Through the book, the author examines the lives of single women in relation to education, work, care, love, sex, motherhood, pleasure, and friendships.
‘Why are you single?’ Sarah Lamb’s journey into the lives of single women in India begins with one question and the varied answers culminate in the first book-length scholarly study of celibacy in India. Singles studies is an emerging discipline in India and, as Lamb argues, being single is unusual in the country because living outside the familiar habitus of kinship is not common. As an anthropologist, Lamb primarily focuses on celibacy through the lens of kinship.
In his book, Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion and Possibility, Lamb examines unmarried women of all social classes in Bengal, ranging from the affluent elite, to the middle classes, to the poor. Single women, Lamb notes, offer valid critique of many things: life, family, sex, sexuality, kinship, propriety, respect, social class, belonging, pleasure, and so on. Through the book, she examines the life of single women in relation to education, work. , care, love, sex, motherhood, fun and friendships. She finds a balance between considering the challenges as well as the possibilities of being single.
Lamb also examines the issue of social identity and belonging and how single women are in limbo due to their existence outside of kinship structures. She explores them both as they relate to rural and urban women, who might have all the material comforts and security but might lack kinship relationships. This absence of a birth family leads to a number of things. One is the reduced number of housing options beyond the family home. While urban women can find homes in high-rise buildings, in rural areas there is no housing for single women.
With the ubiquity of shows like Indian Matchmaking, Lamb’s discussion of what makes a woman unmarryable is poignant and to the point. These range from physical appearance, disability, accomplishment, and higher education. She notes that highly educated women with doctorates remain celibate. Lamb says there is a common perception that being highly educated robs a woman of her femininity. One fascinating case she discusses is the notion of three genders in China – men, women, and women with doctorates. Citing the Kanyashree program launched by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Lamb notes the role of education in delaying the age of marriage for girls. Wealth, feminism, communication technologies and urbanization have been noted as factors that have led to the global rise of celibacy; we can now add education to this list.
The South Asian context
Lamb also examines a particular type of unmarried woman, culturally specific to South Asia. These are women who did not marry because their families needed their income and care. While the women who perform this specific act of “sacrifice” derive pride and pleasure from it, their families simply view them as breadwinners.
She also notes how a single woman’s sexuality is seen as a threat, leading landlords to deny housing to single women. Examining single motherhood (the celibate gender), Lamb notes that it disrupts patrilineality and must be the reason for the excessive pressure placed on men to marry and perpetuate the lineage.
Retirement homes are becoming interesting spaces for the possibility of legitimate celibacy. In these houses, single women gain respect and status because they are here legitimately. Married women, on the other hand, are viewed with pity and bewilderment because “why didn’t their children take care of them?”
Many women claim a certain independence and autonomy by remaining single where work becomes a means of subsistence and fulfillment beyond marriage. The more hopeful parts of the book come at the end, breaking up the deficit narratives about singles. Here, Lamb tells stories of exploration of pleasure and pleasure by single women, including going out alone, decorating their homes, meeting friends, all while navigating public space as a single woman. Lamb explains that this ability to choose to remain celibate is often tied to a cosmopolitan upbringing and upbringing. To all the cosmopolitan married women, I ask “why are you not Single’?
Being Single in India: Stories of Gender, Exclusion and Possibility; Sarah Lamb, University of California Press, ₹2,351.
The Examiner is an Assistant Professor at the Manipal Center for Humanities and teaches a course on Singles Studies.