Speak Up / Speaking Out

The subtle art of surviving as a single working woman in a city

. 4 min read . Written by Shivani Kowadkar
The subtle art of surviving as a single working woman in a city

It is often said that women have to ‘battle’ numerous issues to survive as a single working woman. But is it really a battle? Surviving as an independent working woman is more of an art that acquires Machiavellian techniques. It draws moves from the game of chess.

When I arrived in Mumbai for my first job, I came with a dream. The dream of finally earning my freedom as an adult. No longer financially dependent on my parents, armed with a salary, my roommate and I set out for house-hunting near our office. But we soon realised that it was no easy task.

Finding a roof for a single woman

The game began with us setting the right image and equation with the lord of the land, our landlord. My flatmate and I had to put on the right kind of jaw-hurting smile of a bubbly 70s actress. After having convinced him of our immaculate character and guaranteeing him that there will be no tarnishing of his image in the building space because of our behaviour (whatever that meant), we won a roof over our head.

The society guard keeps the society safe (from single women)

What seemed like a victory was only short-lived. Because each time we entered the society fortress, the security guard kept a keen watch on what we wore, what time we returned home and who we invited in this ‘restricted area’ that was clearly restricted only for us.

We were greeted with a ghost of a smile if it’s a fully-clad female friend. If it’s a female friend with less than adequate clothing, we received strong looks of disapproval. And judgements on our character were passed, in the case of a male friend.

But we play along because of course, if we don’t, there would be no roof over our heads.

Despite taking all measures necessary in this game, trouble paid us an unexpected visit on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

When society controls how single working women live

Soon an army of neighbours led by the Building Chairman surrounded us in the battleground. Seeing them, the wheels of our minds started churning – What did we do wrong? The music we played last night wasn’t loud enough… we haven’t smoked with the doors open… we have disposed of our garbage properly and paid rent on time.

My eyes quickly moved over to the dry stand to see if our undergarments were properly hung under towels. Because previously, drying undergarments in the open invited flak from our neighbouring family.

Then they bowled a googly we could not have thought of by any stretch of the imagination. Our neighbours said, and I quote, ‘You wear short clothes inside your house and keep the windows open. We feel ashamed whenever we pass by your open windows. This is a respectable society. Also, you put too many chillies in your food. My husband has issues coughing’.

This move wasn’t a part of the game of chess. This was a change in the game altogether.

A society that dictates to its single women what they should do, how they should live, cook their food and eat it, and even how they should dry their clothes in the balcony is an attempt at controlling behaviour and it goes against all legal rights as citizens of a free nation. And a society that chooses to infantilise its adults is no measure of ‘respectable’ society.

What single working women face in the country every day

For the sake of our careers and our identities, we accept restrictions and policing in our lives. We let it pass. We let a lot pass. But how much more power do we cede to them? You have to make sure you don’t step on the wrong toes. But what do you do when people deliberately get their toes in your pathway to be stepped upon so that they can take offence? As working women, we carefully manoeuvre our beings through a minefield.

‘Why don’t you look for a job in our hometown? Your accommodation will be taken care of then’. This passing remark made by my mother pushed me into a spiral of thoughts. If I do take a job in my own hometown to avoid the accommodation issue, this just might be the first compromise, of many more to come, that I would be forced to make in my career.

How women drop out of the workforce

In my head, I could see the lights going out on so many opportunities in so many different cities. They say one must ‘grab’ every learning opportunity in your career. But where is the grabbing?

Between you and the job opportunity, there is safe accommodation, a safe locality, a trustworthy landlord, safe commute, good neighbours, and a thousand other parameters a woman has to think of before even considering an opportunity, let alone grabbing one. All of these compromises snowball into a dangerous trend – Lower female labour force participation.

Female participation in the labour force, especially in urban areas, has seen a drop in recent years in India. How easy it is for a woman to contribute to this drop. A slew of compromises, challenges posed by societal pressures and expectations, all work in tandem to turn her into a part of this statistic.

As of now, my roommate and I are on the hunt for new accommodation. But I wonder how many more houses we would need to change for me and my roommate to contribute to this drop…