It is tough being a single woman in a strongly patriarchal society such as ours.

It is said that women hold up half the sky. Some would persuasively argue that they hold up more than that. And yet, in virtually every country and with every passage of history, in every culture and tradition, in every region, religion, caste, class, race, creed, and ethnicity; in the diversity of our shared past and varied present, women have always been disadvantaged compared to men in almost all spheres of life. They have been discriminated systematically in their access to food, work, education, and healthcare, and in opportunities to participate in development, to lead, think, dream, and realise their dreams. They are, and have remained through millennia, truly the world's largest minority.

But man's greatest ire has been reserved for a woman who lives alone, outside the shadow of a man. This is because women are not treated by patriarchy as persons who are agents and ends in their own right, individuals complete in themselves. Instead, they are mere instruments of the ends of others: reproducers, caregivers, sexual outlets, and agents of a family's general prosperity. Their cultural acceptability is only as appendages of men, as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, otherwise they are dispensable or ‘fallen'.

Outside the system

Single women stand outside this instrumentality because of the absence of male ‘protection', which is actually the absence of male control. It is this which devalues their social status in the assessment of our patriarchal society. The absence of male ‘ protection' is resented most when a woman wilfully rejects it, but prevails also when she loses her spouse without her own volition, to accident or illness, or when he chooses to abandon her.

Widowhood is stigmatised and disadvantaged in most communities, but most severely among upper caste Hindus. There is social resistance to remarriage of Hindu widows. A widowed woman is not treated with respect and a lot of restrictions are imposed upon her. At times, she is still expected to shave her head, wear extremely simple and coarse white clothes so as to effectively desexualise her. To make matters worse, paradoxically, widows across cultures are viewed as sexually ‘available', and routinely subjected to sexual harassment and abuse, within their husband's family and outside as well, especially if she goes out of her home to work.

The widow has no perceived value to the family after the death of her husband. She is considered a burden, who may also claim a share of the family property. Her presence at festivals and family occasions is viewed as inauspicious. She is not permitted to wear symbols of marriage (‘sindoor' or vermilion in the parting of the hair), and is required to eat a frugal vegetarian diet separately, and is often barred from participating in auspicious occasions.

Apart from this, a strong belief exists, for example in upper-caste Hindu households in rural West Bengal, that after the husband's death, a widow can live with dignity only in religious towns. Thus, if widows are not condemned to live cold, deprived and unfulfilled lives in their parents' or husbands' homes, they suffer destitution and abandonment in religious towns such as Vrindavan and Varanasi. Or worse still, on the streets. The pavements of metropolises and temple towns are crowded with widows abandoned by their sons, or women who have left their married homes.

Even more ostracised are women who are alone despite living spouses. Many married women persist in tolerating battery, humiliation, and physical and mental cruelty, unable or unwilling to strike out by themselves. Many believe that it is the duty of a woman to continue to live with her husband even if she suffers cruelty, and that a woman's social acceptance and security in the community are necessarily derived from her married status.

Hostile circumstances

Even if a woman is able to overcome such beliefs for herself, her parents are frequently unwilling to accept a married daughter who leaves her husband, and therefore a woman is trapped with nowhere to go if she breaks ties with her husband's home. She may lack education and professional qualifications, and consequently the confidence to survive alone economically. Finally, she may be paralysed by concern for the welfare of her children.

In these circumstances, she remains vulnerable to continued violence or degraded status at home, and exploitation, social prejudice and economic and shelter insecurity outside. It is a hard and cruel choice. But some women bravely choose to no longer accept the violence at home, and step out into the world, often with children in tow.

Other women are abandoned and cast out by their husbands. Such desertions are becoming increasingly frequent in all social classes, partly because of the anonymity and breakdown of social restraints in the city. Even in many rural communities, such free desertions by men have social sanction. Muslim women are also vulnerable to such desertions through the right of married men to give ‘talaq' (divorce) relatively unencumbered by legal or social restraints. Their right to maintenance from their spouse is contested by patriarchal interpretations of religious law. Both women who escape violence and abuse in their marital homes, and those who are turned out by their spouses, have to survive the trauma of standing alone in a hostile patriarchal society, for which they were never socialised, and therefore feel psychologically, physically and educationally ill-equipped.

All cultures in our land are uneasy with women who, by choice or circumstance, stand alone without male support, to build their own lives, on their own terms. They often do so bravely, but mostly joylessly and hopelessly. Recently, single women came together across many states of India, in a collective called Ekal Nari Sangathan. In this sisterhood, they have found strength, and friendship, and solidarity, and hope. I will return to this extraordinary organisation of single women in a future column. Through it, many have overcome. And many more will, with the passing years.

(This article is written jointly with Dipa Sinha of the Centre for Equity Studies.)