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SASS AND THE CITY

To all women who are independent

An open letter to single women, who must fend off the annual shaming tradition during the Chinese New Year

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A great curse befalls women in Singapore annually. It's called the Great Torrent of Relatives Prying Into Your Life Which Reminds You Why You See Them Only Once A Year.

This event is not far off now for the Chinese (though in this multi-ethnic society, this misfortune is fairly served up to most women, regardless of race, language, religion and facial expression).

There is a pecking order, and it is inversely related to the woman's level of anger levelled at her husband:

The first victim is typically the single woman, who has no husband to be mad at yet, followed by the married woman who has yet to become a mum, then the married woman with one child (but who still looks pregnant and everybody points this out when she is on dessert), then the two-child married woman, who is, by this time, resenting her husband for forgetting the diapers or milk or stroller. Then, the Great Torrent looks for the married woman with three children: she has fallen asleep on the sofa, with her third child latched onto her bruised teat, defeated by that mismatched sock that should be on the child's foot, not in her hair.

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Today's column is specially dedicated to those in the first line of defence: single women above 28 - the median age of married women in Singapore. These are members of a sisterhood who have devised every possible escape plan and strategy to deflect questions that are insults too thinly disguised. Most women, and perhaps especially those who have defected to the Great Torrent in retaliatory schadenfreude, have been there, and been reminded that a heterosexual woman's worth stays tied to the consent and approval of a man.

Here, the Presupposed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, generally known as single men, would protest, for they, too, will be harassed. True, but the level of judgment they face may be quite different. The patriarchy suggests that single men are just biding their time; single women, however, have a deadline.

Time was once a neutral umpire to guide us through decisions, but it picked a side, and chose men, so men became women's badge of social acceptance, giving credence to the thoughtless assumption that single women are lacking without husbands (and empty without children).

The questions for a single woman typically insinuate that something is wrong with her: Too tall. Too "fat". Too educated. Too extroverted. Too opinionated. Too quiet. Too successful. Too underachieving. Too much of a party girl.

Too busy being herself.

And when these women have turned pink under the inquisition, attention will turn to their ticking wombs. (Here, the sniping expands into a wider assault on all women. Hips and buttocks are molested with eyes, the experience just a stun gun short of a full cattle inspection.)

But single women are likely clear-eyed about Singapore's sobering statistics behind the end of marriages, which are slightly on the rise. A 2015 SingStat paper said that, among the female plaintiffs in civil divorces, "unreasonable behaviour" from men was the most commonly cited main reason for divorce; it is cited by six in 10 female plaintiffs. Among Muslim couples, one in five seeking a divorce cite infidelity.

Time or children do not necessarily make things better. Among divorced couples in 2015, couples married five to nine years were the biggest group, followed by those married at least 20 years.

More women than men give up on marriages. In 2015, more than six in 10 divorce proceedings were initiated by women. This fits with global studies that suggest the average married woman is less happy than the average married man, or the average single woman.

These points are not meant to be dismissive of marriage (and frankly, of divorce) - but speak to the vulnerability of a union. Single women should not be rushed into a marriage to be promoted to the ranks of the less-harassed, in exchange for a difficult relationship.

Perhaps the implication is that a woman has a problem when she chooses then, to be alone. But do eating, reading, travelling and being on one's own, make them social pariahs? Solitude is freedom, especially when they have the spending power and space to make choices independently of a wrong spouse, or an imposing crowd. To give up that inner peace under pressure for an aching loneliness that several married women bear is a poor trade-off.

The bigger error is society's, for not acknowledging that narrow band of approval within which women tiptoe, and a higher expectation that weighs on the gender. This isn't difficult to establish: praise is lavished on men who do housework, reinforcing the stereotype that too many men (conveniently) cannot wield a mop right.

Women bear an outsized workload and discrimination at work and at home. Their choices - including that enormous one of a life partner - can be harder when the world carries on demanding much from them.

So our hearts go out to single women this year, and we say: "Pay the indignity no heed. Singlehood is not brokenness, and there is much to envy about pursuing a higher purpose: being whole, on your own."

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