What it feels like to be a young, single South Asian woman

'When are you getting married?'

(Image credit: CBS via Getty Images)

'When are you getting married?'

Words – Shehnaz Khan

I had barely been in the presence of this family friend for 30 seconds, before the sentence she had been bursting to utter had come tumbling out. No ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are the family?’ – it’s a case of cutting straight to the chase. ‘Don’t you want to get married soon?’ she continues as she notices the blank, apathetic look on my face, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ she says, as if I’m a damsel in distress who needs saving from a knight in shining armour.

In such situations, I’ve taught myself to keep a straight face and ignore the almost unbearable frustration inside as I ponder a response. ‘Whenever it’s supposed to happen,’ I half-heartedly replied, fighting to ensure I didn’t roll my eyes or sigh in exasperation.

But when you’ve repeatedly been asked that same question hundreds of times from people who you only see at weddings, parties or funerals, it can be slightly exhausting to coin a valid response. If I had my way, I’d blurt out: ‘Whenever I want to, why do you care?’ with emphasis on the word ‘I’, as that’s what matters of course.

As a British Asian woman, I'm tired of being taught to aspire to nothing but marriage. Since I was a child, culture has always subconsciously taught me that the ultimate goal for women like myself is being a wife. Patriarchy says that it doesn’t matter if you’re educated, have several degrees, a fledging career, your own house or live a thoroughly independent lifestyle, unless you are standing next to a man.

As if by automatic response, when you’re South Asian, female and in your twenties, every single person around you – from your Indian neighbour to your best friend’s mother or your second cousin thrice removed – has one single burning question and demand, to know when on earth you are going to get married.

Since turning 25, I’ve become increasingly aware of the mounting pressure to settle down, and have prepared myself for the increase in scrutiny. But what makes this situation ironic is that the concern over my singlehood comes not from family members, but from people I barely know. Whether it’s carefully crafted remarks such as ‘My daughter Bushra* was married at 19,’ or ‘My son Imran* is looking for a wife,’ the hints and comments are everywhere. The game of cat and mouse never really stops – in fact, it's only just begun.

It’s not that I don’t want to get married, but it's never been a priority for me and I refuse to put my life on hold to search for something that will happen in its own time. Having finished my Masters degree, I'm hoping to do my PhD next year, but this decision to further my studies has not come lightly.

But a lot of people suggest I'll be ‘too old’ to get married once I finish at 28 or 29. ‘Look, you’re almost 25 now, you don’t want to be an old bride,’ and ‘If you get any older, no one is going to want you,’ are two sentences that seem to reach fever-pitch for Asian girls like myself around this age. It’s as if nothing matters more than the empty space on our wedding fingers where there should be a ring. What even constitutes an ‘old bride’?

Does anyone stop to think about whether we, the women who are subjected to these constant episodes of interrogation, will want them instead? What about what we want? Does that not matter? Have you ever thought about how strong, independent women, who are self-sufficient, self-made and self-fulfilled, can have everything they have ever wanted by themselves – with or without a man? The idea that we have 'sell-by-dates' is instilled in us from an early age, but it's a concept that is as ridiculous and untrue as it sounds.

The modern world of dating doesn’t help matters, with an increasing amount of men on Tinder, and Muslim or South Asian dating apps such as Minder, Muzmatch or Dil Mil, wanting to move at the speed of light. They expect a ready-made wife who is a doctor with five degrees, supermodel looks and who drives an Audi to simply stay at home when they get married, and ignore the fact that they are offering much less than what we come to the table with. We are taught to overlook these shortfalls and settle – we simply can’t win.

My friends and I have varying degrees of experience on such apps or in day-to-day life, which include receiving proposals after a week, encountering obsessive stalkers, or witnessing grown men throwing tantrums after a few hours. ‘I’m not talking to you until you tell your mum about us,’ said apparent pro-footballer-before-he-broke-his-leg, Amir* after we’d exchanged approximately four messages. ‘What colour wedding dress shall I order then?’ said investment banker Zohaib* after about half an hour of talking. I took one look at his question and burst out laughing before blocking him.

Telling us that we need to get married isn’t going to make us want to get married before we are ready. Whether we decided to get married tomorrow, next month, next year or in ten years time, that’s our decision, not yours. Stop telling us we need saving.

There are women across the world who have no choice but to get married. So the next time you give me a lecture, think of those who are children that are forced into marriage. Think of the women who are victims of honour-based violence every single day. Think of the women who often lose their lives when they stand up for their right to choose.

Do not be concerned for women like me who have the choice and who will not be defined by marriage. Leave us alone and let us be.

I’m not sorry if the idea of opposing ‘sell-by dates’ and instead choosing to get degrees, secure our dream jobs, travel the world, build a career, buy our own houses, our own cars and give everything to ourselves, (married or not) isn’t enough for you.

It’s enough for us, and that’s all that should ever matter.

*Names have been changed.

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