Being single in Turkey: a choice or a failure?

Being single in Turkey:  a choice or a failure?

Women who are still unmarried after a certain age in Turkey are pitied, most single women feel in Turkey. Singledom is no picnic for men either, but they are more accepted than women. (PHOTO AP, Ronald Zak)

September 16, 2012, Sunday/ 13:38:00/ SEVGI AKARÇEŞME

“Had I known he was single, I would not have appointed him as a general manager,” said the deputy prime minister, referring to one of his bureaucrats at his wedding ceremony, while emphasizing the “special importance of marriage in our culture.”

Rumor has it that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not approve of appointing single members in his party. One might argue that such an attitude advocating marriage is normal since it comes from the conservative Justice and Development Party (AK Party). However, when it comes to the issue of marriage and singledom, Turkish society seems to be in consensus: Being single is hardly a choice, but a failure -- and much more so for women than men.

In fairness to Turkey, I must acknowledge that marriage is historically and universally “celebrated” as an institution. After all, it adds to -- or at least is supposed to -- the order and stability of societies. Given its legitimate contribution to the reproduction of societies, no wonder marriage is universal and timeless. Then again, it would be reductionist to portray marriage only as an institution of reproduction and legal protection for women. As many surveys -- as well as common sense -- suggest, married people tend to be happier compared to singles, as long as couples are in a relatively headache-free union. Marriage is also said to have a positive impact on careers mainly because of the emotional support mechanism it provides. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute’s (TurkStat) Life Contentment Survey in 2011, 65.5 percent of married people said they are happy compared to 52.9 percent of single people. However, it should be noted that people, particularly women, tend not to describe their spouses as the source of their happiness, but instead the whole family, according to the same survey.

Given the results of the survey and the traditional Turkish culture, how is it that seems to be an increasing number of single people from both sexes in all walks of life? Is being single a preference, as common belief suggests, an obligation or simply kismet? Is it a failure, or a chance to enjoy freedom? What about the crucial and often overlooked distinction between being single and being lonely? How does society perceive single men vs. single women?

Dr. Nil Mutluer from the department of sociology at Fatih University says the perception of being single is “shaped by class and culture, which is why it is considered more sustainable in modern circles.” She adds that single men in conservative circles are considered people who have failed to establish a family -- an attitude that sometimes exists among Kemalist conservatives. Although Mutluer points to the challenges single men face due to their social exclusion, conservative single women clearly have fewer options in terms of socialization since most of their female friends are usually married with children. This limits the chances of single women spending time with their female friends, whose lives revolve around their children. Moreover, they are unable to join men’s groups due to the old boys’ club habits.

Highlighting the double standard in society’s attitudes toward singles, a female lawyer in her mid-30s says that “if a man is single it is because he prefers to remain single, but if a woman is single it cannot possibly be because she wanted to, according to people.” After stating that she is not anti-marriage as she believes having a lifelong partner is important to everyone, she says that society considers a woman being single a failure. “Even if that is not how you feel, people make you feel as if you have not taken a required step in life,” adds this Ankara-based single woman.

In comparison, a male pilot in his 30s says he feels almost no social pressure although he notes that this probably is due to his social milieu, in which it is acceptable to be single for both older men and women.

Despite his accepting social environment, he says that “being single is not a preference; I am not married yet probably because I am a little picky,” while adding that remaining single is an increasing trend because people seem to be less tolerant of each other and willing to compromise. Family therapist Efkan Yeşildağ confirms this. “Individualization is becoming more apparent as ‘I’ gets more important than ‘we’ and people prioritize personal freedoms which tend to cause more loneliness.”

It seems an open secret that single men are called bachelors, while single women are deemed spinsters. A media professional in her mid-30s says that “if a man has been single for many years, it is because he is a womanizer, not ready to settle yet, but a woman who ‘failed to find a husband’ must have issues regardless of her other successes in life.” This spinster-Casanova dichotomy is widespread even in big cities in Turkey.

As the media professional says, “A single woman is unfortunate at best and she is pitied, while single men are often envied.”

It is probably this type of social pressure that makes women -- no matter how accomplished they are -- feel as if they have something missing in their life. Not one of the single women who expressed their views on the issue stated that they wanted to have children. This runs against the common belief of a ticking biological clock. Rather, they referred to a need for a partner who will enrich and share their lives. “Since living together with someone is generally not accepted in our society, marriage is the best option,” says the single lawyer. Religious or moral restrictions usually create further complications, such as getting married to someone who falls short of your expectations or putting up with the various deprivations that being alone brings.

Speaking of expectations and criteria, women are far ahead of men in their lists. “I do not believe men have as many criteria as women,” says the lawyer, while adding in a rather condescending and disappointed manner that “they have a certain image in their mind, as long as she is somehow pretty it does not matter whether she is well educated or has a career.” Similarly, the media professional says: “In its current traditional form, marriage is something that men can enjoy, not women. And I would not consider getting married unless it makes me happier than I am now.”

Regarding the question of whether being single is contrary to human nature or not, there is disagreement among experts. Although Yeşildağ says that it depends on the person and their preferences, another therapist who wants to remain anonymous says that “those who say they are content as singles most probably share their lives with someone even in religious circles,” as having a partner is a natural human need. Yeşildağ says that “the individual might have feelings such as worthlessness and loneliness” in the case of long-term singleness. However, both agree that people tend to have the best of both worlds -- having a partner while avoiding the responsibilities of marriage.

In the face of the remarks mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is normal to see marriage as a means for status, normalcy and acceptance in a traditional society. However, it would be much healthier if it is considered when love triumphs over all, which would (eventually) contribute to one’s well-being and status.

After all, most if not all of what human beings need is love.

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