Pakistani woman, single, 30. Looking for: a break

We need a new box for Pakistan's young unmarried women, who are happy just the way they are.
03 Apr, 2021

The principle of similarity reasons that things that share visual characteristics will be grouped together. Red items will be placed with other red items, a mule may be grouped with horses. Anything glittery is often mistaken for gold and, regardless of circumstance, single women in their 30s are considered fast, too clever, unhappy, lagging behind, too manly, not womanly enough and so on and so forth.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman over a certain age must be in want of a husband and I am told there was a time when there were hardly any single women in their 30s or 40s — women chose to enter and stay in marriages, regardless of whether they were happy, for reasons including not being lumped in the category mentioned above.

But times have changed. Look around you, how many women do you know in their late 20s, 30s, 40s and perhaps 50s who are unmarried? Definitely more than your mother knew when she was younger.

Times have changed, but have we?

Have we recognised the fact that women are no longer as eager to jump into marriage for the sake of marriage? That they now value their careers? That financial independence is now just as important for them as it is to men? That these are all good choices? Necessary ones that are worthy of respect?

Have we considered the possibility that getting married is not the single factor determining a person's happiness? Have we considered that so many single women in their 30s and 40s are just as happy and fulfilled as their married counterparts? That they are not jaded. They are happy on some days, and sad on others — just like everyone else. They're not destined for doom any more than the average Joe or Jessica nor are they doing a fire dance every night in the desperate hopes of summoning Prince Charming.

Traditionally we have had two broad boxes for women:

  • Married
  • Unmarried and unhappy/defective/sympathy or anger inducing

I have this wild idea: we build a new box. Our demographics have shifted and it’s time our mindsets catch up. To make sure I wasn’t just building this box for just myself, I interviewed some other women who fit into this box and who also want us to redefine what it means to be a single woman over 30 in Pakistan.

Ayesha Toor

Artist, actor, writer, studying counselling and psychotherapy

How did you choose to live on your own?

I have lived on my own for a decade. Karachi is not exactly an easy city to live in regardless your living situation. To be honest, I don’t exactly remember my reasons to choose to live on my own, it has been so long.

Now I feel this is was the natural course for me, I do recall wanting to live my life, happy or not, on my own terms.

Initially, I was so fiercely protective of my privacy that I almost became reclusive. One thing I am grateful for is the few good friends I have and my siblings, who supported my decisions. Back then, not a lot of women were living on their own, I had to be careful and guarded. Driving, I always checked my rearview mirror to check if I was being followed. It’s strange talking about this now when I feel it’s become natural and organic for me to be self-sufficient. It’s my way of life now!

How has it been being unmarried in a society where most girls are expected to be married in their 20s?

Being single or unmarried still has a massive stigma attached to it in this society. I know that as long as I am financially independent I am good to go. Over the years the relationships I’ve developed with friends and family have helped me to sustain my choices in life. I can safely say though, this is not a country for single women.

I am not opposed to the idea of marriage; I do believe people should marry for love, more than anything else. I feel at this age I would have more clarity getting into a marriage than I did before.

Anber Javed

Digital content creator and fashion entrepreneur

I have been financially independent for a decade but live with my parents and siblings. My reasons are simple: I am still unmarried and I haven't actively worked towards relocating elsewhere.

How is it being unmarried in your 30s?

Being unmarried and financially independent are quite liberating in some ways — I don't have financial dependents, I don't have to worry about children and school books and groceries, nor am I bound by the social obligations that come with being married. However, I would be lying if I say that the societal disapproval of such a lifestyle for a 30-something single woman in this country does not come in the way of my growth almost on an every day basis.

Since we live in such a collectivist society — where a woman is only seen as being 'complete' after marriage and kids, you do feel excluded and pressured in many ways. Even your own family and friends remind you how a woman's achievements in the professional realm aren't the end goal. The goal is always marriage.

And this narrative starts to come in the way of being fully respected, accepted and integrated in society. You need to speak louder to command as much respect and toughen up to establish yourself as an equal human being.

It takes a lot of emotional strength, rejection, heartbreak, patience and self-respect before you get to that point yourself. Some days you feel great when you can choose to stay out till late and not have a husband/child to tend to; on others you feel a little lost and unsure of your future. If I was living in a more open society, perhaps things would have been different.

What would you suggest to other single women out there?

I think that if you are a single/divorced woman living in a country like ours, the most important thing you need to work on is your self image and being more compassionate and respectful of yourself. Don't let the constant disapproval and societal pressure come in the way of your growth and realising your maximum potential — because if you don’t feel good about yourself, who will?

My deepest hope is that our society starts to value and respect individual choices for women, and not fit them into certain narratives based on their marital status.

Sana Nadeem

Restaurateur and chef

Why did you choose to live alone?

Firstly and, most importantly, because I'm an adult and that is what adults should do. The idea that a woman can only either live with her parents or husband is completely ridiculous. It's as if a woman must always have a chaperone to protect her or keep her in check. This is the only reason I need.

How is it living on your own?

The first time I got a true taste of living alone in Pakistan was about seven years ago when I decided to end a marriage that had turned unhappy for both of us. Instead of moving back in with my parents, I held my ground and decided to keep living in the house that we previously shared.

My parents resisted in the beginning but eventually realised that I needed this to be happy and that no matter what they did, I wasn’t coming back. Without the pressure of having to please someone or the other all day I flourished! My creativity skyrocketed so I became better at my work and that's when I ended up opening my first restaurant. My anxiety levels and my mental health in general gradually improved, I met more likeminded people, my support system grew and my relationship with my parents became the best it has ever been.

Everyone always says their school or college years were their best but I believe that the best time of my life started when I claimed my own personal space and started enjoying my own company. It was like being born again and a second shot at life on my own terms.

The first year I got a lot of comments from aunties and relatives. "Acha nahin lagta [It doesn't look good]", "ghar wapas kyun nahin chali jaati [why doesn't she go back home]", "ye London nahin hai, Pakistan main larkiyan akele nahin rehteen [this isn't London, girls don't live alone in Pakistan]”, “sirf ghalat kism kee aurtain akele rehtee hain [only the wrong type of women live alone]”, "akele dar nahin lagta [aren't you scared along]", "nahin manage hoga akele [you won't be able to manage living alone]", "Ammi Abu ko pareshan kar rahee ho [you're worrying your parents]". Eventually it all died down, maybe because I stopped meeting those people.

Though fearful, I am not averse to the idea of marriage. I am open to being with someone who chooses to love and accept me the way I am, but my mental health will always take precedence and if there is no person like that I am completely okay and happy not tying any kind of knots and living by myself.

A new box

The idea here is to not propagate one lifestyle or life choice over another — the idea is for us to recognise that more women in their late 20s to 40s are single. In fact, 36% of the the female population in Pakistan is single for one reason or another. My contention here is that regardless of reason, that’s a sizeable chunk of our population that's worthy of not just acceptance, but space and respect!

My contention is we need a new box. Here’s what I am suggesting:

  • Unmarried/single
  • Worthy of respect
  • Not looking for sympathy or advice
  • Not answerable to you/us for their reasons for being single (or to explain whether its by choice or circumstance)
  • Not “wayward” and not “trying to prove a point”
  • Not looking for saving
  • Just trying to live their life the best they know how.

As a society, we could benefit from understanding that marriage is one facet of a person’s life and not the entirety. Along with the new box perhaps we could do with a new national obsession. Knitting anyone?

Cover art by Saad Arifi