Lady Bugs: ‘Bachelor Girls’ Shows How Hard It Is For Women To Rent A Home In Mumbai

Bachelor Girls.

Shikha Makan’s documentary Bachelor Girls shatters the image of Mumbai as a liberal city that’s welcoming of single women. The film, made over the last three years, shows us just how hard it is for unmarried women, colloquially called ‘bachelor girls’, to not only find but also retain rental accommodation here. For many, securing a job in the so-called city of dreams can often lead to a living nightmare. As we learn from the women interviewed by Makan, attempting to find a home in Mumbai often involves multiple rounds of interviews, with the broker, landlord and housing society.

To prove their moral candidacy, women sometimes have to produce character certificates from their bosses and parents. When they do manage to rent a flat, they’re faced with restrictions such as blanket bans on solo male visitors and parties. (In the documentary, a tenant was only allowed to receive a friend’s husband after the couple showed her watchman their marriage certificate.) The consequences of not following these unwritten rules means running the risk of being called a prostitute or pimp.

Over the course of the hour-long documentary, which will be screened at the National Centre for the Performing Arts on Friday, December 16, Makan speaks to women from a cross-section of professions, from banking and the media to the film and TV industry, and finds that they each have faced similar hardships. She also interviews brokers and housing secretaries, who are brazenly proud of their self-appointed roles as moral police, and with lawyers and women’s rights groups to find that legal recourse is often futile. Ahead of the screening, we interviewed Makan, via email, about the making of Bachelor Girls and why Mumbai is, in some ways, no city for single women. Edited excerpts:

While you were making the film, did you find that certain pockets of the city are more conservative than others?
When I started looking for stories for the film, I saw the canvas growing in all directions in the city, from Kandivali to Andheri, Bandra, Powai, Worli and more. I don’t think housing discrimination against women is localised to a certain area in the city or even region in the country. The fact that the news of my film has women writing to me from all across the nation only tells us how grave the realities of single women are today. However there are regions in every city that are segregated by dominant communities residing there, religion-wise or based on eating habits of people and yes, a few corners which you would call ‘strugglers’ abode’. Women as a category are common to all these subsets. There is definitely a kind of housing factionalisation in our society.

At the panel discussion after a private screening of the documentary at Ministry of New in September, one of the speakers said that she “threw money at the problem”. At the same time, we see women like actress Kalki Koechlin facing the same issues as those in less glamorous professionals. Is finding a house easier in more affluent areas? Or is it more about what you do (the kind of profession you are in) than how much you make?
It is both. Housing is at a premium in a city like Mumbai so a fight for space is the theme of this city. If you have a huge paying capacity, perhaps you will manage to get a house in an affluent place. However because our social attitudes towards single women are coloured with judgemental and non-progressive thoughts, more often than not, you may end up paying a much higher price in that bargain, be it a modest or a plush building.

Arundhati Ghosh, the executive director of the India Foundation for the Arts, at a recent discussion in Bangalore, said “It is like paying a ‘social tax’ for being a single woman.” Like you pay a penance to coexist with society. But let us also remember that this is not an option for most women who migrate to the city to begin their careers and may not have high range affordability. My film also has women from all kinds of professional backgrounds be it media, education or corporate so one cannot say that a so-called ‘respectable’ profile can help the case.

In the documentary, you speak with women’s rights groups and lawyers. How often do women who are frequently harassed by housing societies take legal recourse?
Rarely. I think women and generally common people in our country are unaware of their legal and constitutional rights. We don’t know how our law can protect us. There is a huge gap in our knowledge which is accompanied with the fear and uncertainty of legal procedures. In my experience, most women were willing to compromise on the quality of living, made adjustments with the surroundings that they could afford, or chose to leave the city. Of the many women I met, only one girl stood up and approached the court of law. I salute her for her spirit. Her case was ongoing when I met her, and I think it still is in proceedings. She is not from outside but is a Bombay girl and that is what is also interesting. She and her sister branched out to lead an independent life.

The brokers and housing secretaries you speak to are completely convinced that they are doing the right thing. How far along do you think we are from people’s mindsets changing?
People are certainly convinced that by denying homes to single women (unmarried, widowed or divorced), they are bringing some kind of social order. But in fact it is a patriarchal manifestation of their age-old idea that a respectable woman is a married woman, that is, with husband and children. Hence, they reject the new version of today’s independent woman who says “I am on my own”. We as a society do not understand the real meaning of the word ’emancipation’, which is not just contained in educating a girl, or welcoming her to contribute to a house’s income. True emancipation is in respecting a woman for the choices she wants to make without feeling moralistic about it.

Today, on one hand we are a developing economy, on the other we are facing complex social transitions. Multiple kinds of backward and forward thinking are uncomfortably coexisting in our society, and there are not enough open dialogues between them. The ‘gendered’ way of looking at a woman continues to be a power play and is deeply entrenched in our socio-cultural psyches. It needs to be addressed at many levels.

Did all the women you interviewed eventually find houses? Is there another liberal side to the city that continues to represent the welcoming place it is believed to be?
Some had to resort to ‘untruths’ about their professions, others sought ‘character certificates’ from their employers, some produced parents to vouch for them, a few women paid higher rents, few quit and returned [to their hometowns], and yes some of them were lucky to have found homes they liked. It is not [so much about] parts of the city but people who are liberal or regressive, and the latter clearly outnumber the former. This is perhaps true for Bombay and other cities in India as well. The harassing stories of housing and single women that I continue to hear from other parts of India like Chennai, Kolkata, Pune reinforce the thought that we have a long road ahead of us before more people get gender-sensitised and we see a major change.

Could you share how you came to find your current accommodation?
I went through compromising on localities, then quality of buildings, until I got married. So needless to say my status is more ‘respectable’ now for society.

Bachelor Girls will be shown as part of this month’s instalment of the National Centre for the Performing Arts’s Reality Check series of documentary screenings at 6.30pm on Friday, December 16 at the Little Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Nariman Point. Tel: 022 22882 4567. There is no entry fee; admission on a first come, first served basis. See here for more information and here for directions.

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