When Lalita Iyer was in her late 20s, her being unmarried was viewed as an affliction by her mother, who was eager to “autocorrect [her daughter’s] singledom”. But instead of looking for a man, Iyer decided to focus on herself. “I found…my calling and decided that I was my happily ever after. I loved the new me and my new life.”
Iyer’s story as a “happily unmarried” woman was featured in a project by feminist group Majlis Legal Centre, celebrating #SingleSeptember. Part of the trend of monthly hashtags on social media such as #onlymeOctober and #noshaveNovember, #SingleSeptember was dedicated to celebrating singlehood. For their project titled Happily Unmarried, Majlis invited women through social media posts in April, to share why they chose to remain single. The series, published as posts on Majlis’ Facebook and Instagram pages, went live in September and featured six women from across India.
Iyer eventually got married when she was 39 but walked out of the dysfunctional relationship six years later – with “baby and cat in tow”. Now, almost 50, Iyer is content being single again. “Now I am called a ‘single mother’, although I feel happily married to myself again,” she said. “I believe that ultimately, whether you are single or married, it’s about showing up – for your partner, for your family, your friends, your children, the universe, but, most importantly, for yourself.”
The idea for Happily Unmarried arose in a brainstorming session in April in Majlis’ Mumbai office. Majlis, which provides legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and conducts gender sensitisation programmes, had been looking for ways to make its social media more interactive. In March, it had posted interviews with women who had turned their lives around with the help of the centre, and was now looking to do another, but more light-hearted, project.
The larger narrative behind the campaign was to encourage young unmarried girls to make an informed decision, said lawyer Bindiya Rao, a team member. “You often give in to social pressure, like ‘you’re 30 so you should be married’ or ‘you’re 32 so you should start having children’,” said Rao. “There is a particular timetable that is scheduled for women and they are not given a free choice. This project is about letting these girls know that they always do have a choice.”
The response initially was tepid, with only a couple of women willing to speak. Eventually more people started contacting them. Rao conducted interviews with each participant, recordings of which were then transcribed by Zara Shah, a 16-year-old volunteer.
“The lawyers at Majlis, over the course of their work, have come to know many women who are stuck in unhappy, abusive marriages, but are afraid of walking away,” said Zara Shah. “So we were discussing why they stick with their spouses. One of the major reasons across classes was facing the stigma associated with being single. So, we wanted to do something to show that being single can be a healthy choice and that marriage should not be put on a pedestal.”
One of the first women to be featured was Liyi Noshi from Arunachal Pradesh, who lives in Delhi with her five foster children. Noshi said she did consider marriage when she was in her 20s, but then decided against it. “I don’t have to please anyone,” said Noshi. “If there’s something I want to do, I can just get up and do it. No one will ask me, ‘Kahan ja rahi hai? Kyun ja rahi hai?’ (Where are you going? Why are you going?)”
According to Zara Shah, most women spoke about the positives of staying single. The biggest challenges, many of them said, came from outside rather than within – the way they were judged by people who couldn’t understand or accept their choice. “It is the external pressure that is hard for them to deal with,” she said. “But none of them expressed boredom, unhappiness or lack of fulfilment with being unmarried.”
A few comments by social media users argued that marriage was an indispensable institution or that one can experience similar freedoms while in a marriage. But most were positive and supportive about the women’s decisions. “It is all extremely subjective,” said Rao. “If you’re in a happy marriage it’s easy to say that it is how things are supposed to be, but if you’re in an abusive marriage then this idea that marriage is a necessity is extremely harmful.”
Flavia Agnes, a founder of Majlis, who was also interviewed for the series, touched upon various aspects of staying single. “It seems like a lot of fun…but it can be extremely difficult sometimes and no one wants to solely make a decision and be at fault if it fails,” said the 70-year-old. “Because so many married women have no or a joint say in decision-making for the family or for herself, it’s easy to put the blame on the other person in case of failure. So no, the freedom is not always easy, but do you really want to put your life in someone else’s hands just for the fear of taking responsibility for your actions?”
Most women featured in Happily Unmarried advised young women to think hard before deciding on marriage. Rushana Khan, a 34-year-old application developer, who hates the idea of being judged by her suitors, wanted women to be accepted for who they are. “Until you are ready to do that, try and find yourself. Invest in yourself, give yourself time for self-care.”
Archana Relan had a similar message. “I’ll never say don’t get married, but just don’t get married for the sake of getting married,” she said. The 37-year-old broke her engagement with her partner of many years because it didn’t feel right to her. “Don’t settle for things like arranged marriage just to get it over with. Wait. Live your life and if someone comes along even at the age of 60, and you want to get married, then so be it.”