Why is the independence of an unmarried girl perceived as a threat?
Many of us grew up with the eternally single phupho or khala; that’s right, the one that never got married. They all have their reasons and, many a time, they’re respected in their households. Some of them may hold good jobs, spending their well-earned money on their precious nieces and nephews. We seldom see them living their own lives, or making time for themselves outside of their work, and home. We see them as totally dependent on their families, in every facet of their lives.
Picture this – her room or space at home is either shared with her parents or a growing child – guests almost always stay in her room, and the extra storage is always put there too. The only time she leaves the house is with the family, doing what everyone else wants to do. She’s the one who babysits for her brother and sister-in-law when they have to go out. She’s the one who keeps herself busy with meeting the extended family. She never has time for her own friends; most of them are married and she no longer fits in with them. They hang out in couples, and do couple-y things, and she doesn’t belong.
These are the lucky ones; the girls that are appreciated. There are so many more out there that aren’t treated like girls at all. There are girls who are mentally tortured for being “un-marriageable”. They’re mocked and disrespected. There are the girls that never get married so they can devote themselves to looking after their aging parents.
If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘no, that doesn’t happen’ – trust me, it does. This is the ugly truth hidden behind closed doors, under the cover of love and family responsibilities. This is a truth that is never spoken about but grows uglier with time. I have spent my entire working life with girls and women of various ages and backgrounds. I have heard their stories and seen their realities. These realities I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
These are the girls who obey, the ones who submit. They do everything their parents and families want. The people in their lives assume they are giving them the best of both worlds, but they smile at them sadly, acknowledging them as spinsters.
“Shaadi nahi hui tou kia hua? Is ke paas sab kuch hai.”
(So what if she’s not married? She has everything.)
No one asks these girls how they feel and whether they’re happy with the way things are. And no, the problem isn’t that she’s still single; the real problem is that everyone in her life deprives her of one basic adult right; the right to make her own decisions and choices.
An unmarried friend of mine lived with her family. All of her siblings were married, and her life strictly revolved around work. She spent 11 years tending to her bedridden mother, who recently passed away. A lot of people said,
“Oh she earned jannah (heaven) looking after her mom.”
And she did play her part. Maybe her other siblings were too busy, or just didn’t bother to earn their own place in jannah but that was just the way it was. She told me,
“Amma ke baad bhai/bhabhi bohat kehtey hain ke bahar nikla karo, kahin jao. Ab mein akelay kia karoun? Koi friend bhi nahin hai, Waqt hee nahi milta tha, aur ab waqt nahi kat ta hai school ke bad.”
(After my mother passed away, my brother and sister-in-law tried to convince me to go out and enjoy myself. But what am I supposed to do alone? I have no friends. I never used to have time for them, and now I have nothing to do to pass the time ever since I quit going to school.)
She is 56-years-old, and she earns well. I told her to go see the world, to travel but she looked at me in complete disbelief. Almost as if she had forgotten that there was a world out there at all – one in which she could be independent.
Here we are, in the 21st century.
But what’s changed for women, really?
Things may have improved a smidge, but age and marriage are still synonymous today. Women in their early to late 30s are still looked down upon for being single, even if they are highly qualified and financially stable. The story is always the same. These girls are still expected to make sacrifices and live the same kind of life her unmarried aunt had lived years ago; the same kind of life that forces our girls to be dependent on the men around them. The number of unmarried, young, professional girls continues to grow, yet they are constantly controlled by their families. They are hidden away from society, not allowed to socialise or travel – not allowed to do anything at all.
Women on different social media groups often discuss how they feel suffocated. They are yelled at and told that they cannot go out. These women speak of their plans getting cancelled and not being allowed to participate in any social activity. They express that this is the leading cause of frustration in their lives, and they are stuck in a web of permanent misfortune.
These conversations kill me; do people realise the difference between 13 and 30?
Imagine a 32 or 34-year-old team leader, project manager, or school head, begging her parents to let her go watch a movie with her friends, having her phone calls monitored, working around a curfew that shouldn’t be imposed on an adult and constantly being asked where and why she is going out – just imagine.
Our family system is fabricated in the name of protection and safety; girls are not allowed any freedom. They are required to consult their parents on every matter to ensure their choices do not bring disgrace upon their family – the whole issue regarding ‘what will people say?’ Only a handful of educated women take a stand against their parents or want to move out. It’s not that the rest aren’t capable of doing so; they stay because they care about their family.
I understand that parents are always worried about the safety of their child and uphold this idea that their daughter can do whatever she wants after she’s married. But what if she doesn’t get married? When she doesn’t even know if she ever will? You can’t keep her captive forever. So many women have confided in me, telling me that they don’t want to hurt their families yet they cannot live the life of a recluse any longer. They’ve said things like,
‘I feel like going out onto the streets and screaming.’
Is that what a happy girl would say? You ‘let her work’, and when she brings you back a pay cheque you think you’re doing her the favour? Shame on you. She’s better than that.
Why do women need a husband or their immediate family to live a normal life? Why is her independence perceived as a threat? She is a grown-up, educated adult – she needs her space. She needs the freedom to choose friends, have a girl’s night out, travel and to make choices herself. She is your daughter, sister, granddaughter but you don’t own her. You cannot limit her movement, forcing decisions and choices upon her – it’s cruel.
If we don’t stop treating our girls and women like trained circus animals, soon enough there will be a whole mass of educated mental patients in the country. Families and parents should have enough confidence in their upbringing, they need to trust and let these women move on with their lives the way they want. Stop dictating their lives, and let them, for once, stand on their own two feet.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.