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All the Single Ladies: Why More and More Women are Perfectly Happy with Not Putting a Ring on It

Vogue Arabia, July/August 2018. Photo: Zoey Grossman

It starts innocuously enough, right after the New Year rush. You spot a teddy here and a heart there, and before long the shops are bursting with retro cellophane-wrapped red roses, the tiny white baby’s breath mocking your friendless avocado and small bottle of milk. You’ve only just recovered from the barrage of family questions during the holiday season and now this. Valentine’s Day.

February 14 elicits a groan from single women everywhere; its tacky celebration of coupledom a stark reminder that for many, one is still very much the loneliest number. But a generation of women who have made it through their turbulent 20s and into the steadfastness of their own maturity are choosing a different path: being content with being single. And why not? It is objectively wonderful not to have to pick up someone else’s socks and to have cheese for dinner three nights in a row. Facetiousness aside, these women are making the empowered choice to not define themselves by their marriage status. “Being single started as a conscious decision so I can focus more on myself,” says Noura S, a 36-year-old Dubai-based marketer. “With time, I began to like myself so much that I think I’m the one!” When actor Emma Watson referred to her state of happy singledom as being “self-partnered” in 2019, she was far from the only star to unabashedly love going solo. Jennifer Aniston has long been the poster girl for smiling singles everywhere, along with Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Mindy Kaling, and Diane Keaton. Being an untethered woman has lost its aura of tragedy, and attitudes in the region are changing, too. Gone are the days when, two decades ago, the UAE’s now defunct Marriage Fund aimed to curb the recruitment of unmarried foreign women in order to tackle the “problem” of “spinsters.” Today, women in the Emirates enjoy equal rights and access to education, jobs, and property, and occupy the highest spheres of government and business.

“Spinsters” and “old maids” are thankfully retired terms in 2022, their misogynistic ring harking back to a time when girls were expected to be paired off barely out of their teens. While the word has fallen largely into disuse, it is yet to be replaced by something more empowering, more validating, more fun. Because being footloose and fancy free can be fun, as 48-year-old Lebanese professional Carole Safi attests. “When you are single, you are master of your decisions. It’s about freedom and independence.” While Safi came to her current single status due to losing the “love of [her] life” at 20, she doesn’t have any regrets today. “My freedom is the most important thing in my life,” she shares.

While annual marriage numbers in the UAE are up marginally from roughly 16 200 in 2015 to 17 600 in 2020, choosing to stay single – or childfree, or single for longer – is a worldwide trend among women. More and more Chinese women are preferring to stay childfree, while there are currently more single women in India that at any other time before, with many of them living it as a choice. In the UK, the percentage of never-married single people in their 40s has doubled. “Freedom” is what comes up time and again in conversations with single women – the freedom to make decisions for your own wellbeing, to say no when you want to, to follow your heart where it takes you. You have the time and the headspace to focus on making your work meaningful and on deepening your friendships and family relationships. “Being free and independent is a gift that you nurture,” says 42-year-old Dubai-based Joelle Abou Merhi. “I do not settle, and I think the world is too wide to narrow it to one person. Meeting someone is an addition.”

Being a perpetually unattached woman of a certain age has definite downsides, too. Most of the sanctimonious hand-wringing about single life is about women. Men are not usually submitted to the same kinds of pressure; they are not seen as “desperate” for marriage. As a single woman, you face a dismal dating pool, you are your only financial support, and you face societal pressure, stigma, and even discrimination in some countries, for instance being denied maternity cover on your health insurance because you’re not married. Hardest of all, perhaps, are the feelings of loneliness. “Sometimes life is too hard to be alone,” says Abou Merhi. “Loneliness is a major factor – but a lot of couples are lonely in a couple.”

While Abou Merhi puts people who stigmatize her singledom “directly on the ‘no’ list,” professor Sasha Roseneil, author of The Tenacity of The Couple-Norm, says that many single people have internalized feelings of failure. “There remains at the heart of intimate life this powerful norm of the couple,” she told The Guardian about her research for the book. “And people struggle with that. Many of them long to be part of a couple. Single people felt a bit of a failure, that something had gone wrong, and that they were missing out.” Complete strangers feel no compunction about asking about your marital status, since being partnered up is so ingrained in the social status quo it is seen as small talk. Close friends and family probably know to avoid a subject that can be delicate at best and excruciating at worst. The elephant-sized baby in the room is, of course, dwindling fertility.

For some women, the urge to have biological children is what could push them towards commitment – but for many, a life rich with choices, friendships, professional fulfilment, and the unparalleled joy of being able to hand a screaming child back to its mother is more than enough.

Read Next: A Major Astrological Event Is Shaking Up Valentine’s Day – Here’s How It Will Affect Your Zodiac Sign

Originally published in the February 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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