There is an apartment in Karachi which I call my safe space. At any given time it is shared by three women, and whenever someone moves out of the city, a new flatmate comes in, becoming part of our slowly growing friend-family. In recent years, I have learned that it is possible — even crucial — to find some sanctuary of home outside the ties of biological family.
I remember when my friend first got this apartment, it took months of searching. My own experience looking for a place taught me that realtors are not keen on renting out to single, unmarried women who might soon start living with other single, unmarried women. Their immediate complaint: we have no man to hold us accountable. One refused outrightly, another wanted to know exactly how I earned money and what I meant by a ‘studio’. It was only when I raised my budget and shopped among pricier territories that these questions disappeared.
Apparently, money writes off moral concerns. But if I thought I had escaped the trial of proving my affiliation with a man, the paperwork was waiting to remind me. Every registration form you can think of, from a rental agreement to an internet registration, requires the name of your father or husband.
Even on paper we cannot imagine a scenario where a woman might exist unattached to a male; where she might be divorced, or single, or want nothing to do with her father; where she decides to leave the ‘safety’ of her parental home, without the pretext of marriage, to carve out a space of her own.
We cannot imagine women outside our rigid definition of family: a nuclear or extended household, where a woman moves from the guardianship of her father to her husband; where her life is ordered around marriage and children; where she returns home every night to the man who cushions her from the judgement of the world.
But such an understanding of family has long collapsed for so many of us. A friend who grew up dreaming of the perfect nuclear family, lost all illusions when her marriage broke down. Keeping up appearances, she realised, was paramount. As long as people could see her happy, wearing expensive clothes and throwing extravagant parties, it did not matter that her new family was completely dysfunctional and crumbling. Another friend says she cannot comprehend these false promises of permanence, she was eleven when her father abandoned her mother to marry another woman.
So many friends — men and women both — tell me how their fantasy shattered early on, thanks to the violent behaviour by the same patriarchs who were supposed to protect them. They saw their fathers get away with everything from physical assault to cheating and betrayal to secret marriages. But even those who were raised in peaceful households, felt stifled in other ways: the way their families used the tactic of protection to reinforce patriarchy, the ill-intentions, hostility and judgement they experienced at the hands of their extended family members, the unchallenged control they saw their fathers and elders exercise over their own lives. Sharing a bloodline, for so many of us, has ceased to be a guarantee of support.
Slowly, with their own reasons, I am seeing more and more people step outside the traditional structures of family. They are leaving the pressures and policing of their homes, choosing to build lives where they are the only ones in control of their day, their surroundings, and their relationships.
For single women especially, it is not always a smooth transition. Because of work, one friend had to move away from home for two years. Initially, she found that family life had not prepared her for single life, and in many ways she was emotionally ill-equipped to live alone. It took her some time to see how the move was ‘transformative’ — I have experienced this myself during the four and half years of my undergrad: the confidence that comes from independence, the sudden, reassuring prominence of friendships, the feeling that one’s body is breathing easier because it is in charge of its own space and time, the discovery that one can belong to oneself. One friend says she will never forget the five week long winter break she spent by herself while studying abroad, binging on Orange is the New Black, cooking and eating non-stop and listening to music.
But I think living alone or with friends for an extended period of time, without the support of a partner, is also important to build some perspective. Being by herself allowed one friend to see her family from the outside, see how the traditional structure had failed her and her mother. She could decide which parts of it she wanted to preserve for herself, if any. Her decision to sever ties with several extended family members became easy, while for another friend, a similar case of reflection from a distance led her to the conclusion that family was a trap, and that there was no reason to get married.
But remaining single, or living alone in a society where respectability is governed by one’s family status, is not easy. On the one hand, one is free from the obligations and expectations of family life; there are no parents or in-laws to give orders in the name of protection, or raise concerns about one’s clothes or whereabouts. One is also free from the pressures of married life; having children, being the perfect daughter-in-law, carrying the burden of making the marriage work, because — as girls are told when they enter marriageable age — compromise is key.
But precisely because single men and women have no one to be answerable to, they are also seen as a threat to society. Where these are single women who are unmarried, the problem lies in their unclear sexual affiliation, so words like ‘loose’ and ‘fast’ are employed to demean them. Where these are single women who are divorced or widowed, and perhaps even have children, the problem lies in their audacity to live without a man, so the reaction is a mixture of pity and panic. Both kinds of existences are rejected, because they undermine the traditional family structure.
So perhaps it is part disillusionment with the conventional understanding of family, and part rejection by society, that leads single men and women to forge new kinds of families. When our blood-ties betray us or scorn at us, we see how the idea of family is flawed and contrived, that family can look differently. My friend whose marriage failed says she has finally realised, at age 34, that she does not need a man to raise a child and have her own family.
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A 22-year-old says that her closest friends mean more to her, the family she has chosen outside her bloodline is stronger. A wise 40-year-old maintains that her family consists of her two dogs and her plants. Most of us are not universally foregoing all possibilities of a traditional family arrangement — in fact, I am surrounded by people who are marrying and remarrying — but many of us, I think, are becoming clear about the limits of traditional monogamous contracts, their false promise of security. We are casting out support systems beyond blood or paper ties: I do not live in that women-only apartment in Karachi, but there is a reason I consider it home.