If one takes a quick glance at public media, opting out of marriage seems suddenly possible for women in India (Bumble 2023; Pandey, 2022; Sinha, 2019). At the same time, it is difficult to convey just how prevalent and taken-for-granted are perceptions that it is normal and right to marry.
To understand the rising trend of single living, I set out to listen to the stories of never-married Bengali women across social classes and rural-urban contexts, in both Kolkata and surrounding towns and villages (Lamb 2022). One question I wished to probe concerned women’s agency in marital decisions: to what extent can we understand the rising trend of women’s singlehood as a matter of choice?
Through my research exploring the lives of 54 never-married women, ranging from age 35 to 92, I found that primarily only the most privileged, city-educated, and cosmopolitan elites are the ones who can embrace single lifestyles by choice. Even then, many battle to make their singlehood accepted in their families and wider society. Especially for those who walk on paths less traveled, making choices is often challenging, complicated, and painful.
Table 1 conveys in plain strokes my interpretation of the reasons for not marrying conveyed by the study’s 54 women. A strong majority, 70 percent, did not see themselves as having actively chosen to not marry. Rather, evading marriage was often a consequence of other pressing life priorities—ranging from needing to support one’s natal kin through household labor and earning, to identifying as a lesbian in a context where same-sex marriage is not legal, to being regarded as too dark-skinned or disabled or otherwise bearing a stigmatized embodiment, to being too educated or high-achieving to find a suitable match. (As one participant put it: “The groom should be superior to the bride in all ways—in all ways, except looks.”) Photo Credit: IHDS
Many others, however, did see themselves as having chosen to evade marriage, at least an important part. The stories of these women—about 30 percent of my sample—revealed trends making it increasingly possible for women to pursue lives beyond marriage in India. Educational and employment opportunities are expanding, allowing more girls and women to support themselves and find value in life without marrying. Nonfamily housing arrangements in India’s metros are also on the rise, including single-person flats, working women’s hostels, and old age homes—novel developments in a society where nonfamily housing arrangements are scarce and strong stigma is still often applied to the unattached woman living alone. Further, India is witnessing expanding paradigms for sexual and loving relationships beyond conventional marriage, most pronouncedly among the cosmopolitan elite, involving what many perceive to be “modern” ideals of sexual freedom and agency, and increased recognition of feminist and LGBTQ+ rights.
No one story is typical, as single women lead highly varied lives situated by social class, rural-urban contexts, family-kinship situations, sexuality, life experiences, and personal aspirations. I close with one portrait to illuminate the intersecting aspirations, obstacles, and opportunities at play in single women’s lives, revealing how the ideal of choice is rarely as straightforward as we might wish.
Medha Manna was born into an impoverished family in a remote village. The family often went hungry. Her mother sold vegetables on the footpath. Yet Medha possessed a keen drive for education and seeing the world. She was the first girl in her village ever to complete secondary school, and she became a professor of Bengali in a provincial city.
Busy pursuing an education and career, Medha eventually passed the age of 28, then 30, then 35, by which most Indian women marry. Along the way, her natal kin had also failed to work hard to arrange her marriage, partly because they were enjoying access to her generous salary. When younger, Medha herself had also resisted marriage, coming to see herself as a feminist and adamant that girls and women should not view marriage as every woman’s ultimate goal.
Yet eventually, when Medha decided she might like to marry, she came to realize that her social class limbo made it nearly impossible to find a suitable match. As Medha put it: “I’m a professor now with a good salary—but I don’t belong to that kind of family that another professor [from an educated family background] could marry me. I also can’t marry a village boy from an uneducated family.”
Now at age 60, Medha has cultivated a vibrant circle of friends and has enjoyed decorating her solo home with vibrant colors and plants. Life as a single woman has often been difficult, though. Medha remarked, “I have to fight with hostility in every step of my life as a single woman due to my not being an ordinary person.”
Medha and other women’s stories reveal both the challenges faced by women living outside the powerful norms of marriage, as well as the expanding possibilities for women to use their agency to imagine and pursue alternative worlds.
Bumble. (2023). “Indian Women Way No to Compromise: ‘Consciously Single’ Is the Latest Dating Trend on the Rise,” Vogue, India edition. January 21. https://www.vogue.in/story/indian-women-say-no-to-compromise-consciously-single-is-the-latest-dating-trend-on-the-rise/
Lamb, S. (2022). Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion, and Possibility. Oakland: University of California Press. Open Access digital version available free of charge: https://www.luminosoa.org/site/books/m/10.1525/luminos.125/ or via Amazon.com.
Pandey, G. (2022). “The Indian Women Calling Themselves ‘Proudly Single’”, BBC, December 8. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-63873033
Sinha, C. (2019). “Brave New Woman,” India Today, October 11. https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/cover-story/story/20191021-brave-new-woman-1607809-2019-10-11
Sarah Lamb, a social-cultural anthropologist, is Barbara Mandel Professor of Humanistic Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University, USA. Her areas of research include gender, aging, families, and personhood, and she conducts research in both the U.S. and India.