What is it like to be single? - Part 2 | Sunday Observer

What is it like to be single? - Part 2

24 October, 2021

(Part 1 of the interview with Attorney-at-Law Raveendra Sumathipala appeared on October 10)

Q: Don’t you think that the single male is more pressure free in comparison to the single female?

A: In the world as we know it is yes, it looks as if the burden is more towards the single female rather than the male. But historically, it wasn’t always the same for the single male. Although rarely spoken about, it wasn’t just the single unmarried woman who was burdened. History has many instances where the unmarried male ‘bachelor’ has been subjected to many difficulties.

For instance, in Britain they were taxed heavier than the married, while in Germany they were made to sweep stairs until they were kissed by some virgin. Worst yet, in ancient Sparta, unmarried men after a certain age were penalised in different ways. And yet for some reason, the male counterpart has risen beyond that situation as well as the social pressure.

Q: Why does society treat the single or unmarried woman with such negativity?

A: Well, most cultures seem to be in a forever struggle with the issue of what to do with unmarried women. Throughout history, we observe that certain religions and cultures have come up with highly annoying practices when it comes to dealing with the unmarried single women, from the nunneries, to Devadasis, from court dancers, to trained geishas. Also manias like virgin sacrifices to persecuting single women in the name of witch hunts during the Middle Ages. Even the crime of femicide was mostly focused on single women.

But as much as the age old Hindu and Islamic traditions have handicapped the freedom of the single female, the western culture with the influence of the Victorian traditions have curbed the freedom enjoyed by a single woman in a more sympathetic mode.

Q: Are there adequate safeguards for the single female in the legal systems?

A: Actually, the legal system does a better job in safeguarding the single female than the society itself does. The fact that a woman can remain unmarried, yet can make a choice for herself when it comes to sex related issues, or child bearing, or choices to adopt a child, stand by herself without a guardian.

In the UK after the introduction of the Civil Partnership Act in 2004, the whole idea of the social contract of marriage has lost its front seat. The fact that the same sex union can legally be recognised in par with a heterosexual marriage has created more space to different kinds of partnerships including long term heterosexual partnerships of individuals to be legally accepted when it comes to certain formalities related to properties and insurances. And becoming someone’s ‘wife’ is no longer a necessity and no longer a definitive status either.

Most South Asian cultures are yet to accept the unmarried woman’s right to make certain choices related to her life, such as the right to have intimate relationships prior to marriage, right to unmarried motherhood, adoption of children, contraception and other bodily rights which she is quite capable mentally to make all by herself.

Q: How does the Sri Lankan legal system treat single women?

A: I must say that in this regard the Sri Lankan legal system has always been highly liberal and more forward than society itself. The Constitution has ensured that the single woman of Sri Lanka can enjoy all the rights of a fully-fledged citizen.

We find that the Sri Lankan law has remained very liberal in the concepts and the only necessity I see is when it comes to the laws related to the married people rather than to the unmarried. The unmarried can remain free from certain restrictions that are made by certain private laws for the married and this is where we are really stuck at.

Yet, there are certain shortcomings in our legal system. For instance, intimate partner violence is an existing issue faced by single women who have relationships. While our Domestic Violence Act covers married females, it does not offer support when it comes to single unmarried female in intimate relationships or live- in relationships.

Q: We still see that the unmarried single woman is under some sort of guardianship. Doesn’t this give a single woman a certain amount of inferiority?

A: When a society is deemed patriarchal, there is a strong tendency to move the automatic guardianship towards men. But, why a single grown up woman needs a guardian still remains a question in want of a reasonable answer. Is it because she cannot take care of herself or is it because society cannot be careful enough to protect a woman alone?

The patriarchal assumptions and the sexist notions can be more focused towards a single woman rather than the married woman who is covered by the ‘husbandry’ of her legal male partner.

The funniest part of this is that even the West is still not free of these concepts fully.

Q: What age should she be for society to accept that she is capable of chaperoning herself?

A: In the international conventions the typical age of attaining legal adulthood is 18, although there may be slight variations from country to country. Hence, a girl who attains the age of adulthood is quite capable of making her own decisions including chaperoning herself all by herself any time of the day or night. The single woman is equally capable of chaperoning herself without a male chaperon or some kind of a body guard (unless of course she chooses it as a privilege)

Q: So, why do single women force themselves to marry someone after a certain age ?

A: Being unmarried in a society based on marital concepts can actually make you feel a bit isolated at times. But at the same time, I have seen many married women also feeling isolated within their own marriages.

Despite the benefits and the freedom of the single lifestyle for women, the existing narrative of society which includes the eternal bliss of marriage and having children as a sign of success has stigmatised the unmarried woman in our cultures and hence she tries to settle in for something to feel better by which the ‘feel better’ is a highly doubtful outcome.

Also the maternal instinct of a woman leads her to marriage, since motherhood devoid of marriage leads to social issues.

It is high time to realise that marriage does not promise you such satisfaction although the picture painted by society is such.

Q: What’s the place in Sri Lankan culture for a single woman?

A: Although, the Sri Lankan history does not provide much evidence to support the fact that single women were burdened culturally, the influence of Hinduism and Islam as well as the colonial Victorian traditions have turned the status of a single woman from being independent to a more vulnerable individual.

The introduction of the concept of marital status has left a woman with two choices in life as either be ‘married’ or ‘single’ whereas the latter choice isn’t really a choice, but a kind of a dejected situation. Even now we do not see that ‘divorcee’ is a status, and being in a partnership is considered anything but still remaining single.

It is frequently thought of as being single should be a short-lived part of life in a female and a kind of temporary aberration. The highly ironic notion in our culture is that you are expected to not only remain single until marriage but also to maintain a certain level of celibacy until marriage. Now this is a cruel trick played on a single woman by society.

Q: Certain questions by society even makes a single woman re-think whether something is actually wrong with her . Isn’t this disturbing?

A: The modern single woman is more empowered, yet society is still pulling her legs to leave her identity simply to hide society’s inadequacy in accepting her as she is not only because they were suspicious of their alternative lifestyles, but because of the collective guilt over their own inability to cater or care for them.

The concept of free woman or the femme solo has always been a challenging one. Although the Victorian concepts have limited a single woman’s rights when it comes to many aspects, we see that certain civilisations have had independent single women who have been equally powerful as their male counterparts.

Q: Does marital status have an impact on female empowerment and decision making?

A: Yes, and unfortunately most of the time the whole discussion on female empowerment spins around marriage.

The majority of the females in the free trade zone are unmarried single women. All these women have concerns for their health care, housing, and personal finances as well. And they need to be looked after by the existing legal systems as much as every other individual.

Q: And finally, what is your message to all the single females out there?

A: In the world at large, we see that all sorts of liberalisation have now gone into relationships within the law and policy now in the western world in comparison to the eastern world.

It takes a strong personality to remain single in a world that is so accustomed to settle with anything just to remain not-single. It takes courage to say that you are a whole person and that you don’t need ‘the other half’ for your existence. It is daring to say that you are not single but “self-partnered” just like Emma Watson stated once.

For those of us who haven’t, and may never, make that step, my message to them is that you are not alone, you are not immature, and you are not incomplete. You are just enough and completely a woman and your contribution to this world is equally essential as any married woman.

A woman does not owe anything to society at large for being unmarried and has no obligation to regenerate her race either.

There is nothing wrong in choosing not to get married and have kids. It’s ok that your experiences are different to what they’re expected to be. Don’t let anyone let you down from the question of marriage. It’s your life and it’s your choice.

It is time to change the entire dialogue into a more constructive one which can accept the status of a woman independent from her relationship status. It’s time for society to rethink its values and re-check what inadequacies have failed them in recognition of a woman as who she is. As the population of never-married women expands, we should celebrate our identity and the life experience that has given it to us. We should reclaim our history and stop being defined by others.