Table for one, please

Shriya Mohan | Updated on March 13, 2020

Going solo: Singleness, as an identity, is seen as an inability to love   -  ISTOCK.COM

What can a singles’ perspective add to the understanding of societal behaviour? Quite a lot, according to a new academic course

How is this for a rule? You can watch a film only if it has at least one scene where two women are talking to each other — and not about men? In 1985, American graphic illustrator Alison Bechdel introduced the test in her book Dykes to Watch Out For, in a strip titled “The rule”.

The Bechdel test, as it soon began to be known, revealed not only inherent sexism but also the poor representation of women in cinema. The underlying quest for romance also triggered demands for the perspective of singles — unmarried or not in a steady sexual relationship — in popular culture and other realms.

In 2007, in their essay Make room for singles in teaching and research, University of California professors Bella DePaulo, Rachel F Moran and E Kay Trimbergerargued for the singles’ perspective in research. Terming it “Singles Studies”, DePaulo noted that despite their rising number worldwide, there was no studies programme focused on singles anywhere in the world.

Thirteen years later, in a first-of-its-kind course in an Indian university, singles studies is part of an MA Sociology programme at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Karnataka. Designed and taught by faculty member Ketaki Chowkhani, the course, which started earlier this year at their Centre for Humanities, delves into singles’ perspective on issues of family, gender, time, ageing, the city, law, medicine and consumerism.

“It’s important to look at the world from the perspective of singles. We’ve looked at it from the perspective of gender, caste, religion and sexuality. I wanted the singles’ perspective to be a full-fledged course,” Chowkhani, who has been researching social aspects of singlehood ever since she completed her PhD in 2016, says.

Across the world, people are increasingly opting out of relationships. According to data published last year in The Washington Post, just over half of all Americans in the 18-34 age group said they did not have a steady romantic partner.

“People are marrying later. If you include people who are divorced and widowed then it’s a larger population,” Chowkhani tells BLink.

As women are more educated than before, have jobs and are economically independent, the requirement to “settle down” — a euphemism for wedded life — no longer assumes the priority it once did. The rise in urban, cosmopolitan spaces that afford anonymity is also seen as conducive to singlehood.

Yet, the choice of remaining single is still largely seen in India, especially among parents, as a psychological anomaly that needs to be fixed.In a mandatory text in the course, The Romantic Imaginary: Compulsory Coupledom and Single Existence by the UK-based feminist geographer Eleanor Wilkinson, a line stands out:

“Singleness as an identity, a lifestyle or something long-term is seen as an indicator that something is wrong, that the single individual must suffer from commitment issues, is perhaps unable to love, and is most certainly isolated and miserable.”

Chowkhani’s course explores how this stereotype unfolds and discriminates against singles in various ways.

Take housing. While a single woman is largely seen as a promiscuous tenant, single men are seen as potential rapists, or as unreliable and deranged, with psychopathic tendencies. “Research says married men are more murderous,” points out Chowkhani, in all seriousness.

Medicine can be discriminatory, too. In a paper that the class discussed recently, a woman who was a cancer survivor was denied aggressive treatment by her oncologist, who argued that since she wasn’t married he didn’t see the need for her to undergo the life-saving therapy. The implication was that only married people needed to stay alive for their children, husband, in-laws.

At the workplace, singles are often seen as people who are married to their job, and expected to stand in for their married colleagues with family commitments. “It’s a form of discrimination,” Chowkhani argues.

For the most part, the single woman is more affected than the single man. Take ageing. For women, the freedom of singlehood is only celebrated when they are young and sexually desirable in a Sex and the City mould. But as they approach middle age, the rose-tinted lenses get replaced by ugly bifocals. A 40-year-old single woman is “unwanted plain Jane” material whereas if she has children she is a “young” mother, points out Chowkhani.

Even a so-called progressive film such as Lipstick Under My Burkha, she says, depicts an elderly spinster as someone longing for love and sexual fulfilment, as opposed to someone who embraces singlehood out of choice, rather than tragic compulsion.

Men, however, can carry their fanciful bachelor titles all their lives. “Women age while men grow up,” she says.

The course, she hopes, will make a case to broaden public policy to cater to the needs of singles and safeguard their rights. For instance, discrimination on the basis of marital status in housing-related issues should be a punishable offence, she says.

Elishia Vaz, a postgraduate student of sociology at Manipal, says she grew up with the idea that a partner would come along one day and take care of her. “I didn’t grow up with the capability to live alone,” Vaz tells BLink. “But now I’m learning a lifetime skill that’s going to teach me how to do that.”

Shriya Mohan

Published on March 12, 2020

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