I say this with conviction: it is an arduous task staying single in Dhaka. If you are a single woman, and self-dependent, you will probably agree with me on how difficult it is to just BE, let alone have any radical aspirations. Apart from the practicalities of the matter, which is no less challenging by the way, it is more so because of how you are being perceived.
If you are a lone wolf living in Dhaka, like me, you must have experienced a dose of single-shaming at some point or the other. It comes in all shapes and forms. Some are quite blatant, while others are inferred, but they are there. They are in the curious stares of acquaintances, bewildered looks of friends of friends, loud-enough thoughts and comments of aunties at weddings, the first impressions you make on prospective landlords among all. They are ubiquitous, making the air around you so thick with judgment that you can almost feel the weight on you. A single woman in any shape or form is a social anomaly, quite the eyesore, and hence invites invectives, directives and everything sad, bad and ugly.
Wait! Before you get me wrong, this is not a rant against marriage, but against that shame bomb you drop so indiscriminately anywhere and everywhere on those who choose to stay away from it, due to whatever reasons or circumstances.
These shame bombs hit me in two contradictory ways—one renders me invisible and the other makes me the centre of all attention, and quite relentlessly so. I find both equally unacceptable.
Dhaka puts me in a serious existential crisis as a human being. I'm regularly rendered invisible due to my singlehood. I'm in my late 30s and have toiled hard to give a certain contour to the trajectory of my life, which is generally thought of as good enough. I run a functional family, consisting of my son and myself, primarily. I decide the proceedings of my household in all aspects. I give you these details not to make you privy to my household, but to make you aware of the fact that the basic operational logic and mechanics of everyday life in my family is no different than in any other. Yet, in social interactions, my non-existent husband becomes present in his absence, while, I, with all my corporeality, am rendered invisible with more ease than I could possibly expect. It does not feel good.
This is one reason why I dread the wedding season. Relatives don't know what to do with me when they come to invite my parents and bump into me. Things were different when I was married. I would receive a separate invitation card as I was old enough, no longer living with my parents and had my own family. I'm older yet now, still don't live with my parents, still have my own family, only the composition of that family has changed. But, I don't receive those cards anymore. I fall under my father's family. I have ceased to matter as an individual with everything of me intact but that change in my marital status. The absent card with my name on it is a reminder of that social indifference leading to my invisibility. This could have been that one rare moment when I would have been happy to have Benjamin-Buttoned to my much younger self. Who wouldn't? I could be happy too, only if it was about me. It is not about me—young or old—at all! Not having a certified male partner seems to make all the difference. I have ceased to exist with the dissolution of my marriage, no matter how failed a marriage it was!
Well, this is pretty unintentional and benign compared to the forced absences I have experienced elsewhere. It was during my house-hunting expedition in one of Dhaka's upbeat residential areas that I was rendered invisible again, and this time with much soreness.
Most landlords disapproved of me as a prospective tenant. There was this elderly landlord who, after much discussion with his wife, seemed to be confused. He seemed to like me, all the more so because I'm a teacher by profession. The perceived nobility of my profession has always worked as my saving grace. And I, quite conscious of it, would play this card as fast as I could to avoid my singlehood from spoiling my chances. Accordingly, I had already handed my business card soon after the introduction. I could almost see him melting and giving in. I can bet, despite all his reservations against single women, he was thinking: “How bad can a university teacher be!”
Just when I thought that I had it all set, it hit me again: “So, who will pay the rent for you?” asked the old man, still holding my newly printed business card, which I thought must have convinced him in my favour! This was after an hour-long discussion, sighting of the house, and even a talk on possible small renovations that he agreed to do before I could move in! All my so-called accomplishments, years of experience and self-gratifying, feel-good things about myself evaporated, and I was rendered invisible again!
Still adamant and hopeful about Dhaka, I continued house-hunting, until I encountered one landlord saying: “We only rent out to families.” Dumbstruck, I could only reply: “But we are a family. I am looking for a place for my son and myself.” After a weird exchange of looks came a series of even weirder directives: “We don't allow random visitors. It's a family place, you know!” In those weird looks, in those undue and untold assumptions about me, I lost myself again! That day took away all the pleasure, sense of achievement and glory I was basking in having just received my PhD and having returned to my own city, my home, to work and live on my own terms. I remember, I cried my heart out for loving Dhaka, for wanting to work and live in Dhaka, my very own city, where I believe my soul is!
Faced with all this, I cannot but wonder, what is it about me that bothers people to incite such judgments? These shame bombs do not drop on me out of the blue. They result from various perceptions, myths around singlehood and the norm-breaker, and do not necessarily originate from an inherent sadistic streak in human beings to embarrass and hurt me. What norm, you ask? The golden norm of marriage, of course!
Well, another blow awaits me, when, still unyielding, I make my way into social gatherings. Contrary to the existential crisis that made me question whether I exist at all, I'm now the centre of all attention or, rather, pity, however uncalled for. I'm an open book. Everybody knows how I must feel from how I look—if overweight, I must be binge-eating out of depression; if underweight, I must be skipping meals out of depression; if I look just fine (in their mysteriously dubious standards), everybody compliments me on how good I look with a heavy and audible sigh as if all my gorgeousness is being wasted, with no one to appreciate it. I don't know how they are so sure that this is the case though. But in all aspects, I remain miserable.
Being single is readily and interchangeably seen as being a loser. This is the wellspring of all that unsolicited advice I receive on social gatherings, often out of sheer goodwill. People are concerned about pulling me out of the slough of despondence they imagine I'm in.
Another common perception of singlehood in Dhaka is that it is a temporary state. If you are single, you are always perceived to be in a waiting room, waiting to get back to NORMAL life, in other words, married life! The fact that Dhaka life is stressful and challenging or that I'm not managing well, does not mean I must get married. It is just not the right reason!
What ails me above all is that people make me feel not just like any oddball, but like an anomaly that could be set right with the magic potion, i.e. marriage. Dear Dhakaites, please note that being with people doesn't necessarily mean being happy or even alright, just like being single doesn't mean being miserable. It's time you stop indulging in single-shaming. It's NOT the next in-thing, and certainly NOT COOL! Most importantly, it hurts.
Do not single me out for being single! I'm not a problem to be fixed, not a disease to be cured, not a freak of nature to be brought back to normalcy. I'm just fine.
Tabassum Zaman is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). An English graduate from the University of Dhaka, she holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the National University of Singapore.