The Alternatives to Marriage Update article Single Women in India: Rarer, Riskier, and Happier Than in the U.S. by Kay Trimberger has generated some good discussions, and we invite others to read and respond.
Rajiv Garg (who recently joined AtMP’s board of directors) wrote this letter:
The conclusion that single women in India are happier needs more scrutiny. Moreover, due to the significant social and cultural differences it is unclear how we can better understand the obstacles and advantages single women face in the US by comparing the situation to single women in India.
Growing-up and living in India in the Hindu culture for twenty four years and visiting often, I have seen very little change (especially in rural areas and small towns in India where most people live) in the status of women. Even though lifestyles are changing, there are very few women, mainly in progressive big cities, who are happy being single. They are rarely accepted by the society (even less by their immediate friends and family since they see it as a shameful act and disgrace to the family) and often stigmatized and ostracized. Women past the “marriage-able age” (34+) are often subject to ridicule and assumed to have major personality or physical disorders even though arranging marriage is a family enterprise and the family takes part of the blame. These unmarried women are rarely happy.
It is true that single women in India do not have the pressure of finding a suitable match but this putative advantage is far overshadowed by very low-self esteem, fear of getting married to an incompatible groom, fear of being part of a new, often hostile and potentially violent family, being able to adjust to a new family and home environment, constant worry of how parents will accumulate dowry and pay for future gifts to the groom’s family…the list goes on. Even though some women may be happy (for a very short period of time until they are married) it will be naïve to conclude that they are happier than their American counterparts.
There is mention of Hindu culture having a positive image of celibacy. I must point out that celibacy is only revered in the religious context – the special space and respect for unmarried women and the act of voluntary abstinence is bestowed only if they become part of the religious system and hierarchy (similar to the celibate priests in the Western societies). Absent any religious affiliation, no special status or respect is granted to a celibate woman.
Also, contrary to the assertion in the article I believe that there is a cultural imperative in India that marriage/coupling should bring happiness. Even though personal happiness is not valued as much as happiness of the entire family, most people understand that if the couple is not happy, they cannot bring happiness to the family at large. The concept of finding a “soul mate” may be rare but most families compare astrological charts of the bride and groom and make efforts to ensure compatibility that would lead to happiness. In fact this cultural imperative is more pronounced in India as the bride is under constant pressure to not only please the husband but to bring happiness to the entire family.
There are local and regional feminist groups in India fighting for women’s rights but these efforts are primarily focused towards obtaining social and economic equality. It is encouraging to see that life for singles is changing in India but the change is very slow and limited to a very small segment of the society. Due to the relatively close knit social structure of friends and family, singles may not feel as lonely and desperate (even though that is debatable) as their American counterparts but to impute that single life is psychologically easier for Indian women (for the reasons mentioned above) would be a mistake. Single women in India face discrimination, live in subservience, and deal with a variety of tough challenges and hardships; I cannot imagine a scenario where we can say that generally they are happier than their American counterparts.
This makes me wonder about the interesting commentary and reporting by feminist intellectuals and journalists in India, perhaps they are focusing and reporting on a very exclusive group of single women that do not really represent the majority of single women in India.
Kay Trimberger responded:
Dear Rajiv, Thanks for your interesting comments on my article. Some of your comments I agree with and some I don’t. I did not choose the title, and I don’t think I use the word “happier” in my text. But I also have not objected to the editors about the title. I think my position is clarified in two other blogs I have written, and I’ll provide you with the links here.
“Single Women in India: A Conversation with Kay Trimberger”
“Single Women and the U.S. Women’s Movement : Insights from India”
Best regards, Kay
Chitra also sent a note in response to Kay’s article:
I am from India, and we do not have an equivalent of ATMP here, as most Indian women are expected to get married
However there are many women who dare to defy convention and are living happily as single women, or in live-in relationships. I for one have a boyfriend but just do NOT want to marry or get into a live-in relationship. It does not make sense to my peers or my parents – and this just goes to show that the pressure to get ‘coupled’ in America is as strong as the pressure to get married in India.
I liked the article on how single women in India are probably happier than their American counterparts. But in urban India that mostly tries to ape the west, celibacy is slowly beginning to be looked upon as ‘weird’ – and that is upsetting to the small minority that still choose to be celibate.
I liked reading about asexuality – and I know for a fact many Indians will be able to relate to it. I don’t think it is weird – if abstinence is acceptable, what’s wrong with asexuality?
The irony about being an Indian is – even though this is the land of the Kamasutra (and a high population clearly shows everyone is having sex) – you are expected to be celibate till you get married. And yet, as I mentioned, if celibacy is something you choose- you are frowned upon as someone ‘weird’. It gets confusing sometimes.
In any case, here I am , mailing you, letting you know that your website gives me so much hope and happiness.
Thank you ATMP!
btw I have written a funny article on why I do not want to marry on my blog.