x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Doctors, taxi drivers ? they all ask the same question

Being a single woman of South Asian descent is difficult in Abu Dhabi, a city where expatriates' traditions hold stronger than back in their homelands.

As far as the taxi driver could see in his rear view mirror there was nothing wrong with me (though he did keep checking). "But why?" he asked again. "Why aren't you married? What is the matter with you?" As a single, South Asian female, a taxi ride in Abu Dhabi is often fraught with questions of a deeply personal nature. And so we drove on: a perplexed cabbie interrogating me about my personal life - while wondering aloud about any physical defects that I might possess - and me murmuring my well-rehearsed mantra of emancipation, but every word falling on deaf ears.

Of course, not every taxi driver wants to know the intimate details of my life. There are some who, after making peace with the fact that I am unmarried, offer helpful advice such as phone numbers of potential grooms, meeting venues, even family planning. One particularly helpful soul recommended that I should have 10 children like his wife; for that, he emphasised, is the benchmark of a dutiful woman.

But it is not just taxi drivers who are fixated on my marital status; others, including a general physician and my beautician, have shown equal fascination. An elderly doctor carrying out a routine health check, after approving the correlation between my age, height and weight, slapped my triceps while checking my blood pressure and declared: "Too thin. Not good for making babies." And as the beautician inspected my eyebrows, she talked about the virtues of drinking lots of water to stay "looking young". Then she launched into a set of questions with which I have become all too familiar, beginning with the seemingly innocuous. "Do you have a family?"

As a means of extracting a confession, hot wax and hair removal are easily the match of electrodes and lights in the eye. I blurted the truth. Neither children nor marriage were a priority at the moment. Besides, I had a large network of aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews that kept me busy and happy. "But they are not your own," she said. "You need a family to take away the loneliness of living so far from home."

Culturally, I could not fault such opinions. After all, having lived in India, I was only too familiar with the idea that if a woman does not "settle down" at an appropriate age - which generally means her early to mid-20s - she will find herself increasingly isolated from the rest of society, which tends to cast a wary eye on single women. Marriage is considered not just socially compulsory but a moral duty, too.

As India changes, at an almost unimaginable pace, the pressures on the educated, middle-class Indian woman have become immense. She is expected to balance two worlds, keeping one bangled foot in tradition and the other in Manolo Blahnik-shod modernity. Even as the rupee grows stronger and women in their millions take their place in a roaring economy, they are still expected to conform to the norms followed by their mothers and grandmothers.

Modern India is full of such contradictions for women. While new nightclubs open every day in the major cities, casual dating is still considered taboo. The professional woman may have a high-powered and well-paid job, but she is still expected to live at home until she marries, and then often to a man chosen by her parents or, at the very least, to a man of whom they approve. Yet, divorce rates are soaring and popular online dating sites now offer sections for the divorced.

But when it comes to Indian women living abroad, the challenges and the contradictions are often greater. Attitudes among the South Asian expatriate community are, if anything, more rooted in the past than those back in the subcontinent. Opinions and traditions that are starting to change in Delhi and Mumbai are still ossified here in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Or as one taxi driver reminded me kindly, the rules that apply to his daughter in Peshawar, Pakistan, should also apply to me. I was breaking free but his daughter was still expected to stick to tradition.

My parents always encouraged me to pursue both education and a career and did not expect marriage as the only option. But even they are not immune to the pressures of their society (or constant inquiries from relatives about when I would be venturing into the marriage market). I have come to understand that an apartment and a career abroad do not absolve a woman from the expectations of her culture.

After all, one's heritage is inescapable, and in a city without public transport, so are taxi drivers. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae