“When singlehood is rendered viable and aspirational, marriage becomes an option rather than a compulsion.”
[Bella’s intro: One of my enduring frustrations about the place of single people in the U.S. is that there is so little organizing and advocacy around their issues. Not so in India. What it means to be single there is very different, and the proportion of single people is much smaller than in the U.S. and other Western nations. But the number of single people is growing, and two impressive organizations for single women are doing important work. I learned about those organizations from Ketaki Chowkhani, a brilliant scholar of singlehood in India. I asked her to tell “Single at Heart” readers more about them. I am so grateful that she agreed.]
Mobilising Single Women in India:
The Case of Majlis and Ekal Nari Shakti Sanghatan
By Ketaki Chowkhani
There is increasing reporting and mobilisation around single women in South Asia. Within India, a news report published in April 2017 noted that 12% of the India’s women are single (which includes divorced and widowed women too). According to census data, the number of single women has jumped from 51.2 million in 2001 to 71.4 million in 2011. Not only are single women in India increasing in numbers, but they are also coming together to support each other. In this post I will examine two examples where different organisations lobby for single women.
Majlis, an organisation in Mumbai which provides legal service to women, started conversations in early 2017 around a national level public campaign called Single but not Alone to increase visibility of single women’s identities and concerns. The concept note of the Public Campaign says:
We have found that many women and children deserted by their husbands or abandoned by their families struggle to build independent lives. We have also found that single women are forced to get married by their natal families. They are then forced to stay married in spite of facing immense violence from their husband or in-laws. There is immense social stigma of being single. In fact, the social status of a married woman, even one facing severe domestic violence, exceeds that of a single woman…Our objective is to develop a campaign which makes singlehood aspirational for women and changes public perceptions about what it means to be single… One important task would be to increase the visibility of single women who tend to be excluded. Through raising awareness, we hope to recognize single women and empower all women, especially those in abusive relationships, so that being or becoming single can be a viable option.
The Majlis public campaign seeks to increase visibility of single women and posit singlehood as an aspirational category. When singlehood is rendered viable and aspirational, marriage becomes an option rather than a compulsion. Majlis comes to singlehood from a perspective of prevention of domestic violence. It does not lobby with the State but seeks to raise awareness through their campaign for middle class as well as urban poor women.
The other organisation, Ekal Nari Shakti Sangathan (The Association of Strong Women Alone or ENSS) is based in Rajasthan and is a community of women from low income groups who have been widowed, divorced, abandoned or are never married. It was founded by Ginny Shrivastava in 2000 and currently has over 55,000 members. ENSS helps women to mobilise, support each other and lobby with the State for better laws and access to programs for single women. ENSS provides women with counselling, works with land and property rights, helps provide access to government entitlements, lobbies at the district, state and national level for their rights, seeks to stop sexual harassment of single women, looks to change caste and community norms, provides literacy training for leaders, conducts trainings, meetings and awareness camps, publicises the issues and causes of single women, and most importantly creates an ‘alternative family’.
ENSS seeks to make single women- who have been widowed, divorced, deserted, or unmarried- self-reliant. A slogan on the websites, states to that effect “we will meet any difficulties large or small. We will not wait for anyone, by our own strength we will overcome.” In seeking to bypass the authority of the male patriarch, it looks to welfare programs from the Government to lead lives of dignity and extend their work to other states. Despite the slogan of self-reliance, the Association seeks to organize women to work together towards better lives.
Over the years, ENSS has succeeded in making changes in widow and divorced women pension amounts, to secure more government jobs for women under various programs. Socio-culturally, ENSS has been able to raise the literacy rates of single women, find employment for them, and is able to negotiate their participation in religious and cultural celebrations. Some women have also fought for and won the Panchayati Raj elections in the state of Rajasthan and are able to participate in Rajasthan’s political life. ENSS has extended support to poor single women in the states of Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab and Maharashtra.
Rekha Pappu (2011) discusses how the Association is “an important instance of the incorporation of the figure of the single woman into the discursive field of development… Within the developmental discourse single women are positioned as subjects in need of governmental support; issues of land, wages and health assume primacy importance.” (Pappu, 2011: 378-379). Pappu notes that within this developmental discourse, issues of material existence are considered more important than questions of desire. Apart from that ENSS also seeks to create a sense of community and safety for single women.
While ENSS and the Majlis campaign target different groups of single women and their strategies of support are different, both forms of mobilisation seek to render singlehood more acceptable and desirable. More importantly, they provide ways for single women in India to come together, support each other and render their existence valid in their own eyes and in those of society and the State.
Pappu, Rekha. 2011. “Reconsidering Romance and Intimacy: The Case of the Single Unmarried Woman.” In Samita Sen, Ranjita Biswas and Nandita Dhawan Ed. Intimate Others: Marriage and Sexualities in India. Kolkata: Stree.
About the Author:
Dr Ketaki Chowkhani teaches sociology at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, India. She has a PhD in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her doctoral work focused on sexuality education and adolescent masculinities in middle class Mumbai. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Porn Studies, In Plainspeak, Teacher Plus, DNA, Kafila.online, Roundtable India and Ultraviolet. Her current research interests are on singlehood and the city. Ketaki also has an MPhil in Cultural Studies from the English and Foreign Languages University and an MA in English from Pondicherry University.