A cursory search on Google with the keywords “living alone in India as a woman” throws up a list of commonly asked questions relating to the keywords which include “Is it safe to live alone as a woman?”, “How can a single woman stay safe alone?”, and “What are the problems faced by women in India?”. All these questions do nothing but create inhibitions in women at the prospect of living alone.
This rhetoric isn’t limited to articles and questions on Google. Family, friends and relatives often tell me dire, cautionary tales of how women they know who live alone, struggle and endure a life of suffering. “How will you manage living alone? It’s too difficult. Living alone as a single woman in India is not possible,” they say. If you are a woman reading this, chances are that you’ve probably heard some variant of this yourself.
Movies don’t help with this situation either. In fact, they seem to actively push the narrative that women always need protection with popular movies containing unhelpful dialogues that equate women to inanimate objects (think “Akeli ladki toh khuli tijori ki tarah hai” which loosely translates to “A woman who is alone is like an open locker/treasure chest”, from the movie Jab We Met.
In a large majority of Indian families across socio-economic strata, women are gradually but increasingly being encouraged to study. Female enrollment in higher education increased from 44.6% in 2011-12 to 48.6% in 2018-19 which means that in 2018-19, women occupied 48.6% of the seats in higher education institutions across the country.
However, parents encourage their daughters to study and work but not to live independently. Most Indian women move from their parents’ homes to their husbands’ homes, with no opportunity to experience living independently. Many women earn sizeable salaries but consciously choose to live with their parents out of a fear of living alone and because of the conservative traditions and customs of the Indian society.
Here is what the issue with this is: society has led women into believing that they are incapable of living independently and that living with family is the only way to thrive. Women are told that they need to be “protected” from the big, bad world, no matter how socio-economically independent they get!
One of the biggest ways that family systems exert control over women is by making them believe that they will never be able to live happily all by themselves, that the world is inherently unsafe for women, and that in order to be safe, sound and healthy, women must always live in the company of others.
Women in India are also told that as “modern” women, we have the opportunities that were unimaginable for women in the past. We are told that we have freedom and opportunities at our disposal. Shouldn’t we as women then be empowered to live our lives without being dependent on our families?
This article isn’t about the dangers and horrors of living alone as a woman. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
I am the youngest child in a family of three children. While my sisters had lived in hostels while in college, I chose a college near my parents’ home in Chennai so that I could continue living at home.
My parents dealt with all the responsibilities (read: laundry, meal preparation, house repairs, and grocery shopping) while I focused on my education. I had heard enough stories about all the added responsibility and effort that living away from family involved, from friends living in hostels and in paying-guest accommodations. This made me very sure that I wanted to continue living with my parents. After all, who willingly signs up for paying bills, dealing with repairs (plumbers for leaky taps, electricians for faulty wiring and what not), and all the other responsibilities that accompany adulthood?
All this changed when I turned 24. I interviewed for a job I really wanted and got the position. The only problem – it involved me moving to Hyderabad.
For the first time in my life, I was faced with the prospect of living alone, without my parents, a thought I found quite terrifying. However, I chose to go for it and decided to move to Hyderabad, a decision that changed my life.
At the ripe old age of 24, I moved to Hyderabad. Finding an apartment as a single woman was probably the only part of the process that was quite difficult. Despite the fact that I was willing to pay market rates, most apartment brokers and owners were unwilling to let out an apartment to a single woman. Their criteria for acceptable tenants were “male bachelor or family”, both of which I obviously didn’t meet. I found an apartment in a co-living space. A co-living space is essentially a type of paying guest accommodation but with more facilities including power backup, internet connectivity, and laundry services.
The first few weeks of living alone were quite hard. I missed home. I missed my friends, most of whom were still in Chennai. Meanwhile, I had to deal with electricians, plumbers, utility bill payments, internet connectivity issues, buying groceries, unexpected sickness, and sudden power outages, none of which I really enjoyed.
However, there was an upside to all of this. I soon discovered a newfound freedom that I had never had before. I could leave my apartment whenever I wanted. I could eat whatever I wanted. I could sleep whenever I wanted. If I felt like it, I could sleep in for the entire weekend with no interruptions. I didn’t have to explain why I wanted to go out to my parents, I didn’t have to answer questions about where I was going and when I would return home. I made the rules and I took charge and when I felt like, let loose a little.
My joy at being able to live independently was magnified when I took a trip back home a few weeks later. During my visit, I had to be back home by 10 in the night as dictated by my parents, deal with visits from intrusive relatives, and answer my parents’ questions about my whereabouts.
The trip back home made me realise that living independently had made me a fully capable adult. I now had freedoms that I did not have access to before, along with responsibilities I didn’t need to deal with before. Earlier, I dreaded the thought of the responsibilities and the loneliness people warned me of that I would face while living alone. Conveniently enough, they seemed to have forgotten about the little joys that these ifs and buts accompany – the power I felt while making my own decisions, the huge boost in confidence I felt with each passing day that I lived alone, and the sheer joy I felt in knowing that I was perfectly capable of thriving on my own.
This is what the purpose of this entire article is. To let you know that although living alone isn’t a bed of roses, it will help you realise your full potential as a adult fully capable of making decisions, exactly like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Living independently, even for a few months, is incredibly empowering in that it teaches women that we are self-sufficient, we are capable, and we can manage life on our own. Living independently, if one can afford the social capital and privilege to, can give women a sense of self-confidence that no number of supportive friends can and will make us realise that most of what society tells us about the perils of living alone is just an extension of their understanding of women as incapable of taking care of themselves.
Asma M, writing under a pseudonym, is in her mid-twenties and holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Management and is based in Chennai. While she would like to see gender equality in her lifetime, she knows that is a far fetched dream and wants to do her part to at least achieve some semblance of gender equality. You can find her on Instagram.