In India, A Divorced Woman Is Branded For Life. This Is What It's Like To Be One.

Divorce is such a taboo topic here that even young people disapprove.
"I was visibly heartbroken, yet very few people in my life were supportive."
"I was visibly heartbroken, yet very few people in my life were supportive."
Photo Courtesy Of Mahevash Shaikh

In India, where I live, if a girl isn’t married by the age of 30, it means there’s something wrong with her because she is long past her marriageable age. Another common regressive belief here is that divorce is shameful, especially for women.

With these messed-up belief systems, I’m sure you can imagine the extent of othering and disdain for someone like me, a girl who got both married and divorced before the age of 30.

I got married at 25 in 2015 to a man I loved with all my heart. Family and friends couldn’t be happier that I was finally settling down for good ― after all, the typical Indian marriage lasts forever, even when it’s irretrievably broken. For a variety of reasons, things went downhill soon. We split up in 2017, and after an arduous year and a half, we were legally divorced by mutual consent.

It was only when I was an official divorcée did I start telling people that my marriage didn’t work out. I waited so long partly because I was not ready to have conversations on this topic, but mostly because I wasn’t ready to handle judgment, pity, and unsolicited advice. I knew my friends would be there for me, but divorce is such a taboo topic here that even young people disapprove of the D word.

When I did decide to speak my truth, I thought I would be able to deal with all kinds of reactions. After all, I’d survived PTSD and severe depression due to the way my relationship crashed and burned. Also, I thought that maybe it was all in my head, and I was projecting my own fears, and people would be empathetic or at least respectful.

I was wrong. I was visibly heartbroken, yet very few people in my life were supportive. My traditional middle-class parents were among them; they took me by surprise when they welcomed me home with open arms. Single and committed friends sent me funny memes and texts on how marriage is outdated. I didn’t know any divorced people to relate to, but humor at least helped validate my move to end my relationship. On the other hand, relatives and acquaintances chose to reflect the cruel side of Indian society (as described below).

All I needed was gentle affirmations that I would be fine, the pain would abate, the trust issues would go away. Heck, even a simple “How are you doing?” would have sufficed. But most people I knew fell in one of these three camps:

  1. Those who felt too awkward around me to ask about anything even remotely related to my divorce so they spoke about everything else under the sun. Pretending as if it never happened was the easiest way out.
  2. Those who avoided speaking to me because they looked down on my choice to end a marriage that wasn’t right for me. How dare I not live by “till death do us part”! Why couldn’t I have tried to save my marriage by having a kid or two instead? Later, when they found out I never wanted kids in the first place — just because they weren’t speaking to me doesn’t mean they were not keeping tabs on and gossiping about me — they were even more horrified by my wicked unsanskaari (brazen) ways.
  3. Those who openly asked me what went wrong, as if it was any of their business to know such intimate details about my personal life. These sort of invasive questions came from people I barely knew, yet they had the audacity to ask them without any fear or hesitation.

Most of these people were not willing to change their toxic behavior, so I had no option but to cut them off from my life.

Luckily, the people who I cared about most ― my parents, my sisters, my little nephews, and my unmarried aunts ― had my back. Today, the people who are a part of my life are the ones who care about me as an individual instead of defining me by my relationship status.

Unfortunately, while I can choose the company I can keep, I cannot completely block out society and its nasty opinions about me. The stigma against divorce is painful, even for someone as selectively social as me.

You know how they say gossip travels fast? I can vouch for the fact that it is 100% true, because I’ve heard some wild speculations about me. Literally every move I make is scrutinized and judged, even in the middle of a pandemic-induced lockdown.

For non-Indians, it might be weird as to why people are obsessing over a non-celebrity’s love life. The thing is, my countrypersons value cultural conformity over individuality. We are famous for having close-knit families and communities, which often comes at the expense of respect for personal choices. Boundaries and personal space are alien concepts, and everything a child does is a reflection of their upbringing. So desi parents fixate on their children like projects.

Divorce is a dishonor to the family name, especially for the parents of a female divorcée. A divorced woman is branded for life because she is no longer pure and is surely inadequate for not being able to keep her man. Even if she does manage to get remarried, people will always hold on to the fact that her first marriage died.

Although this ongoing drama upsets me considerably lesser than it used to initially, the social exclusion, ill-will and plain disrespect does bother me to some extent.

I live in Pune, a metropolitan society of educated people. I can’t even imagine the trauma divorced women from small towns and with a barebones education go through, especially when their own families disown them. No wonder so many women stay on in abusive marriages, or even end their lives, rather than deal with the D word. Worse, our society approves of death over divorce. And tainted women like me are expected to say yes to any man who is kind enough to want to marry a non-virgin.

Do I feel bad about my marriage crashing and burning? A thousand times over. But I’d rather be single for the rest of my life than compromise on my values simply to stay married to the wrong person. Do I feel like I should’ve tried harder to stay married? Despite knowing this would involve giving up my dignity and integrity, yes, this thought still enters my mind.

If it weren’t for the power of therapy, especially mental reframing, I would have crumbled under the weight of these destructive thoughts.Today, I’ve learned to live life on my own terms without worrying about how people perceive me. It is a reflection of them, not me.

While my society sees me as some pitiful divorcée, I am more empowered now than ever. Even though I don’t get invited to weddings anymore, I’m finally OK with who I am. My life partner (or lack thereof) will no longer define me as a person. I’ve learned that ultimately, I’m all I have, and the relationship I have with myself is paramount.

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