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As a single woman, I often have people asking me about my marital status and reason for lack thereof. When I was younger, there were queries from “brave and open” friends who tried to probe on my sexuality or suggest meeting up with ABC guy. These various suggestions occasionally amused me. Mostly, I am quite at ease about my single-hood because that was what I chose to be and to do. I thus have a full life with meaningful relationships sans the sex life. My family accepted it many years ago.

I have revisited this decision last year during a personal development course and know that it was my choice and happy with it. I am sharing instead the true stories (details have been altered for reasons of confidentiality) of three women who never reflect on their choices and allow the pressures of society which make them lesser than what they are. They are Siew Mei, Surianna and Devi (not their real names).

Last year I accompanied Siew Mei for a HIV test. She was relieved that the result was negative. Six months later, I took her for the repeat HIV antibody test at a private laboratory. Her result was again negative.

Siew Mei is 42 years old. She is a civil servant who never married and is educated to tertiary level. One day, she realized that her Korean boyfriend was two-timing her and she decided to call off the relationship. While she was angrily blaming the “other woman”, I asked her whether her relationship was sexually intimate. That was how we looked at the risks of unprotected sex.

I met Siew Mei a few months ago, playing tourist guide to an Australian man. Later I learnt that she met him through internet dating services. They stayed together at a resort before he went home. The long-distance relationship did not work out and she needed a pregnancy test but she decided not to do a HIV test. I have not seen Siew Mei since though I remain in telephone contact. She is dating a Japanese man. The reason: she wants to be married and it’s never too late. Marriage begins with a (sexual) relationship and she had been too old fashioned in the past. It was time to take risks and foreigners were more accepting of her age.

I first met Surianna, then 32 years old, three years ago, when she was referred for placement in a centre by her own family as she had tried to commit suicide. Though depressed, she looked stunning. A mother of a five-year-old girl, she and her ex-husband had just divorced.

Her ex-husband looked after his family’s extensive business interests and neglected her. Her little girl was looked after by Indonesian maids.

When her husband was overseas, Surianna would call up men friends and go out with them. The divorce happened because one of her male partners disclosed the relationship to the ex-husband.

After two months at the centre, she went back to her family and looked for a job. Surianna re-married after the death of her father. Her new husband, Hilmi, does not know about her past. She stopped visiting her little girl. She married Hilmi because she was tired of working for a living and looking after herself. She felt she was a burden and a shame to her family. She said she re- married while she still has the looks. Surianna spent a lot of time and money on looking good. Her mother-in-law wasn’t happy because she dieted to be slim, so Surianna persuaded Hilmi to move out and hire a maid to do housework.

Yesterday, Surianna discovered Hilmi having sex with the maid when she returned home early from a Kuala Lumpur shopping trip. “What shall I do? He refused to send the maid back. I called my mother-in-law and she said this would never have happened if I had not moved out and learnt to cook. She won’t take my side. I called my mother who told me I have to grow up.”

What can Surianna do? Move out of the marital home and go back to her family home again? Bear with the situation? Kill the maid, her husband and herself (this was on her mind). Actually she went into hospital after consulting her private psychiatrist, and told her husband that she needed time away for “a few days”.

Devi, a Masters’ graduate, married John two years ago. Devi has had two abortions before they were married. She was over the moon when he proposed.

Recently, Devi called crying from a public telephone, “John never looks after me and our son. I pay all the house bills, the rent and buy the food. I cook, wash and clean after coming back from work and fetching our son from the babysitter. He just goes out with his mates and come back drunk. He got fired recently and now he’s very bad-tempered. I am afraid of him …”

For Siew Mei, Surianna and Devi, three well-educated women, marriage was the important event in their life. Marriage made life worth living, nothing else. They thus took all the risks necessary so that they would achieve that status. Once it was achieved, they thought they would be happy but the irresponsibility of their men made their lives unbearable…

There are policies about equality for men and women. Women have access to university education and high-powered jobs. There are more women graduates than men graduates. Yet, from the heart-rending stories above, the disparity in women’s and men’s worth continues to be internalised by young women. There are gender sensitisation activities but how many young women believe that they can live their lives free from stigma if they are not married? How can women be empowered to be really free of expectations imposed by society? I do not know the answer but I live it because of my circumstances and environment.

Engie Ng
Penang Family Planning Association

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