Born in India around the time the twentieth century turned 60 years of age, I was fortunate in that my parents were liberal, open-minded folks. No doubt, it helped that my mother was a woman way ahead of her times with the God-given guts and liberal husband to support her.
Even so, being born female, I have felt the sting of wounds inflicted by being singled and shingled out!
In this post, I thought I would describe some of my experiences of being singled and shingled out and then ask generation-next women in India if things have improved or changed any.
“Oh, poor thing, she doesn’t have a boyfriend” – said loudly enough for me to hear. This line heard on many an occasion was, sadly, voiced by members of my own sex. I still wonder why anyone’s status and success in life is measured by their prowess in bagging a partner!
“Why aren’t you married?” – again, a question usually asked only by members of the female sex (few in a caring voice, most in a b@#&!y tone).
“You are single. What problems could you possibly have? You should be saving all your money?” – This is a statement made by male and female friends who knew that I had been the bread-earner for my family ever since I left college armed with a Bachelor of Arts degree. What? Single people have no responsibilities? Is it inconceivable that single people could be contending with financial responsibilities? Why is the marital state the measure of a person’s economic status?
On a personal level, I experienced other forms of discrimination as well. I remember one late-night party where the wife of a friend happened to come alone. When the party wound up, a great deal of fuss was made by the men there, discussing how the ‘wife’ could be escorted home safely. Not one of them asked me, a single woman, as to how I planned to make my way alone. The only focus was on the safety of the ‘wife.’
There was discrimination on the professional front as well. I am not going to talk about well-known issues such as the glass ceiling for working women. Instead, I hope to highlight, in a manner of speaking, more important issues.
I remember the time when an advertising agency I worked for wanted to transfer me out to Chennai to head the branch there. I accept it was a compliment, as the then Managing Director did point out. But I didn’t want to go because I needed the support system provided by my sister and her family for my mother. Especially since the job and position I held involved long working hours. Neither did I wish to give up my personal life and start from scratch in a strange city.
When I voiced my sentiment, I was indifferently advised to take my mother with me. At which point, blindsided by rage, I asked the Managing Director if the agency would ask a married female peer to transfer out to another city.
The answer was, “Of course, not. She is married with children.”
The question in my mind then, and now, is “Aren’t single women (and men, for that matter) entitled to keeping and nurturing a personal life?”
But perhaps, beyond all the experiences I have described, the worst form of discrimination against single people in India is by the antiquated laws in the country.
When the insurance sector in the nation finally opened up, the company I worked for then announced a scheme under which employees could obtain medical cover for up to 4 dependents. Being single and fatherless, I had only my mother to cover. I approached the Human Resources manager and asked if I could cover my sister as well. The answer, needless to say, was in the negative. The offer was only for parents and children.
Talk about being singled and shingled out. Doesn’t it occur to employers that such policies lead to lopsided compensation? What if single people are supporting other relatives?
I wondered then, and I wonder now, as to why relationships are recognized only in a family construct built by humankind. There are so many family relationships that are worth less than the paper on which their legal status is defined. Conversely, there are relationships that really matter and should be financially and emotionally supported.
Bottomline? Why can’t a person be allowed to define the people who matter most to them in their life – family or not?
Family constructs create other issues as well. I remember a time when a female member of my team adopted a baby. She approached me requesting for maternity leave. I readily acceded. After all, a baby is a baby. How does it matter if the mother gave birth to that baby or not? Accordingly, I processed her leave application only to contend with the Human Resources department’s refusal. Fortunately, in that case, I was able to persuade the Head of Human Resources that the concept of maternity leave went beyond breast feeding to mother-baby bonding time.
Fortunately, I hear there is more enlightenment now on issues such as maternity leave being granted to parents who adopt. I hope I have heard right!
But I doubt much else has progressed. As far as I know, single women still have few rights in the eyes of Indian law.
I discovered this fact at a work meeting with a leading bank. I think the meeting in question was to discuss the next magazine issue for the bank’s privileged banking customers. We were talking about planning for retirement and inheritance when one of the bank managers suddenly turned to me and said, “You are single, right? You know you better tie-up your affairs tight right now or the people you wish to leave your assets to will have a hard time claiming their inheritance”.
I was startled to say the least. Surely, it was my wish who I left my money to? Always presuming I would have any to leave what with the ever upward-spiralling costs of healthcare and living!
However, being duly warned, I set about converting my meagre assets to joint holding status. That’s when I encountered the truth of the bank manager’s warning.
” Madam, only immediate family members can be made joint account holder!” That’s what I heard from a clerk at one leading Indian bank.
Apparently, my sister’s son is not family!
Exasperated, I literally yelled at the clerk, “I have no parents, no spouse, no children. What do you want me to do? Leave my money to the bank?” By the way, my yelling has more punch in Hindi, the language I spoke to the clerk in. It was very Bollywood melodrama:) “Mera na koi aage hai, na peeche. Kya karoon. Bank ko paise chod do?” (Translated, that reads – I have no one ahead of me or behind. What do you want me to do? Leave my money to the bank?)
At another bank, I had to write all sorts of letters to establish my nephew as a family member and a joint account holder.
I won’t bore you with more details because hopefully I have made my point that single people have no identity and status in India.
Recently, the Narendra Modi government has taken a host of measures to improve the status of the girl child in India. There’s that!
Hopefully, moves such as the Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign will help. But other moves have to be made as well to protect women who choose to stay single.
By writing this post, hopefully awareness will be raised to change the legal status of women (and men) who choose to stay single. After all, their numbers are on the rise.
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Featured Image Credit: Gone with the Wind by Klearchos Kapoutsis (Flickr.com CC By 2.0)
*Sukanya Samriddhi – Sukanya Samriddhi Scheme is a small savings scheme launched in January 2015 by the Narendra Modi government, aimed at encouraging savings for a girl child’s education and marriage. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao means ‘Save the daughters, educate the girl child.’
*The Economic Times, Jan 22, 2015: Prime Minister Narendra Modi launches Sukanya Samridhi Yojna under Beti Bachao campaign.