitudes towards single women. Because of her independent nature, Nalini explained that men thought that she could go out with them due to her ‘availability.’

      God has made man to take advantage of these things such as ‘women’ who are not attached because they think that she can go out whenever she likes. This problem exists and people try to take advantage as, if I am staying alone in a flat, someone will try to come in. So in that way one has to be strong. I used to tell my colleagues that my brother and sister are making me stay alone on the condition that no man will come to me in my flat. If I want I can go out with a man and then it is no problem and I can make a friend. But in India we get a bad name, so no one should come to me when I am alone in the house.[48]

  39. Social and economic independence was an important and central aspect in the shaping of my informants’ actual situations and lived experiences as single women. Social perceptions of single women, despite generalisations about unmarried women’s abnormality and inauspiciousness, regarded them as independent and strong. Although most women agreed that single women were self-reliant and liberated, some also believed that these attributes were necessary and circumstantial to their status, as they had not ‘found the right man in their lives.’ For some, independence was regarded as a male attribute. For example, Gurinder said,

      The reason why a woman may choose not to marry is because she has been ditched by somebody or has been unsuccessful in maintaining a healthy relationship, i.e., she is a girl with a broken heart. Or the woman, who is over-confident and has a manly attitude towards life. They think they can earn and survive. But they always forget that life does not mean only to survive, instead it is to build relations and maintain them.[49]

  40. Despite the unchanged social perceptions of unmarried women, for many of the women with whom I spoke, the socially prescribed roles for women within the home were another reason for not wanting to get married. Many of my female informants told me that they did not accept the family and social divisions, which engendered unequal relations between men and women in Indian society.
  41. As many of my female informants argued, traditional female roles were defined by their parents at an early age. By emphasising the importance of these roles, my female informants developed an understanding of what it might be like to be married women. Many single women did not want to have their lives regulated by socially prescribed norms of appropriate female roles. By rejecting the traditional roles of Indian womanhood, my female informants believed that they had escaped the restrictive arrangements, which marriage may often entail, and the customary role of women within the household was an important justification for their being single.
  42. Nalini’s dislike for cooking contributed to her decision not to marry. From an early age, Nalini’s mother tried to explain the necessities of being a good wife and mother by teaching her the skills of married life, such as, cooking, sewing and cleaning. Although Nalini did not know what it was really like to be married, she associated marriage with cooking, an activity which she loathed. Subsequently, Nalini rejected family and social pressures towards marriage believing she could not be happy whilst undertaking the assigned female role of cooking. The potential threat of her mother-in-law beating her, as a result of her inability to cook, perpetuated this belief.[50]
  43. In contrast, Olivia was able to speak about her experiences both as a single and married woman. For Olivia, sexually defined roles, which relegate women to household duties suppressed her independence and her ambitions for a career. ‘Whilst my husband became a modern man in America, he expected me to be the traditional wife who cooked and cleaned everyday and waited for him to return from work.’[51] Olivia claimed that as divorce is uncommon in India, due to family and social pressures, she remained in the marriage trying to ‘make it work.’ ‘Whilst he was out pursuing another relationship, I became very unhappy. Ultimately, it is the wife that suffers, not the husband.’[52] Although she had regained her independence and confidence, Olivia told me that she felt as if she had lost everything when she married. Olivia’s many years of study and her ambition to have a career were abruptly ended with the event of marriage. She told me ‘it all goes away after marriage.’[53]
  44. For some women, the role and duties of a housewife were common factors in their decisions to remain single. But for Sita, the inequality between men and women within marriage contributed to her negative attitude towards marriage. Sita’s work involved working with men, whom she considered her peers, and to whom she could speak as an equal. Due to the working relationships she had experienced with men, Sita did not believe that a man, in the role of a husband, should speak to her without her being able to express her feelings to him. Sita explained ‘I have never thought of men as partners or husbands’ and, therefore, she rejected the inequalities which may exist between some husbands and wives. 'A husband would have been an obstacle in my life.'[54]
  45. Like Sita, Pritam was not prepared to renounce her life as a single woman to enter into a marriage, which might require her to lose many of her personal qualities as elements of self. For Pritam, a prospective husband would have to accept her passionate devotion to Christianity. When talking to Pritam, her independent and strong-willed nature quickly became evident to me. Pritam told me ‘I am not afraid to speak up in front of men and give my opinion. Women should speak their minds.’[55] Her outspokenness towards men, she claimed, was not considered appropriate behaviour for Indian women, particularly married women. Pritam’s single status, therefore, allowed her to act in ways, which may be considered unusual or ambiguous.
  46. As some of my female informants had perceived the role and duties of a housewife as impositions, which would interrupt or obstruct their chosen modes of being, some women also recognised the potential threat of conflict and/or violence within marriage. Some unmarried women claimed that such threats shaped their indifferent attitudes towards marriage.
  47. The potential threat of violence or an unhappy marriage was one reason for some women not to marry. Pritam told me that many of her friends had suffered violence and depression within their marriages. Although she did not elaborate on her friends’ marital problems, Pritam told me that ‘many women spoke to her about their worries.’[56] Pritam became aware of the problems which can occur in some marriages and claimed that, ‘although I could only offer friendship and compassion, I was sympathetic towards their situation as married women who were restricted by their options and circumstances.’[57] Having experienced abuse and harassment from men with whom she has had relationships, Pritam argued ‘I do not want to subject myself to a life which may be filled with violence and unhappiness. The harassment and abuse that I experienced from men was a very stressful and unhealthy period for me which eventually had a deleterious effect on my health.’[58]
  48. Like Pritam who chose to remain single due to the threat of violence and unhappiness within marriage, Sita also claimed that she had witnessed the unhappiness of her female relatives and friends within their marital lives. Since childhood, Sita associated sadness and despair with marriage which, as a result, produced her fear of getting married. Sita told me she had seen many of her close friends fighting with their husbands and in the process of divorce:

      I have seen so many couples fighting all the time and then they divorce. They love each other a lot and then they marry and after some time they also start worrying, then they divorce…I wanted to stay with my parents, my family. Since childhood I have seen so many of these cases—they marry and then comes the crying, so much crying. So from childhood I was afraid.[59]

  49. For Sita, marriage signified a transition from a happy and comfortable life within the natal home to a strange and unfamiliar life as an unhappy and troubled wife within the marital home. Marriage, therefore, was not an option for Sita as it was not for Nalini. Nalini’s mother would tell her as a child that life as a married woman would be difficult if she did not learn the appropriate duties of a wife such as cooking. Nalini understood life as a married woman to be brutal if she did not cook for her husband’s family. Nalini explained to me that she associated women’s domestic roles with the potential for violence. For this reason, Nalini told her parents that she would not marry.
  50. Although the threat of violence was significant to her choice of remaining single, Nalini also informed me that she had observed many women who were restless within their married lives and did not find their happiness with their partners.

      I do not regret not marrying because I am seeing people nowadays who are married, (especially in India, I do not know about other countries), who are restless and they are not finding their happiness in their partner. So more divorce cases are happening. There is more friction and dissatisfaction among women. So many married ladies tell me that I am very wise not to marry because now I can be on my own and do what I want to do, achieve what I want in life, and achieve the type of life I want. So I am satisfied. That is a reason why I did not marry. So, no, I do not regret anything.[60]

  51. The threat of violence and unhappiness was also fundamental to Olivia’s decision not to remarry. Olivia’s previous marriage generated a depressing life situation due to her husband’s expectations, which did not coincide with Olivia’s aspirations. For Olivia, ‘a marriage should be based on love and respect. Couples should have a strong desire to share the rest of their lives together.’[61] However, Olivia’s marriage did not provide the happiness and importance to her life as she was led to believe by her parents and social ideologies. The expectations that Indian women would conform and tolerate their marital situation created a miserable familial and social life for Olivia. Furthermore, as divorce is not socially accepted as an option for unhappy couples, Olivia told me that she thought people were criticising and ridiculing her behind her back. Olivia claimed ‘many women believed that the break-up of my marriage was my own fault, as women should adjust and accept their husbands’ demands and behaviour.’[62] Subsequently, Olivia believed ‘it would be harder for me to make a second marriage work. The experience of divorce was difficult and still upsets me.’[63] The threat of this unhappiness recurring was a fundamental reason to remain unmarried.
  52. Whilst some women’s reasoning for remaining single was a result of perceptions and impressions that marital life potentially threatened violence and unhappiness, some women chose to remain single due to family responsibilities. As my informants’ responses demonstrate, many women remained single in order to care for their parents or other family members.
  53. Deepti, a fifty year old Central Government employee, told me ‘my parents married me off at the age of sixteen. However, in 1970 due to an unhappy marriage, I obtained a divorce and moved back to my parent’s house in Bangalore.’[64] Although her parents had pressured Deepti into her first marriage, they accepted her decision to remain single following the close of her marriage. Deepti told me that she did not want to remarry. ‘After my divorce, I devoted my time to looking after my brother who is mentally challenged. My parents were old and they found it difficult to devote the necessary time and care to my brother.’[65] Deepti cared for both her parents and brother until their deaths. Deepti told me ‘I do not think it is difficult to be a single woman although social attitudes towards unmarried women make single women’s lives complicated.’[66] Deepti claimed that this was primarily due to male attitudes and behaviour towards single women. Such attitudes and actions forced Deepti to become independent and strong.

      I was strong as I was forced to be independent. Single women have special powers, a natural gift which makes them successful. Single women have to fight with their circumstances and have to be aware.[67]

  54. Not unlike Deepti, Indira also chose to care for her parents in their old age. Although her parents tried to force her to marry, Indira believed that as the youngest in the family, it was her responsibility to look after them. Indira told me ‘even though my parents’ welfare was one of the main reasons I give for being single, from an early age I was determined not to marry.’[68] Due to Indira’s strong will and determination to remain single, a marriage was not arranged. Whilst supporting and caring for her parents, Indira was able to further her career and interests.

      Living with my parents also provided a secure and comfortable environment in which to live as a single woman. Since their deaths, I have lived in women’s hostels, which have provided me with a similar caring environment. I like the atmosphere here because I am free to do what I like and I am also safe.[69]

  55. Indira’s early part of life was devoted to caring for her parents. Although Pritam lived in a working women’s hostel, she too had had the responsibility of caring for her widowed mother and other family members. Pritam explained to me ‘in India there are no retirement homes for the elderly; so the family is responsible for caring for elderly relatives.’[70] In addition to working long hours which often consumed her private time, Pritam believed it was her duty to look after her family. She has had overseas career offers, but declined them, as she deemed India to be her home and had responsibilities with her family.

  56. My female informants’ responses validate the capacity for Indian women to live as single women, despite the limitations imposed on their lived experiences by patriarchal social constraints and normative ideologies of appropriate womanhood. For many, the reasons for remaining single are similar, such as career aspirations, educational background, rejection of socially prescribed female roles, and retaining individual and independent identities. However, as female social identities and sexualities are multiple and complex, the modes of being and lived experiences of my informants are specific to each. The ways in which Indian women negotiate their lives as single women enable them to redefine their individual circumstances within broader socio-economic contexts. Despite traditional perceptions of unmarried women, my research is a positive depiction of single women living in Delhi as economically, socially and emotionally independent women.
  57. The stories of women’s lived experiences offer an important and valuable contribution to the shaping of contemporary understandings of what it means to be female in Indian societies. Speaking to women living in Delhi about issues of female sexuality and the conflicting appropriations of patriarchal concepts of womanhood, with regard to women’s individual modes of being, I recognised that being single in Delhi was simultaneously empowering and limiting for my informants. While many single women made subjective yet socially powerful decisions to remain unmarried and shaped their lives according to their individual desires and needs, many women’s lives were both consciously and unconsciously regulated and limited by the structural constraints of gendered social relations in patriarchal Indian societies. Like the weft threads worked in and around the densely packed warps of a unique Kashmiri carpet, so too do the complexities and ambiguities of being single in contemporary Delhi society entwine. My female informants are the threads of gold that illuminate the complex social patterns formed between the imagined, conceptual and actual lived experiences of being single and the conformist social pressures to marry. However, the voices of my female informants demonstrate that actual lived experiences produce a range of very different modes of being, and that issues of women’s sexuality and agency continue to be dynamically problematic for women in contemporary Indian societies. While single women exercise different forms of agency in order to achieve specific modes of being, their behaviour as active human agents is limited by powerful normative ideologies of Indian womanhood.


    [1] See I.B. Horner, ‘Women under primitive Buddhism: laywomen and almswomen,’ in Women in Early Indian Societies, ed. Kumkum Roy, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1999, pp. 82–109; Uma Chakravarti, ‘The world of the Bhaktin in South Indian traditions – the body and beyond’ in Women in Early Indian Societies, ed. Kumkim Roy, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 1999, pp. 299–321; and M. Khandelwal, Sondra Hausner and Ann Grodzins Gold (eds), Nuns, Yoginis, Saints, and Singers: Women’s Renunciation in South Asia, New Dehli: Zubaan, 2006.

    [2] Feminists who have informed my research include Jyoti Puri, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Uma Narayan, Mary John, Lata Mani, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. See Jyoti Puri, Woman, Body, Desire in Post-Colonial India: Narratives of Gender and Sexuality, New York: Routledge, 1999; Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, New Delhi: Zubaan, 2003 ; Uma Narayan, Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism, New York: Routledge, 1997; Mary John, Discrepant Dislocations: Feminism, Theory, and Postcolonial Histories, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996; Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998; and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: Women, Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism, London: Routledge, 1993.

    [3] The names of all my informants have been changed in order to protect their anonymity.

    [4] Shohini: fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [5] Gayatri interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [6] Pritam interview, July 2002, New Delhi.

    [7] Pritam interview.

    [8] Sita interview, July 2002, New Delhi.

    [9] Sita interview.

    [10] Sita interview.

    [11] Sita interview.

    [12] Olivia, fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [13] Olivia interview.

    [14] Olivia interview.

    [15] Nalini, fieldwork interview, September 2002, New Delhi.

    [16] Indira, fieldwork interview, September 2002, New Delhi.

    [17] Indira interview.

    [18] Indira interview.

    [19] Jani, fieldwork interview, October 2002, New Delhi.

    [20] Jani interview.

    [21] Sita interview.

    [22] Radha, fieldwork interview, September 2002, New Delhi.

    [23] Radha interview.

    [24] Radha interview.

    [25] Poonam Arora, Professional Women: Family Conflicts and Stress, New Delhi: Manak Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2003; Gopa Bhardwaj, ‘Career concerns for Indian women: an approach through psychology,’ in Women’s Studies in India: Contours of Change, ed. M. Lal and S.P. Kumar, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2002, pp. 339–48; Sudha Kaldate, ‘Educated women: equality and role conflict,’ in Women in India: Equality, Social Justice and Development, ed. L. Devasia and V. Devasia, New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 1990, pp. 57–63; Susan Seymour, ‘Family structure, marriage, caste and class, and women’s education: exploring the linkages in an Indian town,’ in Indian Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (January–June 1995):67–86.

    [26] Pritam interview.

    [27] Pritam interview

    [28] Sita interview.

    [29] Radha interview.

    [30] Olivia, fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [31] Olivia interview.

    [32] Indira interview.

    [33] Sudha, fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [34] Pritam interview.

    [35] Pritam interview.

    [36] Pritam interview.

    [37] Pritam interview.

    [38] Sita interview.

    [39] Olivia interview.

    [40] Olivia interview.

    [41] Olivia interview.

    [42] Olivia interview.

    [43] Olivia interview.

    [44] Olivia interview.

    [45] Indira interview.

    [46] Indira interview.

    [47] Nalini, fieldwork interview, September 2002, New Delhi.

    [48] Nalini interview.

    [49] Gurinder, fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [50] Nalini interview.

    [51] Olivia interview.

    [52] Olivia interview.

    [53] Olivia interview.

    [54] Sita interview.

    [55] Pritam interview.

    [56] Pritam interview.

    [57] Pritam interview.

    [58] Pritam interview.

    [59] Sita interview.

    [60] Nalini interview

    [61] Olivia interview.

    [62] Olivia interview.

    [63] Olivia interview.

    [64] Deepti, fieldwork interview, August 2002, New Delhi.

    [65] Deepti interview.

    [66] Deepti interview.

    [67] Deepti interview.

    [68] Indira, fieldwork interview, September 2002, New Delhi.

    [69] Indira interview.

    [70] Pritam interview.

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