In the business of finding love in India, no one does worse than divorced women. They are often viewed as damaged, toxic or flawed. Even as we socially-support their right to be divorced, when it comes to our own families, how many of us open our doors to divorced women?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I have known Savera (name changed upon request) for most of my life. All of my memories of her are built around her explosive laughter and dramatic mannerisms. I am predisposed to seeing her as the ball of energy who passes out at 10 PM with the bottle of wine still in her hand but she has a much larger personality than that. She is well-educated and well-employed. She has proven many times in her life that she can take the kind of responsibility that even our fathers sometimes fail at taking. She is funny, like a sketch comedy come to life, and beautiful, like a one of those wavy-haired Instagram beach-girls. She is quirky enough to be truly memorable and a delightful lunch-companion. If I could bring myself to describe women in terms of their desirability as wives or partners, I would call her the complete package. However, Savera has the more problems dating and finding love than anyone I know.
Savera is divorced.
She is a twenty-eight year-old divorced Indian woman trying to find a long-term partner. Despite what the elitist social-messaging systems might have you believe, divorce is still incredibly rare in India. With less than 1% of marriages ending in divorce we have amongst the lowest rates of divorce in the world, and while that number has doubled in the past two decades, the ability to get divorced (without taking that much of a social hit) largely remains the purview of the affluent. Furthermore the tag you carry of being divorced can only be shed if you marry again, as if in marrying again you have submitted an affidavit proving that you are now worthy of social acceptance because you have found a man who will have you despite your sordid past. Many of us might say that we have no judgement for divorced women, but how many of us would think of them as suitable matches for our sons? How many of us would bring them home to our parents as women we love?
As Savera has discovered in the past few years, almost none.
We exist in a society that believes using Tinder to get laid makes you progressive as long as you don’t use it to fall in love with a divorced woman. A few years after she was separated from her husband, Savera started to use dating apps to the end of meeting someone with whom she was truly compatible. She would usually disclose her status as divorced to the people she encountered online fairly quickly into their communications because she felt like she shouldn’t mislead anyone into wasting their time. That is when she started to notice a strange phenomenon.
“After you tell them that you are divorced most men suddenly are only interested in having a fling,” she says, “To be polite they may not say anything about the divorce to your face, but they will either only want to fool around or ghost you.”
In the long-term this experience of dating is extremely damaging to the self-esteem of any person. When it happens over and over, what you start to hear is that while people desire your body, they also consider you unworthy of love. After a man she encountered online who seemed extremely interested in her told her that he had the leave to fall in love with and marry any woman (of any caste, religion or ethnic background) except a divorced woman, she gave up on online dating. One would think that dating freely would be more likely to yield a more progressive result but that is not the case because the youth of India, while different, is still heavily informed by the values of our elders. Most of us will date anyone but we know what happens when you take someone from a different caste, religion or ethnicity home with the intention to marry. We are great when it comes to posting our beliefs beneath broody filters online but most of us lack the impetus to stand up and suffer for our beliefs. We are okay with inter-caste, inter-religious marriage as long as we adhere to the limitation of never putting ourselves in that position. When you are divorced, though, you are not even granted the courtesy of that oppressive choice.
“I am a perfect match for every divorced man,” explains Savera, “Considering age, caste, community, looks and education is the right of first-timers only. I now belong to a community called divorced, wherein everyone is treated equally badly.”
After her disappointing experience with dating independently Savera started to warm up to the idea of letting her parents and community find her a partner again. On the face of it, many of us may examine this information and think of it like going back to eat at a restaurant that gave you food-poisoning but what would you do if that was the only place where you could get food? It’s no good to give people the right to choose when there is only one option. For Savera, on the arranged marriage market, the only option is divorced men. Within this pool of divorced men, she is expected to take any man who will have her because the only commonality that is to be considered from the mind of the Indian matchmaker is the one of their current marital status.
“The number of compromises a divorced woman is expected to make is endless,” she says in discussion of arranged marriage, “Being an independent, career-woman, I should be willing to get married to a college drop out who is an utter embarrassment after a few drinks, and relocate to any part of the world if I am lucky enough to be chosen by him.”
As your marital worth as a woman declines in society, you are expected to make more compromises. Your marital worth declines for many reasons like being older than the “golden age” for marriage, being overweight or being overly ambitious (remember Aparna and how much everyone hated her?) but nothing pushes you to the bottom of the barrel like divorce. For a divorced woman having any stipulations for who they might want to marry is viewed as too arrogant because they are seen as unwilling to compromise and an uncompromising woman, we are told repeatedly, cannot find a husband. Least of all if she has committed the social sin of having had one before. A part of this is because, no matter what, when we hear of a broken marriage we feel the immediate need to figure out what the woman did wrong. Even today the most regularly cited reasons for divorce are things like, “the girl didn’t meet expectations of the family” or “the girl couldn’t adjust with the family” or “the girl is trying to steal the son” which even if they contained an ounce of truth, would also serve as evidence of the unreasonable expectations placed on wives.
This ideology has us view divorced women as damaged or toxic. Even though marriages end for many reasons like abuse, infidelity, incompatibility (and most often because it was a terrible idea to begin with), we have decided, at least socially, that it was somehow deep-inside always the woman’s fault. It’s subtle, sometimes, like, when they say, ‘Yes, he cheated on her, but men have needs and she wasn’t being there for him,’ I defy anyone to tell me they have never heard that said. Sometimes we don’t even articulate it, we just see divorced women as damaged and pitiful creatures.
“One of my friend’s mother was surprised to see me dressed nicely after my divorce,” Savera tells me, “It was the first thing she said when I entered their house, like look at the poor thing who still dresses up so nicely even after so much has happened in her life.”
We expect divorced women to be broken, because how could anything be worse than ending an unhappy marriage? We view divorce as the failure of marriage whereas long-lasting unhappy marriages are viewed as the success stories. When a divorced woman presents herself as a candidate for arranged marriage, her status as divorced tells us to immediately look for the flaw that explains the divorce. We do that socially as well.
“One of my previous bosses told me she knew exactly why I was divorced because she saw my resignation as a betrayal,” Savera admits, “A client once told me my anxiety was the reason my husband must have left me.”
Where previously-unmarried women on the arranged marriage arena are measured by their assets and qualities, divorced women are measured by their flaws and as a result are expected to settle for anyone. That is the punishment for failing at marriage. That is the punishment for exercising the privilege of divorce. This business of marriage leaves little room for love and the price-tag of being divorced is too much to afford for most people who are shopping for love within the loving confines of Indian culture.
“I don’t know what people are saying to me when they call me divorced, sometimes it feels like they are abusing me,” Savera says, “Of course I have met some supportive people but how many? And how many of them would marry a divorced woman?”
It’s a good question. I’d have thought anyone would be lucky to marry her but she is being measured by a scale designed by the factions of defunct traditionalism that is incapable of admitting they can’t stand the idea of a woman who has had sex before marrying their son.
That’s the unspoken reason.