Women living alone

Published April 7, 2021
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

EVERY society has its own peculiar and specific cruelties. In the United States, guns proliferate even though it would make sense and save lives to have constraints on gun ownership. In Japan, the failure of a business or loss of a job carries so much stigma that many choose suicide over bearing the social ignominy. In Pakistan, the noose strung around women’s necks is the edict that they must marry. So central is this precept, so coercive the pressure to obey it, that as soon as a woman comes of age, she is harassed and harried by meddling family members, friends and even strangers.

If a single woman in her 20s or 30s attends any social function at all, she is accosted by some combination of cruelty-inflicting aunties from whose lips falls the perennial question ‘when will you get married?’ Surrounding this central inquiry is the appraisal of why the individual concerned is not married: ‘you should lose some weight’, some will insist; ‘you should not be so picky’, others will admonish. Some will pretend to be kind: ‘so what if you got divorced, there are widowed men out there’, or ‘you should get married while you’re still young, otherwise you will have to live in another woman’s household’.

This last bit is of note. Even in the year 2021, when women man the US space station and lead countries, Pakistani culture does not permit women to live alone. Cumulatively, this means that a woman must marry whatever fool shows up at her doorstep or be condemned to a life in which she is an appendage in one or another brother’s household. A woman may be the CEO of the largest multinational in the country, she may be a cancer-curing doctor, she may be the owner of a thriving business, but she cannot set up a household by herself and live her life on her own terms.

The punishment for not marrying or for being divorced is a life sentence of living in a home where they never make the rules. No matter the level of education and career success and achievement, they must gratefully accept the far bedroom in a home they did not choose. Their acquiescence in this is a performance of submission; they may be single by choice, but they are still ‘good’ and ‘obedient’, not ‘wayward’ and ‘selfish’. Their single status, the whole arrangement testifies, is but an accident and not owed to an unwillingness to be selfless.

The punishment for not marrying is a life sentence of living in a home where they never make the rules.

Only selfless women are permitted to exist in Pakistan. Men who do not marry, who build businesses, who are noted physicians, who have become successful in whatever they have chosen to do, can build mansions or rent apartments. In these homes they can arrange and decorate as they please, make their own household rules, entertain when they wish and create the refuge that home is meant to be.

While some relative may still attempt to marry them off, no one questions their right to do the simplest of things — to live by themselves in a place of their choosing. As a matter of fact, I have never heard of a grown single man who has decided not to marry living in a brother’s or a sister’s home. The reason is simple: they do not exist in Pakistan.

At the same time, the rule that women cannot live alone forces scores of women into absurd situations. One highly successful woman I know recently purchased an apartment for herself. She is furnishing the apartment according to her own likes and wants and hopes to entertain friends and host family at events in this new place. The only problem is that she cannot ‘live’ in this apartment.

This is because her traditional family, namely her brothers, do not want her to live by herself. Permitting her to do so, they fear, would send the message that they are unwilling or unable to take care of their sister, who, being unmarried, requires them to function as her male guardians. Not having her stay in their homes would bring dishonour on the family. Tired of all this admonishment and meddling, the woman resides at the homes of one of her brothers.

There are Pakistani women who have flouted this rule and choose to live by themselves. Some have chosen to take jobs in cities away from their families, others began living by themselves when they decided to live in a hostel while attending an educational institution at a distance from their home. If single women are harassed by nosy people inquiring why they have not married, or interrogations designed to ferret out some fact that will explain their ‘bechari’ single condition, the women who choose to live alone must bear an additional burden.

Not only are they shelved away as deeply flawed owing to their refusal to marry, they are also now morally questionable because of their insistence of living apart from the family in their own home. ‘No wonder,’ their relatives titter amongst themselves behind their backs, ‘she is not married’.

To many Pakistanis, issues like these seem unimportant, a grouse against a culture that prides itself at its inflexibility on questions regarding women. The reality is that questions like these, the unavailability of basic freedoms available to women (as they are to men), illustrate why the country seems only to edge closer towards the brink. The debts keep mounting, the wayward politicians keep stealing, the people keep suffering.

There is a deep connection between all of this and the insistence that women see themselves as non-persons, ghost-like shadows who live at the periphery of society, of households, of workplaces. When half of a country’s population is left subject to arbitrary rules, forced into matrimony, stuffed into households not their own, it should be no mystery why Pakistan remains mired in misery. The least one can do is stop asking single women why they do not wed or why they want to live alone. It is, quite simply, nobody’s business.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2021

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