x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Life is so unfair when you're a self-confessed cat woman

The sexist prejudices of the world about the single female cat-owner could do with some of the enlightenment that accompanies a man with a pet

By writing this column, I am probably relegating myself to a lifetime in the realm of spinsterhood. Why? Cats. Yes, I admit I own two of them: Tiny and Tuna. And yes, I carry passport pictures of them in my wallet, right next to photos of my family and best friends.

The cats travel with me everywhere, and have endured what I have endured - from living in a war zone to flying penned up in uncomfortable seats (or crates in their case) on turbulent flights, to sharing a home-cooked dinner in front of the television.

I am not going to go into great detail about the stories behind the cats, but each one has a moving individual history of tragedy and rescue. Both were orphaned at birth, and were picked up as infants by me as I crossed their paths in the streets. Cat owners will instantly relate to these stories, as will pet owners in general. Others, though, find it strange how cat owners talk about their cats as if they are part of the family.

The other day, I was shopping in a grocery store, and I had several cans of cat food and a bag of kitty litter along with several food items for myself in my trolley. A couple behind me at the checkout made no attempt to disguise their scrutiny of my purchases. "You have a cat?" the woman asked.

"Yes, I do, two of them," I told her, smiling proudly.

She looked at me with that "Oh, poor girl" look, and then wanted to know: "Are you married?"

I was taken aback by the forwardness of the question, but then I quickly realised that I probably fit her stereotype of what a single, female cat-owner looked like and she was getting a kick out of confirming her own social prejudices.

I was thinking of answering her: "Yes, I am married with two children," but then realised that I had far too many "singlish" items in my cart. Two apples, three courgettes, one box of cereal and one carton of fruit juice told their own story: that here I was buying and cooking for one person. So I owned up: "No, I am not married."

"We have a cat, a dog, fish and a canary," said the woman. "We are a big family," she added, beaming.

I tried to smile and said: "Mashallah, my hands are full with two cats, it must be a lot of work to take care of so many animals."

Before she could say anything more, I excused myself, wished her well and went ahead to pay for my groceries.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but I don't understand why people give single women with cats that "oh, poor you" look, yet when they come across single men with pets - whether they have cats, dogs, turtles, whatever - they say: "How cute; he is so caring and sensitive."

Single women with cats, though, are portrayed as crazy and desperate, with no fashion sense and usually covered in cat hair. OK, I admit that once I did end up with rather a lot of cat hair on a black shirt that I put on for work, not having noticed that one of the cats had slept on it. But that was once.

And, yes, I do admit cat owners can have "odd" habits that make them stand out in a crowd. We find ourselves "meowing" at people from time to time because we are so used to meowing at our cats. But I have also heard people with no cats do that, so enough with the judging.

On a daily basis, one of my colleagues, a cat owner, and I spend a few minutes discussing the latest "mischief" by our cats. We even exchange tips on how to deal with this and that problem. Because of the social stigma associated with women owning cats, this colleague was worried that getting a second cat would see her forever branded as the "spinster cat lady".

But when a male friend acquired two cats, my girlfriends cooed at how "adorable" that is and how he must be "a giving" man. Socially, he was rewarded for taking the cats under his care, and is now labelled as "marriage material".

Somehow, if a man has a pet - even a spider - it is taken to mean that he is responsible and will probably make a good father. "Now women find me irresistible and always want to meet my cats," he told me.

Which, of course, begs the question: why, when women take care of cats, aren't they labelled "marriage material" in the same way? We feed them, wash them, spoil them, groom them, clean up after them. We are their slaves. Shouldn't that make us responsible and potentially first-class wives and mothers?

No, is the answer, though I can't explain why. So I decided a long time ago not to allow fears of being stigmatised to affect me. A cat woman I am, and a cat woman I shall stay.

@Email:rghazal@thenational.ae