Are independent, single, happy women a threat to the patriarchal system of marriage? In short, yes.
Relatives are relentless when it comes to marriage.
I'm constantly trying to drown out comments like, "Stop with your nakhras, no one is perfect" and "Till how long will you keep rejecting rishtas? You're not going to be of marriageable age for long."
It. is. extremely exhausting. Eventually, I learned the art of, 'Jee aunty, bas dua karein', a result of endless disagreements and fruitless debates.
It's hard for society to accept that a woman can choose to be single and any attempt to justify it is futile; if people can feel at liberty to probe into something as intimate as conceiving, then somebody's marriage is definitely their right, right?
"The pressure on women to marry can be extremely damaging to their self esteem and sense of self worth," Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at LUMS tells me. "From a young age, girls are told that they will only be valued in relation to a man, that no matter how much she accomplishes individually, the most important thing is to get a ‘good rishta’ and settle down. For women who resist this, and there are a growing number, it is a constant battle against societal norms."
And persistent shaadi pressure is a way of "inadvertently shaming women for being single by making them feel like failures. Even when friends/relatives do this out of care and concern, this can be damaging," she adds.
While the main worry in past generations was the financial and economic stability of a woman, though it continues to be, it has lessened to a degree because more women in Pakistan are opting to contribute to the work force.
Nida says, "Even though we know that the male breadwinner model is extremely problematic, there are limited economic opportunities for the vast majority of women. This economic reality also has a strong influence on marriage practices."
By that logic shouldn't parents be advocating financial independence to their daughters? Especially mothers who come from unhappy marriages? "Women are socialised into believing this is the only option for them. They are taught that there is no way out of this cycle. Hence, we often see older women who are unhappy in their marriages impose the same system on their daughters and daughters-in-law."
Unfortunately this pressure of marriage is ingrained so deep in our consciousness that anyone who defies it is deemed a rebel. Like the sociologist adds, "Independent, single and happy women threaten the very foundations of this patriarchal evidence and therefore are extremely threatening."
I asked 8 single Pakistani women above 30 what life is like living in this society: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here's what they have to say.
I'm in my early 30s, a Muslim Pakistani woman who works full time, lives with her dad, and is single. No shame in that.
I am mostly single because I am an introvert who doesn't enjoy the things women are conventionally expected to or, indulging a man's superficial sexual fantasy - which in our society is uncannily driven by skin, voice, hair, class, background - all the things nobody controls, and all the things that actually don't define your person.
And also because I'm sapiosexual, so stupidity will make me lose interest in a man like nothing else -- I've been told by several guys I'm intimidating.
I was on a mission for a long time to get out of Pakistan and get a doctorate in public policy with a focus on education so I could come back and wrestle the public system into providing each Pakistani a useful learning experience. And every boy along the way who has not aligned with this has either had his heart broken or has broken mine, but you carry on in life because there are bigger problems to solve than just finding the right guy.
People often bluntly ask me my marital status, and I bluntly respond, single. It's never been a big deal to me, and just because it's bothering somebody else, I'm not going to internalise their frustrations. I just don't want other people weighing me down about it because they want to get new clothes made or they feel sorry for me.
I get asked: do you want to be lonely forever? How much work exactly are you hoping to get done? You're getting old, and the 'good' guys/ 'choices' are running out, soon you'll have to settle for whatever comes your way.
I work four jobs and the life I have right now, I could never pull off in a traditional marriage. So my current marital status is an asset. However, it's hard on days when people resent you for having time because they've got to attend to their spouses and the pressure to get married when you're not really feeling it is the hardest. I cry. I confide in my sisters. It's okay not to be brave all the time. I'd go silent before, but now I politely tell people, 'Look I'm sure there's lots I don't know about you, and there's definitely lots you don't know about me.'
My father does bring up marriage on occasion, he realises he's got to continue advising his daughter in his parental responsibility, but also support her battles and aspirations also in a parental capacity. It's gotten to a precious balance of me trying to build a life as a full human being - with the realisation that when I get to know somebody I truly enjoy being with, I'll entertain the thought of marriage.
I probably spend about 2% of my week even thinking about whether I should get into a steady, long-term relationship. I guess I'm not coming across any intelligent men lately, haha! When the right guy comes along he will just match my pace. It's all about pace.
As a single woman belonging to a religious minority in Pakistan, I've experienced a fundamental change in the way I perceive love and partnership. The pickings are slim anyway and some heartbreaks in, you realise religion is a deal-breaker. When marriage comes at the cost of religious conversion just for the sake of acceptance, being single is not a hard choice to make, personally speaking. Alternatively, I'm asked, 'why don’t you find a good Christian boy?'
Suffice to say, during my time in Pakistan I did not find a good Christian boy and he, too, never came looking for me. I am relentlessly single-shamed. Questions like 'why do you think you're single?' make me feel extremely awkward. I guess people hope that I'll draw out a list of my faults that repel men, therein accepting that I am flawed and need to 'work' on myself to be good enough for someone. My own mother never pressured me; and this has perhaps provided greater impetus for other family friends and members to bring it up any given opportunity.
I consider myself lucky to have been brought up by a single mother, in that I was aware of and equipped to deal with gender inequality at a very young age. Fighting for basic freedoms is an intrinsic part of who I am. Has that potentially scared away suitors? Yes, every single one of them.
Society typically thinks a woman’s best chance at survival is to marry, so my family and friend’s concern is understandable but however well-meaning this concern may be, it does end up equating being single with failure, loneliness or a personality problem.
The fear of being single is fueled by social and cultural expectations. Why should one of the most important decisions of your life be made out of fear?
I also strongly believe romantic relationships are not central to well-being. Not in the way mental health, and financial independence are. Having said that, I am certainly not against the idea of marriage so long as couples can redefine the concept to suit their own needs and personalities, and can separate themselves from the historical makeup of the institution enough to make it a strong, healthy, and equal relationship.
Contrary to people's expectations, managing my daily life while single is relatively easy. I am not absorbing anyone else's debts, I take greater risks professionally, I can relocate to the other side of the world on a whim, I plan my vacations without any delay, and I cook for one.
Still, I get terrible comments from people, like 'you'll never be a homemaker because you come from a broken home.' How do I deal with comments like this? By making spectacular homes everywhere I live.
I come from a traditional middle class family and my education and career are my first priority in life. Although I wanted to get married when I was younger but once I started focusing on my schooling and work, my perspective towards life changed - I decided not to get married for the sake of it and to instead find someone compatible.
My family is quite supportive, when I spoke to them about going to the UK for my Master's they appreciated my decision. I've now come back to Pakistan to pursue a career in journalism and though my parents are concerned about me they never pressurised me to get married or shamed me for being single.
But I'm quite disappointed in my friends, even the close ones, they often bring up marriage; for them it is an achievement and they see me as a failure. None of them congratulated me when I came back after my degree, they straight away asked, 'Oh when are you getting married?'.
Being single is my own decision and I do not feel bad about it but when people annoy me with questions and see me as someone who has not achieved anything in life then it becomes slightly depressing. In Pakistan, the purpose of a woman's existence is to get married and have kids and there's a certain timeline to achieve this in and if you don't by the age of 25 then they start looking down upon you.
I have heard a lot of negative and unpleasant comments related to my singlehood. When I was overweight, people would tell me to shed pounds otherwise nobody will marry me, or that I should apply whitening creams to get good rishtas. Some people think that because I support my family that's the reason I'm not getting married, or that I’m not getting married on purpose.
Sometimes I ignore it, sometimes I snap back but usually I try to avoid confrontation. What hurts is that my best friends often bring this up and shame me. I cannot express rage on social issues online because I get comments like, 'Get married, maybe then you will have control over your anger' and these things bother me.
I have had married men make advances towards me thinking that since I am single and not "young" anymore I must be desperate for their attention - which is really pathetic and repulses me. Honestly, when I was abroad I never felt disrespected in any way but as far as most Pakistani men are concerned, they have a very backward thinking when it comes to single women.
I tried to reach out to a few close friends but they said I should pray more and be patient, they tried to portray me as a bechari so I've stopped confiding in them.
It does get depressing when people bring this up but at the same time I know what I have to do and I'm not going to live how others want me to live. I am very positive about the fact that if I find someone I will definitely get married and if I don't I'm self sufficient.
Ever since I was a child I knew who I was.
When I'd come home from school, I'd take off my uniform and dress up like Juhi Chawla. I'd wear gajras and pretend I'm a bride.
Now I'm a dancer and perform at functions, otherwise you'll find me in the kitchen cooking food, sometimes it's a hit, sometimes a miss. I truly discovered who I was when I met people from my community. When I was younger I used to think I was a girl, but when I met them I realised I am a trans woman.
I'm from a middle class family, and an orphan. My siblings are kind towards me, my extended family treats me well with the exception of my paternal aunts, I don't get along with them or their kids but I get along well with my maternal side.
Society sees us in a negative light. When we go to functions, the way men behave with us after families leave... I'd rather not even talk about it. Forget the future, I don't even know whether I will live the next few seconds or not.
I don't trust anyone as I've had my heart broken by many men, but this love is blind thing always gets me. In fact, I was dating a guy for a month and I found out through his friend that he was just fooling around with me. I gave him a good beating and broke it off. I have had relationships in the past but I ended them because none of them were serious.
I never even thought of marriage with a woman because I have the soul of a woman. From childhood I knew that I wanted a husband, someone who I will spend the rest of my life with and have kids with, as I consider myself a woman. But when you grow up and become aware of your surrounding,s you realise you don't want a man. I think they are trash and not worth it. If they can't even stay faithful to their wives, how will they ever be faithful to their girlfriends?
Marriage is an issue with family though, they force you into it. People annoy my family incessantly and then my family questions me, 'What's wrong with you? Why are you like this?'. Yes, there are marriages in our community, trans women do get married to men, and most families accept the trans gender and vice versa.
For my family, however, I am a man, and we get the same taunts as anyone else, 'He doesn't have a lot of time.' Everyone is constantly pressurising us. But with us, you know, some get married forcefully because of family and society. I always tell my sisters-in-law that I don't want to get married. Why should I marry a woman? Why should I ruin that woman's life? I cannot offer her anything. No matter how much I pretend to be a man I'll always be a woman.
Some women like me and send me their photos but I cannot cheat them and rob them of the truth so I tell them 'No women, men only.' I'm totally against hurting someone's feelings.
Right now I have no intention of getting married, ever. I don't want to be tied down, I want to be a free bird and I don't want to be caged. Freedom is happiness and once you're married you lose that freedom.
I'm 39 and the eldest of four siblings. My family is relatively laid back and we are all very close. My family wanted me to get an education and never really openly discussed marriage plans but the constant reminder of 'you can do this in your own house' was always there. So the pressure was more implicit than direct, if that makes more sense?
My younger friends are constantly reminded about their singlehood, my own sister is a doctor so she was bombarded with questions about marriage when she started medical school. So I don't think much has changed, in that marriage remains the end all be all for women.
Yes, I was previously married, it began very well but issues relating to immigration and visas caused a lot of tension in our relationship.
I did want children at one point in my 20s but I don't anymore. My 30s have been very liberating in the sense that I don't really care about larger 'societal norms'. If I ever have the urge to have children, I would like to adopt because there are so many children in the world that need love.
Financially, life is a constant struggle. I have to make sure that I am financially independent and I've worked at terrible places at the cost of my mental and physical well being. I am a lot happier than I was five years ago, it was very hard in the first year because I felt like such a failure but I gradually realised that my constant anxiety was gone.
I have no desire to get married again or be in a relationship because I don't want to depend on another individual for my self-worth or happiness. I have amazing friends and at least for now I don't feel the need to change my lifestyle in any way.
Frankly, I am practically ancient according to desi standards and I don't envision that I'd find anyone interested in me or vice versa at least in Pakistan. Also, it's not a priority at the moment.
I'm 34 and I'm a free spirit. When I was younger, my mother gave me two options: either be a doctor or an engineer, she was a working woman who served the Pakistan Air force and my father was an economist. They wanted me to be an engineer because rishtay achhay aingay.
In our culture, parents are the ones who make the decisions in your life, you don't decide anything for yourself and that was the case with me as well.
In the first 10 years of my life I was made to believe I'm destined only for marriage; when I was born my father wanted me to marry my cousin. At 16 I was almost married off to a man who was 32 years old. It came to such a point that I had to call up suitors and tell them weird things about me to stop them from saying yes.
When periods are such a taboo, how was I, as a daughter, supposed to go up to my parents and speak to them about marriage?
When I was 24, I was willing to marry my boyfriend but his traditional Punjabi family had issues with my complexion. Plus they wanted an uber-rich woman for their son. As a bold woman, I was seen as a threat. He was UMS grad yet he wanted to exploit me and change my ways. Eventually I broke up with him.
My mother immediately found an excuse to get me married to my cousin. When the maulvi sahab asked me if I accept the haq mehr that's when I realised I was giving my life to someone who I didn't love -- and ended it.
My parents surrendered. Yes [at the time] you do get lonely because you don't have that support and social pressures start mounting because you're breaking your parents' hearts, but it's not like that anymore. We joke about the past now. I'm not against marriage - been there done that. I've been a bride thrice. (laughs). I also understand parents' insecurity about their daughter's financial stability and safety after they die. But I've always wanted a lot from life. I learned through experience and it took my parents time to understand that I'm different.
They want me to live my life the way I want to now, they say it's my call. It took more than fifteen years to make my parents reach this point.
Now I pick and choose everything in my life. I will marry completely for love. I will surrender to someone who will be comfortable with me and everything about me. If love happens, I want a companion. It has to be 50-50. But [marriage] destiny will decide [for me], I'm in no hurry at all. It is not a priority or a worry in my life.
The first thing I plan to do when I'm financially stable again is adopt a child and I will change their life. I want to be the woman who leaves this world with an impact.
I'm a 38-year-old lawyer. I'm also a single mother to a 13-year old boy.
I belong to a lower middle class family and my parents are uneducated. My family first brought up marriage when I was in 10th grade and they never stopped till I got married in 2005. I was forced to be a housewife -- something I had not agreed to. I had told my in laws that I want to practice law even after marriage, however my accomplishments and achievements were sidelined.
A year and a half later my partner divorced me. I had two options, either get married again or focus on my career. As a newly divorcee it was difficult to carry on with life but with time the more I succeeded in my career the more things became easy for me.
My friends and family were not happy in the beginning but gradually they accepted it. As I was not a financial burden on anyone they were fine with me but at the same time they kept pushing me to get married again and kept telling me 'akeily aurat ki koi zindagi nahi hoti is muashray mein' -- their way of telling me my life isn't complete.
Even after my divorce, my success was overshadowed by questions of how I was going to live life as a single parent. The most difficult, however, was dealing with my marital status in the workplace, talking about it with my colleagues made me very vulnerable. Especially in an office full of men, the mention of being a single mother or divorcee put me in an uncomfortable spot and inappropriate things happen that normally people are careful of around single women.
Before I'd stay silent, but now I speak up. When people say 'divorcees are not good women because they couldn't be homemakers', I call them out. It does get tiring, having to defend yourself all the time is an exhausting process. There is a massive emotional cost of being single but the benefit and reality of being single is amazing. Right now I'm at a point where I will not sacrifice my liberty or freedom. I'm loving it and it's so much fun.
After my divorce I chose to remain single because I wasn't ready to trust men again, they just want women for their own needs or to make a home. Men mostly don't see women as human beings or as individuals who have their own needs or desires.
I was scared to speak to my son about it, thinking he might feel it was my fault but the more I worked on women’s rights the more I felt the need to make him aware about domestic violence and abuse. I waited till he turned 10. It was important for me as a single mother to educate him about my struggles and why I chose to stay as a single mother in a patriarchal society.
I strongly feel our children should know and acknowledge the challenges and struggles single parents go through and the reason why my marriage didn’t work, there shouldn’t be any shame attach to it.
I am 42 years old and I'm the breadwinner of my family. Being the youngest of nine siblings, without parents, I could see the stress at home after my brother, who has since passed away, fell sick, so I decided to work and contribute to the household. I found out about a family in Karachi who needed a housekeeper; since that day till now, some odd ten years, I have felt right at home working for them.
But people started talking about it. I was the first woman in my family to not only work but move to another city for it. They would say, 'She should be getting married not getting a job'. My brother was worried people would taunt him for living off his sister's earnings, because this was an unusual thing for them. But I would say logon ka kaam hai baatein karna, they're not paying our bills.
My sister would bring me rishtas so it wouldn't seem problematic that I'm a single woman earning for the house but I'd refuse them all because I want to work and I did not want to get married. That is my choice. If they'd be stern, I'd tell them I'll humiliate the family in public if they'd so much as think of forcing me because my consent is most important.
They backed off and understood. That's something I love about my family; they're open minded in this regard, they wouldn't force their daughters to get married at an early age, which is something very common in our Hindu community.
Since I'm a working woman, people think I'm up to immoral activities. I don't care what they say and my family trusts me. Why is a woman working in Karachi suddenly of bad character?
I still get rishtay and this topic always comes up when I go home for the holidays. Someone always mentions I'm getting older and should be married. But I immediately shut them up and tell them marriage is not the only important thing in life. I have a good life and I feel good being able to provide for my family and myself, but they make it seem like I'm destitute. I don't know why they're so invested in my life and can't understand I'm happy being single.
I don't have a problem with marriage but I want it to be on my terms. Whoever I'm with should not force me to work or not work. It's common in our society for men to marry women, leave them in the village and come to the city for work. I'm the one in the big city right now, I'm not going to go backwards.
Illustration by the author.