If she is her father's daughter no more, and her husband's wife not yet (if ever) then what is she' This is no riddle. It is the question that dogs single women everywhere. She has broken the mould and is struggling against a tide, in the form of subtle, incessant, suffocating reminders that her life and choices are not really her own.
The independent woman ' whatever her age or marital status ' continues to battle social hypocrisy and discrimination for choosing to live life on self-defined terms. In a city like Calcutta, too small for anonymity, here are just a few problems affecting day-to-day functions that women who dare to go solo are forced to live with:
You would think that property would be available with anyone who could pay for it. While a man with a criminal record would have little trouble renting accommodation, for a woman, doors slam firmly shut unless she has a husband to show off. There are no restrictions on sale of property to single women, but few landlords ' and landladies ' welcome unmarried female tenants.
The Implication: An unmarried woman represents a threat to the sexual status quo.
A Wish: A little bit of discrimination. Clearly, if a woman ' or a man ' seems suspect, the right of refusal is theirs. But to reject a woman outright just because she is a woman alone is blatant and senseless discrimination.
Middle-class Calcutta is known for pointing fingers wherever possible. And when a single woman has moved into the building, she is an easy target teeming with possibilities. Gossip abounds, leaving her two options. She can either live her life by their rules or face the consequences. Violence and verbal abuse are not unheard of.
The Implication: A woman doesn't have the right to choose her lifestyle.
A Wish: While blabbing mouths can never be silenced, a woman should be able to feel safe and secure in her own home, at least.
Whether you are single or not, moving around in the city alone ' and sometimes even with company ' is an irritant at best and hazardous at worst. Buses, taxis, even the Metro, are strewn with landmines, exploding with offensive behaviour, from verbal harassment to physical abuse.
The Implication: A woman does not have the right to walk down a street alone, at ease. Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee claims Calcutta is the safest of all Indian cities. Yet, for half its population, the fundamental freedom to move around ' wearing clothes she is comfortable in, in modes of transport she can afford ' like the other half, is hardly recognised.
A Wish: A level-playing field as far as a basic sense of security goes.
Bars and restaurants are tricky areas for the single woman, or even a group of women unaccompanied by a man. Forget the fact that there are a number of establishments where women are just not welcome, others insist there is at least one man in their midst to allow entry into the 'family section', while another segment will allow you a table but refuse to serve alcoholic beverages. As for restaurants, when was the last time you saw a woman having a meal on her own' The comfort factor is compromised by stares and unwanted attention. Rather order for home delivery.
The Implication: Where women have a meal has to be dictated by men.
A Wish: Every woman should be credited with the ability to choose what she wants to eat and drink, where and when, as much as the man sitting beside her. Is this too much to ask for'
If she is fortunate enough to own a car, she is the target of scorn or/and lechery. 'Baaper gadi chalachchhe' is the most commonly tossed around statement by those sharing road space. Heard of a guy at the wheel being told that' Stares, lewd gestures, catcalls, bikes and cars on the tail' All this apart from the hell that driving on these city streets dishes out, anyway.
The Implication: Enter the world of driving, just like any other male domain, at your own risk. You still haven't earned your right to get behind the wheel or steer your life.
A Wish: Basic respect. And, can we please be left alone'
It is, after all, a man's world.
Being born and brought up in Germany, I never had to give this subject much thought. Sitting in a caf' or bar, enjoying the after-work tea or midnight drink on my own, going out for a dance, choosing my way of life, including education and partner. These are things women of my generation are taking for granted nowadays in Germany.
So why is it a man's world' I have tried to stand my ground as a single woman in different parts of this world. And there is enough to show that matters have not really changed. Every morning in Calcutta, trying to find my way through the crowd to catch a bus, I got used to songs staring men start singing. With lowered gaze and hastened steps, I tried to avoid being stopped by total strangers on bikes who 'just want to be my friend'. Being reduced to your body, without any interest in your personality and skills, is saddening.
There is no network for women. Even when I, as a single woman, wanted to rent a flat, several landlords turned me down. I finally found one, but I was constantly aware of my neighbour's curiosity. Every male visitor was eyed and surely counted. Women joined in. Perhaps it was out of fear that the single woman next door could show interest in their husbands.
It is as if a woman can only be married or about-to-be married. Almost everywhere ' bank, registration office, hospital, library -- I had to be either my father's daughter or my husband's wife. Often I was advised to bring someone along to pretend to be my husband ('Things would be much easier, madam!').
(Nadine Mukherjee, half-German and half-Bengali, was living and working in the city for a few months)
It's a jungle out there.
If you've successfully lived through the trauma of looking for a place to live in as a single woman, you'll survive Delhi. It is amusing at best to see the range of reactions from estate agents, landlords, potential neighbours (surprise, curiosity, suspicion, apprehension, rejection) and a constantly played-out power equation.
Let's pause at each reaction. Surprise: Why do you want to stay alone' Curiosity: What kind of a family do you come from that they let their daughters loose in the big bad world' Suspicion: Where do you work' Will you be able to pay the rent' Apprehension: Do you have men friends' Rejection: Sorry, we are god-fearing, law-abiding people.
And then when you're depressed and irritated you visit the very last house and meet some of the most matter-of-fact, non-critical human beings who say, 'Okay great, so when do you want to move in'Amen!
And of course living in Delhi is like living on the edge. But paradoxically, or maybe not, with every new encounter you become more empowered and confident. There are black days, there is depression, there is loneliness, there are moments of helplessness but never, I think, of powerlessness.
(S. Dasgupta is a Calcuttan in her 30s, now living in Delhi)