What does it mean to be a single woman during a pandemic? How does it feel when one suffers a salary cut or no-work-no-pay without a supplemental income? What if they have to forego their long-cherished financial independence by relying on family and friends? When the entire world is locked down, is the isolation of single women a little more isolating?
As was indicated in our previously-conducted research in 2017-’18 on singlehood and rental housing, where we interviewed 50 women in the age group of 25-40 years in Delhi-National Capital Region and Mumbai, single women living alone often face multiple challenges. These seem to have aggravated under the Covid-19-induced lockdown, when social media is flooded with posts, memes and videos about the significance of familial support, romantic relationships and domestic bliss.
In light of the pandemic, even as physical spaces and social interaction have shrunk, time seems to have expanded. The disruption of social geography and collective routines has led to a skewed understanding of productivity. Some are feverishly trying to settle into a routine to deal with these changes; others are struggling not to overthink, overread or overwatch.
How does a single woman, who is even in ordinary circumstances expected to have more time to herself, balance work-household chores amid the lockdown? Is more work sent her way because she is “relatively free”, being single, husband-less, child-less, in-laws-less?
The most visible meddling with time is through an enmeshing of the past, present and future through the internet trend “#throwback”. It indicates a constant urge to reminisce and desperate need to return to the “normal” that was. With this constant reworking of the temporal, is a single woman reimagining her life course differently?
Meanwhile, the spatial is also getting constructed anew. The home has become the be-all and end-all. Most women we had interviewed iterated, more than once, that they look forward to “getting back” to their den when they are done with the day. This private haven has now turned into a prison, an eerily silent and lonely place that they are waiting to get out of to reconnect with the social world.
Furthermore, the world, built on a global liberal economic framework, that allowed them to be financially independent and in control of their circumstances is now closed. Predictability, continuity and certainty have been replaced by anxiety, uncertainty and possibly a bleak future.
Stigma of singlehood
Even in the pre-pandemic period, certain circumstances and events might have led single women to reevaluate their choice to remain single. For instance, our respondents unequivocally maintained that the status of singlehood hit them hardest when they were sick or feel vulnerable. The fear perpetuated by the pandemic has made them vulnerable every day. Bleak news reports – the rising death toll, the predicament faced by informal workers, and constant layoffs – add to these anxieties.
“Waiting”, which is seen as an existential human condition, has assumed an urgency and desperation because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The idea of “waiting” to get attached or married to someone is one of the most widely held understandings of singlehood, as pointed out by Kinneret Lahad, a sociologist in Israel. Single women are seen as occupying an in-between space, neither here nor there, considered to be waiting to enter the new phase. Depending on how one looks at it, this could be a period of hope and anticipation or fear and anxiety. In the current circumstance, it’s almost always the latter.
A prolonged stay in this “in-betweenness” is seen as a defiance of societal expectations. But it is the element of choice that makes the in-betweenness of singlehood different from that of the lockdown. Due to the constant fear of “contaminated” bodies, attachments during this period – romantic, sexual or otherwise – are few and far between. Further, does this become a universal in-betweenness because of the uncertainty regarding finances, traveling, friendship, support systems and the end of the period of waiting?
The fourth extension of the lockdown and the exponential increase in the number of infected people further dampened the spirits of those who thought they could return to life as it was. The “normal” that single women created for themselves with immense effort has gone for a toss. The world may get out of this vulnerability in some time, but it remains to be seen whether the people who have tried so hard to create a new normal by defying the conventional will be left unscathed by this fast-changing world.
Rashi Bhargava is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology in Maitreyi College, University of Delhi. Richa Chilana is Assistant Professor at the Department of English in Maitreyi College, University of Delhi.