The Indian woman without a cohort was once considered a social anomaly . Now, she’s in the company of around 73 million others -unmarried, divorced, widowed, separated -who constitute 21% of India’s 353 million women above the age of 20. But the statistic that’s striking is 40% -that’s how much the population of single women has grown between 2001 and 2011, according to the latest census data.

Number-crunching by India Spend shows that single women in the age-group of 20 to 29 have clocked the sharpest rise -68%, suggesting that more of them are either separated or divorced or delaying marriage, perhaps to pursue higher education and careers. Which in itself is a promising sign of independence and choice.

Unmarried, divorced, separated or widowed, the single woman now constitutes 21% of India’s female population. Her spending power has even caught the attention of businesses. Travel companies customize vacations for her, and online rental services focus on her safety.
Society too has started viewing her in a whole new light

Unlike China, which denigrates its unmarried women over 27 with the term `Shengnu’ -a disparaging reference to `leftovers’ -India has no such slur, and even cultural associations of misfortune or secret aberration linked with the unmarried, are waning.SINGLE LADIES

Screenwriter for the Vidya Balan-film Kahaani, and author of Almost Single, Advaita Kala (single herself) reiterates the fact.“There was a time when single women were pitied. Then TV shows like Sex and the City made it cool and desirable. Now, people have moved on to serious issues associated with singlehood, like security of women and surrogacy .“ She points out that TV commercials too have started to acknowledge the spending power of single women. Earlier, jewellery brands focused on matrimony, now they’re asking women to buy their own jewellery for any occasion, she says.

The fact that businesses are talking to them is proof that the demographic is com mercially important. But as a social unit, is the single woman regarded with new respect? Author Ira Trivedi, whose field trips across urban India for her book, India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century , led her to observe that while social pressures continue to prevail and nudge women towards the knot, they are not as binding as they may have been even a decade ago. Moreover, women today are more vocal about their choices.

But ironically, while families do let daughters and single mothers live independently , society at large closes in with the spyglass. Or at least single Indian women continue to feel the gaze. “Ideas about how a single woman should behave and look persist,“ points out Dr Renu Addlakha, deputy director at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi.

And while single women are more willing to defy social norms now, the instinct for self-preservation brings in self-censorship. “You’ll see some on the metro, dressed in jeans and tops, but with a shawl to cover themselves for when they have to enter certain culturally conservative domains like the home. Without these self-protective mechanisms, women would feel vulnerable to the public gaze,“ she holds.

Interestingly , single women cohabiting with kin could be subject to a lesser scrutiny than those living independently . A womon going home to mother, brother and bhabhi, even with a male friend in tow, or with a party of ten, is presumed to be righteous, if rebellious. “I don’t have to deal with neighbors, servicemen, utility officers, guards and others who’d otherwise occupy the immediate circle of contact,“ says a single woman in her 40s, in Chennai. A divorcee in the same city , on the other hand continues to be guarded about who she entertains and at what hours. “After a night out, I won’t allow my male friends to drop me home, for fear of what the guard or neighbours would think,“ she admits.

Even as society learns to read the single Indian woman in new light, the affluent, self-made woman is hardest for them to understand. How can a single woman afford to lead the same lifestyle as us, women with families and double-incomes -and look reasonably happy?’ is a question I’ve fielded, even if in insinuations and glances. The 37-year-old says it’s one of the new models of womanhood emerging in India, the one in which a woman leads a comfortable life, independent of a man or his income (by which she means a sugar daddy). “It’s not an image most people can square with. It’s like they expect a widow to be sad, or a `spinster’ to have warts. The new image of the single, happy woman has yet to make a lasting impression.

Source: Times of India 22 Nov ‘ 2015