by Mariam Ahmad
Growing up, I was told that there are few things worse than being a spinster. In hindsight, what this statement really means is that my happiness is dependent on a man, and my worth lies in my ability to please him.
Throughout the years, this damaging and grossly incorrect belief has permeated multiple aspects of my life, including areas that are not usually associated with love and marriage. Instead of finding out how my internships were going and what I was learning on the job, I would be greeted with questions on men in the office, and more importantly, whether they were single. When I was accepted into the university of my dreams, a family friend pulled my mother aside and whispered to her, with grave concern, how no one would want to marry me. I think she believed that my degree would intimidate the entire species of men.
Aside from being emotionally exhausting, the notion that women can only truly be happy when married eclipses our achievements, triumphs, agency, and independence. It erases our personal definitions of joy and success, and it reduces our full and complete selves into an existence in relation to men.
If indeed, the measure of a woman’s happiness is her romantic relationship, there is nothing more dreadful or miserable than being alone. As I went on to graduate school, the women in my family reminded me that I should consider getting married after obtaining my Master’s Degree. After all, they would say, you wouldn’t want to be left on the shelf.
The narrative surrounding unmarried women, on this metaphorical spinster shelf, is fraught with disdain and anti-feminist sentiments. Unmarried women are often described, in books, films and everyday interactions, as odd, aggressive, and difficult women. Their seemingly complex personalities both a cause and effect of their inability to settle down. Depicting spinsterhood as a personal failure is baseless and dangerous- it suggests that to be a woman is to be with a man.
What I find deeply unsettling about these beliefs (apart from the beliefs themselves) is the fact that they are passed down across generations of women, including my own. I do not know if perpetuating these convictions was a result of internalised misogyny or an act of love. Perhaps, I was taught these lessons because it was the only way the women who came before me survived. But things have changed and so must we.
As my younger sister begins to navigate the realm of boys and heartbreak, I worry about the conflicting notions of womanhood she has heard over the years. I disagree with what I have been taught and am explicit in my objection. I remind her that her love for cats, science, and pizza is enough. Her happiness should never be contingent on a boy. Her success is defined on her own terms and not in relation to her romantic life, and she should never feel obliged to like a boy just because he liked her first. Even though women are made to believe otherwise, there is more to life than men.
After all that has been said and done, I must admit that I am in a relationship and I am happy. But I was a happy and whole person before I met my partner. While it is wonderful to have a constant source of support and comfort, my relationship is not my sole source of contentment. It is almost disheartening that in this day and age, I still feel the need to assert that women can exist, survive, and thrive without being in a relationship. If a man happens to come along, he should complement not complete our (already colourful, meaningful, and complex) lives.
Mariam Ahmad is a writer and researcher. She holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology and is passionate about women’s issues, children’s rights, Islam, race, and culture. She has written on a range of topics including the hijab (which she proudly and defiantly wears), identity, social media, and womanhood.
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee