Single Women in India: A Conversation with Kay Trimberger

No pity parties for singles in India - they don't seek happiness in soulmates

Posted Oct 15, 2008

When I give talks about singles or readings from Singled Out, one of my favorite parts is the question and answer session at the end. I love hearing about other people's experiences, and discovering what they are wondering about. For most of the questions that come up, I have some sort of answer to offer. However, there is one big exception. Lots of people want to know how the experience of being single is different in other countries. I know way too little about that.

It is my great fortune to have a friend and colleague who has spent some time in India and has studied the experiences of single women there. E. Kay Trimberger, author of the insightful book, The New Single Woman, kindly accepted my invitation to share some of what she has learned with Psych Today readers. (By the way, Kay's work has resonated in other countries. Already, there are Taiwanese and Polish editions of her book.)

Bella: Hi, Kay. Thanks for participating. Why don't you start by telling us how you got interested in studying single women in India?

Kay: I had the opportunity to go to a Women's Studies Conference in New Delhi in January 2008. In preparation, I looked up the English language books and articles on single women in India. I was surprised on how much had been written, both in terms of scholarly research and popular novels and essays. For example, I found a 2006 book, Chasing the Good Life: On Being Single - a book where some of India's best known male and female writers, journalists and artists contribute essays on their mainly positive experiences as singles. The book was widely reviewed affirmatively. I can think of nothing comparable in the U.S. I also read the 2007 Indian "chic lit" novel, Almost Single, which is more skeptical about romantic love and more positive about remaining single than counterparts in the U.S. (Those interested in the scholarly research on single women in India can find it listed in the bibliography on the Singles Studies website.)

Bella: Here in the U.S., people who are single are a growing portion of the adult population, closing in on half of all Americans who are 18 or older. How do the numbers compare in India?

Kay: The number of mature, single women is much smaller in India. Between the ages of 25-59, 89.5% of Indian women are married, as compared with 65% of American women in the same age group. As for the unmarried women in that age range, the "never married" account for 2.5% in India versus 16% in the U.S., while the percentage of divorced women in that population is 17% in the U.S. as opposed to a mere 1% in India The percentage of Indian widows is 7%, higher than the 2% U.S. rate. (Numbers are from the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2001 Indian Census.)

Bella: I would guess that if you are single, living in a country where lots of other people are single, too, can only help. By that way of thinking, it could be particularly difficult to be single in India. Is that what you found?

Kay: Single women in India face more overt discrimination, but culturally they are more accepted. Let me explain. Single people - men as well as women - face discrimination in rental housing, and single women in India are seen as objects of sexual prey, especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence. [Bella's aside: There is also housing discrimination against singles in the U.S.] The first Indian self help book for single women, Single in the City (2000) by Sunny Singh, gives much more attention to issues of safety than such books in the U.S. But psychologically it is easier to be single in India, because of cultural factors.

First, Hindi has no word comparable to the English spinster, with its negative, asexual connotations. Moreover, Hindu culture has a positive image of celibacy. Madhu Kishwar, a writer and activist on women's issues, says: "We are still heavily steeped in the old Indian tradition which holds that voluntary sexual abstinence bestows extraordinary power on human beings." Voluntary is rarely used with spinster in our culture, and certainly respect and extraordinary power are never part of the image.

Second, the arranged marriage system in India serves to liberate unmarried women from the self esteem trap. The author Sunny Singh, in a private communication, recently remarked: "A never-married woman in India is never assumed to be unattractive because arranging the marriage is generally a family enterprise. So people assume that there wasn't enough dowry, not the right match, irresponsible parents (my favorite), a wrong astrological chart and so forth." Perhaps this is one reason that polls show that most Indians, even the educated, urban elite, still favor arranged marriage, although perhaps in modified form with some personal choice involved

The third difference that stands out is the cultural imperative in the U.S. that being coupled is essential to human happiness. Marriage in India is more highly valued, but its purpose is family ties, not coupled happiness. Compatibility between spouses is not linked to finding a soul mate, but is seen as the result of patient work, along with family support. As a result, single women in India are not pitied because they are not coupled.

To illustrate the implications, let me quote from a one of India's feminist intellectuals, Urvashi Butalia, a publisher who founded the feminist press Kali for Women. She says, "Oddly enough, the first time I really became conscious of my singleness was in, of all places, England. . . . [I found myself] in a culture that so privileges relationships, especially heterosexual one, that if you are not in one (and even if you have been in one that may have broken up you are expected to jump into another almost immediately), there has to be something wrong with you. So I was always the odd one out, the one without the man, the one to be felt sorry for. And it always bewildered me, because I did not feel sorry for myself, so why did they? It wasn't a nice feeling."

Bella: Wow, that's really interesting. So if people in India do not think that coupling is the royal road to happiness, then what do they think is the route to happiness? Or is happiness just not that important a goal for them?

Kay: Traditionally, individual happiness was less important in India, but westernization is leading to more emphasis on personal fulfillment. Western individualism in our own country, however, is culturally in conflict with the idea of the couple as the primary source of contentment. I see western influence in India strengthening the positive image of single women and men, enabling more people to reject marriage all together, rather than adopting a Western ideal of the couple as soul mates.

Bella: I've heard that there is a strong women's movement in India. Do feminists in India address issues important to single women?

Kay: Yes they do, much more so than U.S. feminists. The Indian women's movement, like that in the U.S., dates to the 19th century, and also had a strong second wave in the late 1960s and 1970s. As in the U.S., the Indian women's movement today consists of many different organizations focusing on distinct feminist issues. But in India, a few women's organizations create a nationwide constituency.

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) - founded in 1981 from the women's divisions of two of India's communist parties - today is the largest independent women's organization in India, with 9 million members and 600 paid organizers. Moreover one of their current seven top goals is single women. AIDWA's new Commission on Single Women gives most emphasis to the continuing discrimination against widows, but it includes a section on "single, deserted and divorced women," articulating similarities between all single women, cutting across class and caste distinctions.

Even more impressive to me was the actual mobilization of single women. A current example: In late March and early April 2008 in the north India state of Himachal Pradesh, another woman's organization, ENSS (explicitly an association of single women whose aim is to secure their rights to live with dignity and justice), held a march of 5000 single women demanding a number of specific reforms, including free healthcare, land for poor single women, and pensions for older single women. Nor is this organizing around single women only of recent origin. I have found examples going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s.

No woman's organization in the U.S. - not NOW, The Feminist Majority, nor any more specialized woman's group - has ever articulated a program to organize single women. The difference stems, I believe, from the cultural differences I outlined above.

Bella: From your research on singles in India and the U.S., can you suggest any more general understandings of single life in different countries? So, for example, what kinds of factors are likely to make it easier or harder to live single in particular nations?

Kay: My research leads me to give more emphasis to cultural differences between countries. Those countries with a culture hostile to single women need to make a greater academic and popular effort to expose and change their cultural bias. Just the opposite happened in the second wave of the U.S. women's movement. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem -- the two best-known American feminists -- both distanced themselves from spinsters without providing an alternative model for life as a mature, single woman. Before we get to the point in the U.S. where single women and men hold demonstrations protesting how, for example, the social security system discriminates against them, we will need a cultural transformation.

The word spinster is rarely used today, but the negative stereotypes of single life over age forty - especially for women - are still strong. We must bombard the cultural wall separating couples and singles with evidence that the good life includes singleness and single living, usually with many close ties to family and friends, along with strong community participation. Some of us have begun this cultural work, but we need much more participation.

Bella: Thanks so much, Kay. I remember when I first heard from you after you returned from India, and I've been intrigued by your findings ever since.

Two notes to readers:

First, you can find links to more of Kay Trimberger's writings on her website.

Second, do you have experiences or expertise on singles in other countries? If so, please share them in a comment. I know I'd love to hear from you, and I think others would, too.