Fights of solo women in the big city
Brave, young, independent women are breaking stereotypes in the big cities to live independently. But is it a bed of roses?
Last year, during the pandemic lockdown, I watched a program on YouTube about a young Indian girl from the suburbs who moved to a big city to pursue her dreams and talent in fashion design. Coming from the cultural roots of the South Asian nuclear family was not easy, of course. The struggles she faced, starting with passing the decision as a doting only daughter to an army father, felt too close to home. Welcome to a fast-growing new niche wave of urban culture in Bangladesh – South Asia slash. Where women take charge of their own autonomy and venture out of the comfort and safety of their parents’ homes.
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While this is common practice in the West, this is new here and has yet to be normalized. Of course, the range of reality differs from individual to individual. But what they have in common is that although the practice of moving out as self-employed women has steadily increased over the last decade, there is still a lot of stigma attached to such women.
Stigma begins at home – after all, “family” occupies a central place in the reality and imagination of South Asian societies and individuals. Now, as women increasingly become competitive wage earners and desire autonomy over individuality and lifestyle preferences, families are often stunned by the boldness of this statement.
Sabina, 24, started earning money with e-commerce at the age of 18 alongside her training. As she got older and wanted more freedom to work and move around, as well as being closer to her university, she decided to move out.
“When I first told my parents I was moving out, I was met with a lot of shame, tears and guilt,” Sabina said. “You said hurtful things about the kind of women who live without families. And the worst thing is I identified with the description of these ‘despicable women’ and I am not a despicable person!” she added.
While the world outside of the home is evidently evolving with increasing female economic participation and the rise of youth culture, these women are bearing the brunt of societal resistance to changing old patriarchal norms. Finally, it is sustained by a culture of valuing tradition and authority. Slut-shaming is therefore common among women who move out. And everyone says it hurts.
“Personally, I’ve been a victim of stigma because I come from a middle-class background and the mindset is that girls who move out just want to live a reckless life with no supervision,” Sabina said.
I say it’s partly true – these self-reliant women want a life free of the negative judgment of bosses who see these lifestyle choices as reckless. Family is a crucial building block of identities, reflecting a person’s status, expression of identity, and even calling. And it’s largely patriarchal – meaning the reins of power rest in the hands of men – father, eldest brother, etc. It’s no wonder people involved in these long-established social systems feel threatened or opposed to them they show the boldness of challenge – via young women!
Lifestyle choices like hanging out with friends of opposite sexes, having friends, or smoking and drinking are moral issues, that is, what makes and breaks the test of “good” people and “bad people” — and that’s a big moral burden to take on young shoulders who only dream of building their own lives, on their own money and will. Often these young women actually decide to drop out because of friction at home. The world is changing, and families as entities are struggling to keep up with the pace of individual demands – let’s call it millennial women’s demands for equality, both in income and in lifestyle.
Aside from problems finding housing, young women face problems finding and renting suitable housing. Safety is a constant concern in a city with high rates of gender-based crime, not to mention the reckless city’s rents are exorbitant, especially in popular areas like Gulshan and Dhanmondi. So many girls opt for a flat share as a softer landing instead of the perhaps more coveted solo apartments.
Nafisa started a Facebook group in 2012 to facilitate the process of finding roommates for a shared flat.
“I started my own journey to find a suitable place as a photographer in this city and encountered many problems – many expected and many unprecedented,” explained Nafisa.
“There are areas that are more in demand than others, such as Gulshan, Banani and Dhanmondi. Bashundhara and Mohammedpur are also becoming popular due to rents and community.” Deriving a preference for cultural hubs and places considered “safer”.
“It’s really difficult to find landlords who are willing to rent to female bachelors, especially on their own. And when they’re ready, they could be very expensive, so we need to find people like us who can share the cost and live the life we want.”
After all, one of the biggest ways family systems exercise control over women is by leading them to believe that they will never be able to live happily all by themselves, that the world is inherently uncertain for women, and that, um to be sure, healthy and healthy women must always live in the company or in the community. Thus, women are told that no matter how socio-economically independent they become, they need to be “protected” from the big, bad world. And the women get a good dose of this sermon from families, landlords, employers and well-wishers!
At the ripe old age of 27, I personally decided to move out of my parents’ house.
Our identities collided when I returned from abroad, replete with a sense of independent identity, education, and an inexplicable desire to sever my metaphorical umbilical cord.
I felt massive guilt for wanting to go and delaying, and went back and forth with the decision for years.
By then, I’d changed houses and locations, perhaps found myself in more difficult situations as a freelancer, and often felt compelled to return to the nest I wanted to break out of.
I’ve rented apartments from landlords who claim to be feminists too, and I’ve still faced the stigma and shame of wanting to live alone without a family, especially since I also happen to be a freelancer and artist – a definition of a stereotype considering drawn subversive. Therefore, the extent of the problems faced by independent women varies according to their outward identity and privileges.
Despite all the struggles, I’m back in the market today as a single woman in my 30’s looking for a dream home of my own, for its own sake and nothing else. And I’m not alone in this. Ever seen the underrated Bollywood movie Wake Up Sid and the line where Aisha Banerjee (played by Konkona Sen) moves from Kolkata to Mumbai alone and tells the privileged Sid (Ranbir Kapoor), “Have you ever wanted to live alone? your own little space? Where you wanted to cook your own food, make your own money and spend it. Independence, you know what I mean? Aisha stumbled upon the clichéd rules set by “others”. If you overcome all the obstacles, you can get what you can’t explain to others who didn’t choose to go through it.
There is a stigma surrounding subversion, especially in a culture where there is much resistance to nonconformity. And the brave women fighting for what they want and believe in are struggling through the maze of writing a new narrative for independent women in urban Bangladesh. That is the purpose of this entire article. Like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, living alone helps you (or your daughter, niece, boyfriend, employee) realize your full potential as a fully empowered adult. For it is a bed of roses with sticks and thorns.
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed
Special thanks to Madhubanti Anashua
Dibarah is a self-taught artist, muralist and freelance writer who also works as a humanitarian and development consultant.