Singleness and the world of 'not belonging'

The repertoires about single women are unequivocal: without a husband and children, single women signify ‘lack’ - they are incomplete and therefore do not belong. 'Gender' and 'space' are both embodied experiences.

Asha L. Abeyasekera
5 December 2016

Singleness. Image: pixabay.com

Let me begin with a story, which is set in urban middle-class Sri Lanka.

It had been six years since Ruwanthi (36) had left her violent and alcoholic husband after enduring five years of severe psychological and physical abuse.  When I met her, Ruwanthi was living with her older sister’s family who had offered her refuge, reluctantly at first, after she could not “drag this along [sic] anymore”.   She now had a full-time job at a Montessori and she also baked cakes to supplement her income.  Ruwanthi presented herself as a resourceful person who her extended family, as well as friends, relied on especially in the organisation of events such as a birthday party or wedding. Yet, her life-history was redolent of a sense of being ‘out of place’.  Two moments in Ruwanthi’s narrative stood out.  Ruwanthi told me:

“I love going on trips […] When my family plans them I am always the one organising […] and coordinating […] When I stop and look around, however, I feel so alone. Then I think, ‘if [my husband] were here, at least I would not be alone. I would belong somewhere.’ Everyone has someone. The children will play together, my mother will chat with my aunts […] I feel like I am drifting […] It’s a strange thing. Everyone needs me. I am the first to be called when there is a party or a funeral. I do all the running around.  I am always in the kitchen helping out. I feel odd when I am doing nothing."

The marginality Ruwanthi conveys here is visceral—an emotional response to the deep-rooted cultural expectation that a woman’s identity, status, and sense of belonging depend on her being married.   Later, Ruwanthi’s narrative illustrated the deeply corporal dimension of her marginality when she described her living arrangements.  Her sister and brother-in-law lived in a small three-bedroom house. They occupied the main room, their teenaged daughter shared a room with her grandmother, and the third room belonged to their adolescent son. Ruwanthi slept in the landing upstairs where the TV was installed. 

"Sometimes I crave a nap […] Just a few minutes when I have had a difficult day. I have to wait until everyone goes to sleep before I can even shower and change.  If there is a [cricket] match, my brother-in-law watches TV till late […] If my niece is studying she will ask me to lie down on her bed, but I don’t like to impose […] I shouldn’t be ungrateful. They took me in. So, I am careful.  I wait for everyone to finish their dinner before I start my cake orders […] I don’t want my sister feeling like I am invading her kitchen. I don’t want anyone to feel I am in their way."

Ruwanthi’s narrative powerfully evokes how marginality is a deeply embodied experience.  That Ruwanthi cannot fully occupy the space that she calls ‘home’, that she must continuously negotiate where she places her body in relation to others goes beyond a metaphysical experience. 

The theory

Feminists have highlighted how ‘single women’ as a category continues to be regarded as a ‘problem’ that must be rectified. Psychologists Jill Reynolds and Margaret Wetherell (2003), for example, illustrate how the notion of singleness as a ‘deficit identity’ has a powerful influence over how single women present themselves: justifying their decision to be single, and claiming meaning and their life’s worth as originating outside of marriage. Anthea Taylor (2012) argues that single women are ‘pathologised’: their independence and autonomy often read as a poor ‘trade-off’ to marriage and family.  In Sri Lanka, as in other parts of South Asia and elsewhere, the ideal of companionate marriage—imagined as a union of two persons and based on intimacy and pleasure—amplifies the marginalisation of single women. The repertoires about single women are unequivocal: without a husband and children, single women signify ‘lack’—they are incomplete and, therefore, do not belong.

Facebook generation, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Image Asha L.Abeyasekera.

The feminist discourse about gender and space in South Asia (and beyond) has tended to focus on women’s access to public space. Issues of women’s safety and security are central to these dialogues. It is explicit in the discussions about women’s mobility: the experience of sexual harassment on public transport and the imminent risk of sexual assault on the streets as women move between ‘the home and the world’.  It is also implicit in the debates on women’s equality in the workplace where sexual harassment precludes women from fully enjoying the rights and privileges as their male counterparts.  Sandya Hewamanne (2003), commenting on the experiences of young women working in the Free-Trade Zone in Sri Lanka, argues that sexual harassment operates as a form of disciplining, a way of communicating that women do not belong in the public domain without familial guardianship.

The idea that gender identities are relational—that they are constituted in and through our engagements with the social world—is now academic commonplace. Equally commonplace is the reconceptualization of space as relational. Feminist political geographers like Doreen Massey (2004) and Shilpa Ranade (2007) have argued that social space is not a neutral backdrop against which social relations are enacted, but that gender relations are constituted by socio-spatial constructs.  

For Ruwanthi these seemingly clichéd ideas in feminist theory about gender identity and gendered space become deeply salient in the way she feels she does not belong—not on her family trip, not at social events, and certainly not at home.  Her life not only exemplifies how ‘singleness’ is a marginal identity and status, but her experience as a single woman is rooted in how she can inhabit space in the intimate sphere of kinship and family. Ruwanthi is accommodated by her family, but tolerance comes with an extraordinary price: her invisibility.  She must be ‘inconspicuous’—and what this means in terms of her behaviour is very much about how and when Ruwanthi can occupy space.  The spatial dimension of Ruwanthi’s marginality as a single woman—her sense of ‘not belonging’—brought home to me what feminists mean when they claim that ‘gender’ and ‘space’ are both embodied experiences.


The ‘gender and space project’ conducted in Mumbai focused on how men and women “locate themselves in and move through public space in their everyday negotiation of space” (Ranade 2007). The findings offer critical insight to my discussion about single women’s sense of belonging as an embodied experience. The study calls for a radical shift in the debates about ‘gender and space’ from the realm of ‘danger and safety’ to that of ‘risk and pleasure’.  Shilpa Phadke (2007) points out that “that even the most desirable of urban subjects [i.e., middle-class women] are offered only conditional access to [public] spaces (p.1510). Shilpa Ranade (2007) argues that by focusing on women’s safety, the debates ignore how women are denied the pleasure of ‘loitering’, i.e., occupying public spaces as men do when ‘hanging out’ or ‘gazing at others’.  She asserts that ‘loitering’ is a ‘male privilege’, claiming that “women can access public space legitimately only when they can manufacture a sense of purpose for being there” (my emphasis). 

The idea that women must justify their occupation of public space speaks to Ruwanthi’s experiences in the intimate sphere.  Ruwanthi, sans marriage and children, must justify her place in her family by helping out at family events.  When she’s not doing anything useful—in the evenings after work—Ruwanthi must be invisible. Like the millions of women on the streets and in offices, Ruwanthi as a single woman can belong only if she has a purpose.

My conversation with Ruwanthi was an extraordinary moment in which an abstract theory became crystallised in a respondent’s narrative: the feminist concept of gendered space. As Doreen Massey (1995) observes, “things are more easily said than understood or thought through into practice”. 

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.

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