Conservative Asian societies often shock the western world with their outdated opinions that are steeped in side dishes of tradition and propriety. But the concept of 'sheng nu', prevalent in China, would shock us Indians too.
Sheng nu can be loosely translated as ‘leftover women’ or ‘leftover ladies’ and is a derogatory term popularised by the All-China Women's Federation, which is quite ironically a women’s rights organisation. The term disparages women who remain unmarried in their late twenties and beyond, as if they are poor quality groceries that are left behind by customers at a store.
In 2007, the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China released an official statement defining sheng nu as ‘unmarried women over the age of 27’ and added it to the national lexicon. The ministry expanded the meaning as a “failure to find a husband due to overly high expectations for marriage partners" in a subsequent statement.
In March 2011, the All-China Women's Federation posted a controversial article titled 'Leftover Women Do Not Deserve Our Sympathy' shortly after International Women's Day. This is an excerpt - "Pretty girls do not need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family. But girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult. These girls hope to further their education to increase their competitiveness. The tragedy is, they don't realise that as women age, they are worth less and less. So, by the time they get their MA or PhD, they are already old — like yellowed pearls.”
The Indian story
In India, things might not seem as blatantly bad for single women in their late twenties or thirties. However, early to mid-twenties is still seen as the ‘right’ age for girls to get married with men getting a lot more leeway before concerned well-wishers enquire upon their marital plans. The pressure on women is two-fold – the first being finding a ‘good husband’ before she gets too old and second to have a baby before it’s too late.
Today, there are several women who remain single due to various reasons and are determined not to bow down to societal pressure. Career is certainly a factor but it is not the only one. There are others who are married or in committed relationships but have put motherhood voluntarily on hold.
What women want
Twenty-nine-year-old marketing professional Neha does feel the pressure to ‘settle down’. She says, “I guess it is a mix of pressure from my family, society as well as an innate awareness of my ticking biological clock. I want to get married but I am not desperate. Earlier I would get stressed out thinking I was getting close to 30. But I am relaxed and in a better mind space now. I met a few guys through common family friends and through matrimonial websites. There was this one guy who ticked all the right boxes - qualified, from a good family background and he was keen that I make up my mind and commit to an engagement. But I was not sure. It could be that I am a romantic at heart but I just felt that we didn’t click and so I said no. He took it rather badly and was a bit rude before cutting off communication. I do feel bad when colleagues make fun of my age but I enjoy my work and have a good social life with my friends. So, I don’t want to compromise and get into an unhappy marriage because of this pressure.”
Thirty-year-old journalist Indu is much more nonchalant about her marital prospects. She says, “Yes, if I meet the right person and I really want to at that point in time, I will get married. But honestly, it is not a priority right now. I have crossed the dreaded 30 but it is only stressful if you allow yourself to get stressed. My priority is my career and I am doing so well professionally. My parents did get into a worry mode a couple of years back but I had a frank conversation with them and they know and understand my point of view and no longer want me to get married for the sake of it.”
My observation is that the biological clock and the career clock are in total conflict with each other. Total, complete conflict. When you have to have kids, you have to build your career. Just as you’re rising to middle management your kids need you because they’re teenagers, they need you for the teenage years.
And that’s the time your husband becomes a teenager too, so he needs you! And as you grow even more, your parents need you because they’re ageing.
So, we’re screwed!
To bring about a balance to this conversation I spoke to 35-year-old Megha who got married at 23 and is the mother of a 10-year-old. She says, “I had an arranged marriage just as I was embarking on my career. My parents wanted me to get married and when I met my husband, we had a nice chat and there was this comfortable, friendly vibe and I thought why not. It’s possible if I had waited for a few more years and become more emotionally mature while also moving to a more senior level at work, I would not have taken the call so easily. I took a long break to care for my daughter, but now that she is older, I have been fortunate enough to get back to work and focus on my career. What I am saying is that sometimes we start craving for perfection and fairy tales, but it is okay not to over-think and go with what feels right and work on it – be it marriage, motherhood or career.”
So, dear reader, what do you think? Do share your thoughts, views and opinions in the comments section.