"I would have rented an apartment to you, but with your oshobbho lebas (indecent clothing), it is a big no!" a landlady in her mid-forties threw her values on my face. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a fatuya with long sleeves, not an 'alluring' lingerie in conservative Dhaka.
This is one of the less harsh comments I, a working woman in her mid-twenties wishing to live on her own, encountered while desperately hunting down empty apartments to be let.
The first day of my exploring Dhanmandi, the liberal area accommodating middle to upper-middle class residents, I got a few truth-slaps from the concrete buildings with empty apartments. I was awaiting more surprises than anticipated.
Not being completely ignorant of the fact that it would be rather difficult for a single woman to find a place to rent by herself, I started with Dhanmandi, hoping luck goes in my favour.
My first encounter with a highly educated-rich-retired landlord went something like this:
"So you are looking for a place for you, is that correct? You only?"
"Your family does not live here?"
-"They do, but I am moving out."
"This does not make any sense. Why would you move out from your family?"
-"I have my reasons, sir."
"Are you getting married without their permission?"
-"Not at all, I am not thinking about marriage, not in the next ten years at least."
"So you would rather live alone than get married?"
-"But I would not allow any man in my apartment, some shady places might let you do that, but not me."
The one-way conversation from here on vigorously elaborated the no-man policy in a rented apartment. The landlord emphasised how secure his building is, with CCTV cameras and three guards, no "unauthorised" man can enter into the building. If my father or my brother wants to visit, I should give him and his guards their pictures, and national IDs, confirming they are family.
It was clear, from the inquisitiveness of this landlord about my family history and marital status, that he found it most peculiar for a single woman renting an apartment alone. And of course, I was showered with questions about my financial situation too, specifically how I am "imagining" to provide for myself and all!
I have looked in four residential areas, walked by each to-let sign, reading carefully, so that I do not unnecessarily bother the landlords willing to rent apartments to "families only".
Among the near two hundred to-let signs I must have checked out over the time span of a week, 70 percent of them had a clear statement, "families only". Talking to the caretakers of another 20 percent with no specific direction on bachelors, I was looking at frustration and disappoint only. No bachelors welcome, specifically women.
Many of the caretakers suggested me to look for women's hostels, because that's where girls stay when they "have to" live apart from their families. An entire apartment rented by a single woman is still alien of an idea.
In these apartment buildings, while some landlords may have preferences for families over bachelors owing to the generalised notion that "bachelors turn apartments into dirty messes", some are dead-against from a social-religious point of view. They do not want bachelors getting intimate in their apartments. More so, when the bachelors are women.
An agent who helps people find apartments in Kalabagan spotted me searching for a place, and reached out. He showed me an apartment, and called the landlord over the phone to tell him about a potential tenant, I heard the agent convincing him saying that I was a woman of "good character", thus he can rent out the place to me.
While having consensual sex is not constitutionally barred and is a separate discussion, it is a major concern among the landlords and ladies come the point to rent a place to a single woman. It seems one cannot imagine the existence of single women, having nothing to do with men, relationships, sex or anything else. A single woman living alone must be shady, of bad character, or who knows, a call girl!
Is it that unlikely for a woman, who earns enough to provide for herself, to wish having a life of her own, at a place she can make her own? Does a woman by default come with a husband or parents? Does she bear no identity without them?
The answer is obvious, we do not want to allow them to have an identity independent of families, ties, in-laws. It is hard to place a woman independent of all that, in our politically correct subconscious it is selfish of a woman to tend to her needs and wishes only. And for the bold ones who could show a fig to political correctness, it is simply audacity to live separately from one's family, or indecency to stay without a husband.
When we talk about women empowerment, or going pro-independence for women, even the liberals of our society entertain limited scopes. Or at least that is my observation.
Strangers, family, friends, anybody; how supportive and accommodating are we when it comes to liberating women from shackles, or just to allow them a space to breath, to live, to laugh, on their own. With mounting obstacles rushing in from the outside, I had to put up with bitter fights and emotionally draining conversations with my family.
It is understandable that a middle-class conservative Bengali family would react no differently than the landlords when their daughters might want to move out, live a life of their own. But, could our families not extend a hand of support, simply saying, "We've got you!" instead of throwing challenges, "We'll see how you survive on your own?"
I would be moving into my new place next month; the landlady posed no opposition as I earn for myself and would not be "bringing troubles" to her building. I am undecided whether to count myself lucky to find a place after all, even though with restrictions, when I almost lost hope.
For us women, the thought of freedom costs high, actions take considerable tolls on our minds. But for better or for worse, it is worth experiencing it all. And as I answered to my disappointed mother when asked if I could survive on my own, "I would never know if I never try!"