Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 11 | March 14, 2007 |

  Cover Story
  Writing the Wrong
  Straight Talk
  View from the   Bottom
  A Roman Column
  Human Rights
  Dhaka Diary
  Book Review

   SWM Home

Cover Story

Living in One's Own Space

In a city where women in general are constantly victimised because of their gender and living alone is considered strange and often looked down upon even for men; there are a few individuals -- women in particular -- who due to often practical reasons, have opted to break tradition and are unafraid to live their own lives, in their own space. These independent women have chosen to live on their own, without the immediate support system of their families or a male figure -- those who decided to set their own rules and redefine their roles in society.

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

Independence is something that most people, at some point in their lives, will crave. The whole idea of being completely under the rule of someone else's thumb is not exactly a palatable one, whether the ruling party be their parents, their significant others, society, the government or even another culture. It is human nature to want a minimal amount of freedom. More often than not however, the concept of freedom, minimal or otherwise, becomes distorted when under the influence of the all-encompassing shadow of cultural norms. What we are left with is a gender-specific form of control that, in the name of protection, often serves to stifle women, disallowing them the freedom that many of their counterparts all over the world take for granted.

Women's lives are clearly drawn out for them by society. Once they reach their twenties (early or mid, in most cases) they are expected to get married and have children. Until then they are expected to live in their parents' houses because it is deemed necessary for a woman to have some sort of male presence in her life. For women who choose to get married later on in their lives, or even decide not to get married at all, this means that they will have to spend the rest of their lives in their parents' houses -- a situation which is not only considered acceptable, but also welcomed by many women. But what about the small percentage of women who either do not have the choice of living with their parents or even, for whom the constraints of living with parents is not acceptable? These women, who decide to take a chance and live by themselves often realise that deviating from the norm very often means becoming, in society's eyes, reclusive.

Such a woman is 31-year-old Rani, who, after living in the United States for 10 years on her own came back to Bangladesh and set up home in her parents' house. After six months Rani realised that she needed to move out because she missed having her own space. Her lifestyle just didn't match with her parents and after careful consideration she decided to find a small apartment somewhere in Dhaka.

"My friends told me it would be really hard to find a place," says Rani, a consultant for an international organisation, "But I didn't really believe them. I just kept thinking, 'how bad could it be?' Well, I soon found out. I first started looking in the Dhanmondi area, but they kept saying the same thing: 'we don't allow single women to live here,' in this tone that actually implied that they don't let prostitutes live here. That's what they think you are when you try to find a place on your own -- they think you are a prostitute or they assume that you are troubled and have a murky past."

After a fruitless search in Dhanmondi, Rani decided to try her luck in the Gulshan area. She reasoned that since there were so many foreigners living there, the landlords might be a little more open minded. However, she soon just found that the attitude towards her was, although more subtly conveyed, generally the same. She finally found a place through an uncle of hers. Unfortunately, her elation was short-lived as she soon realised that every move of hers was being scrutinised and dissected.

"Since my uncle used to come and visit me to see if I needed anything, most of the people in my building thought he was my boyfriend," says Rani. "My best friend has short hair and wears lots of black clothing and so pretty soon the entire building thought the two of us were lady pimps. It's amazing how disgusting people's minds can be. I really realised a lot about the mentality of people in the last two years that I have been living alone."

Nothing could prepare Rani for the situation that she came across a year ago when she got into an argument over some apartment-related issue with her neighbours. She soon found herself being threatened and harassed.

"They told me that they would hurt me and that I couldn't do anything because I lived alone," says Rani. "Also they used to leave things outside my door such as broken bottles, dirty diapers and sanitary napkins. And the most frustrating thing is that when I called the police, they asked me who the man of the house was, and I actually had to give them an explanation."

Being victimised due to one's single status is not at all uncommon. Twenty-nine-year old Sakina, who lives alone in an apartment in Banani, went through a similar situation. Sakina decided to come back to Bangladesh after going to college in the United States. Since both her parents also live abroad and she did not have any relatives who she could stay with, she decided to rent a small apartment in Banani, which was owned by a family friend. Unfortunately for her, the man living in the apartment below kept complaining about the noise she would make in her bedroom (which was above his bedroom).

"Even if I walked to the bathroom the man had a problem with it," says Sakina, who is a copywriter for a local advertising agency. "One day I had the music on in my bedroom and he came to my door, shoved it open and stormed inside and threatened me. He even went as far as to call my mother and me 'loose women.' Later on he used to send his male students [he ran a tutorial in his apartment] up to knock on my apartment door just to scare me."

Because many women who live alone may not have a strong support system and are also struggling financially, they often find themselves doing a lot of the household work by themselves.

To make matters worse, Sakina had to fire her driver because she could not afford him. A few weeks after the fact the driver brought a whole group of men, beat up her new driver and threatened to beat her unless she gave him two months salary. Surprisingly enough, the darwans and the caretaker of the building mysteriously disappeared.

"I would have given the money to the driver anyway, it's just that I didn't like being threatened in my own house," says Sakina "And the caretaker just let it all happen, just like he let the man in the other apartment harass me."

There are some women, who in order to avoid harassment, lie about their situations so that they do not have to face such blatant discrimination. Such a person is 34-year-old Maya, who lives in her apartment in Gulshan with her six-year old son. She rented the apartment under false pretenses claiming that it was for her parents and that she would just live in the apartment until she went abroad to meet her husband.

The real story is that Maya divorced her husband over four years ago. She was living in the US and had to take refuge in the YWCA because her husband was abusing both her and her child, before she made her decision to leave. Although she wanted to stay in the US she was too terrified that her husband was going to try to take away her son, especially because he was sponsoring her visa.

She tried to speak to her parents who are also settled abroad, and asked them whether she and her son could stay with them, but although they agreed, they seemed extremely uncomfortable with the idea, as if they were ashamed of her. She realised that she had no other choice and decided to come back to Bangladesh. She lived with her aunt for three years before realising that as much as her family loved her, she was fast becoming a burden and an embarrassment.

"Being without a man means that you have no social respect," says Maya, who works in a private office. "And it is worse when people find out that you are divorced. They look at you differently and keep trying to figure out what is wrong with you because it is always the woman's fault. We are the main problem. Many people try to take advantage of you and often spread rumours about you. In the west single people are treated with equal respect. Nobody looks at them as if they are lepers."

In addition to the issues she has to face in the building -- the caretakers giving her dirty looks, the people trying to keep tabs on who she sees and what she does -- Maya has been in very awkward situations where the superiors in her office have often tried to take advantage of her single status and the fact that she lives alone.

"It's bad enough that I have to deal with the whispers of the people in my building," says Maya, "And just to avoid any more talk I have no social life whatsoever. I try to live my life as simply as possible. I go to work and come back and spend time with my son. That's it. The worst thing is that I have to go through this discrimination in my office."

The bigotry that single women -- especially divorced women -- face in the office is found everywhere in the world, be it private offices, multinational corporations or even the NGO sector. Women such as 35-year-old Titli have found that although living alone and being divorced is not really an appropriate topic for discussion in the office, most men do not respect a woman's right to privacy.

"When I was interviewing for my job," says Titli, who works in a multinational company, "I mentioned that I lived by myself and people were in such shock. Even now, four years after the fact, I still have to hear lectures in my office about why I should live with my parents. What I don't understand is why people don't realise that this is a personal matter that should not be discussed in the office."

Titli has been divorced for five years and lives with her seven-year-old daughter in an apartment in Gulshan. After she left her husband, she tried to live with her parents but realised that it was impossible after being separated from them for so many years. She moved into an apartment in Gulshan four years ago. Initially while she was looking for an apartment she encountered many questions regarding her marital status, but the second she pulled out her business card and people realised that she was making a fairly decent amount of money, nobody had anything to say.

"I was lucky, actually," says Titli. "I had a very strong support system. Although my parents were not happy with my decision they completely supported me. And although sometimes I do feel a little scared that men will come into my apartment -- since they know that I am alone and they might want to take advantage of the fact that I don't have 'male protection' -- I still feel like I am better off than many people, especially because I am financially independent and am making enough money to stand on my own two feet."

Financial independence is a key factor in the success of a woman living on her own. Such a success story is the one of forty-nine year old Tonima, who lives in an apartment in Gulshan with her two adopted children. She has been on her own for over 14 years.

"I think it is definitely very important to be financially independent," says Tonima, who works in the NGO sector, "The truth is that I am sure people have a lot to say about me, but no one can really say it to my face, because I am happy and successful. And part of the reason that is so is because I am financially solvent and making enough money to take care of myself and my family."

Apart from making enough money to live comfortably, what made things easier on Tonima was that she, like Titli, had the support of her family

"When I moved out I was not a young woman," says Tonima. "I was in my mid thirties. By then I had already made my decision and my parents stood by me. Of course more than the issue of whether what I was doing was good or bad, I think what most people wondered at the time was why I was doing this. The truth is that I just wanted a shongshar. I wanted to redefine the concept of what a shongshar is. Why is it that I need a husband to have a household? Why can't I just have a shongshar At the end of the day it is what you make up your mind to be. I have built a wall around myself not necessarily to keep people out, but just to make it clear that this is what I am and you have the choice to either accept it or not. Whatever happens, nothing anyone says will ever have the power to take away my happiness."

The intolerance that society shows towards women living by themselves without a male head of the household is disheartening but a reality that keeps many women from seeking what they crave for -- independence. Those who brave such a lifestyle often have to pay the price of having their privacy constantly intruded upon or worse, being continuously harassed.

The single woman in Bangladesh is often subjected to harassment and ridicule -- men find it within their rights not only to comment on their lifestyle, but also to criticise them.

"You cannot stay sane living in Bangladesh on your own because you are constantly having to answer to other people," says Rani. "In addition, every move you make will reflect on your family. I think that our society is built in such a way that we allow strangers to invade our privacy. It is important to have three things: a good support system; a good source of income and a family who outwardly supports you."

For people who do not have all three, such as Maya, it becomes increasingly difficult to manage, but she knows that she has to for the sake of her son.

"I live my life from pay-check to pay-check," she says. "But I have to manage somehow. The only way out is financial freedom and educating yourself so that you are never dependent on any man for anything. It is so important to recognise who you are. I also think that the government should start some kind of fund or support system for such women. We become outcasts in the society otherwise."

Those who have not become outcasts, or have succeeded have done so by gritting their teeth and becoming thick-skinned. What makes the situation worse is the fact that many of these women do not even have the privilege of choosing their fate. Women like Maya, whose parents cannot bear the shame, or Sakina whose parents don't live in the country, often find themselves in these binding situations. And although women like Tonima and Titli did have the luxury of a strong support system, the fact is that people still questioned their every decision. They were subjected to being studied under a microscope for years before they were finally able to live their lives without being questioned at every step of the way.

"When I was adopting my two kids, I remember a lot of friends asked me whether I was ready," says Tonima, "And I was well over forty. What is interesting is that you do not ask a 20-year old who just got married if she is ready to have a baby, just because she is married. She may not be mature enough but it does not matter. That is the perception that people have to slowly come out of."

Regardless of the fact that most of these women have learned to ignore such comments the real problem comes when the people they care about are affected. Titli, for example, would be able to handle it if people said things directly to her but finds it extremely hard to deal with when people lecture her parents about her.

The reality is that many women just want a space to themselves.

"I know people still say things about me behind my back," says Titli, "And they don't have the guts to say it to my face because they know that I am doing ok. But what I really hate is that they still say things to my parents and for some reason my parents feel like they are becoming smaller in other peoples' eyes because of my actions. That is hard to swallow."

Despite the many obstacles that these women have to face they are surprisingly resilient. They accept that they will lead a life that deviates from what is considered the norm and they try to make the best of it. Some of them choose to be independent, while others have independence thrust on them. Whatever the circumstances they choose to keep going and take responsibility for their actions, all the while realising that they will constantly face hurdles along their way. And although they will face these problems for days to come, perhaps they are setting examples for future generations to come so that they too, can be brave enough to sometimes take the path less travelled.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008