Being single in the city

Dubai is where many single women have found a firm footing. Coming from countries where it’s not easy to be single and live alone, the city has carved out a convenient and safe comfort zone for many of us who don’t wish to be ‘judged’ — because we’d rather focus on self-development


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Fri 26 Aug 2022, 10:03 PM

A couple of decades ago, when I ‘moved’ to the Indian capital of New Delhi, clutching on to a solitary suitcase nervously, I had serious mental baggage. I’d been told that the Delhi urban wave, unlike the tried and tested waters of Kolkata — where I was born and raised, and had lived for the most part of my adult life — was intimidating. “Very impersonal, very unsafe, very hostile, no one cares — so watch your back… especially because you are a single woman.”

I had extended family in Delhi, with whom I stayed for the first couple of weeks, and my new workplace was teeming with lovely people. The initial flush was radiant; I had no problems at all. But then I had to start looking for my own place, which was my first encounter with “inconvenience”. Brokers would tell me, to my face, that most landlords wouldn’t be alright with leasing out their digs to a ‘single’, working woman. Apparently, it was a huge risk. ‘Single women’ are feckless and have no moral compass: why else are they ‘single’?

There were also other concerns. Are you vegetarian or non-vegetarian? Which part of the country are you from? Do you have a job that requires you to work late? Do you have a boyfriend (if you did, chances were high he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the premises)? What do your parents do? How are they okay with you living alone? And on and on and on.

Eventually, I got a great landlord, who imposed no conditions whatsoever — other than I pay my rent on time and not be a general nuisance. He organised all my utilities — electricity, phone, cooking gas, even a house help — because, as he said, “Sushmita, you have no idea how much you will have to struggle to get these things done on your own… and if they see you are a woman living on your own, then God help you… THIS is Delhi for the most part… things are better if you are super-rich… or powerful... or male.”

When I moved to Dubai in 2008, the first thing that struck me was how democratic the city was. Looking for a place to rent was a breeze; all landlords wanted was a cheque… or several cheques… ones that didn’t bounce. No questions asked about relationship status, profession, who was likely to visit me, what hours I keep etc etc. Not just that. Utility services were factory-fitted in a way that required almost zero effort on my part — they were intuitive. Before I knew it, I had ‘settled’ in.

Back in those days, I would scrounge around the neighbourhoods of Bur Dubai and Karama looking for desi food, and it was staggering, the number of options, much more than I’d seen in India. But there would also be other nationalities looking similarly chuffed at the array of offerings they were ‘at home’ with. I never had to worry about food — at any odd hour; if nothing, I could grab a (really fresh and delicious) sandwich from Spinneys and a side of salad (that I could assemble myself at the salad bar).

In Delhi, I would drive, and to be fair, I never had any ‘incident’ even at ‘dangerously’ late hours. “But you’re very lucky,” I used to be told. “Don’t get complacent, horrible things happen to women who drive alone at night.”

In Dubai, I never drove, and relied on the efficient public transport system. I stayed out for much longer — and much more frequently — than I did in Delhi. Doing grocery shopping at 2am at the open-24-hour supermarket, or hanging out at a friend’s place. No one had occasion to tell me, “Be careful while going back, and do send a message once you are home — we will worry if you don’t.”

Turns out, I am only one among the hundreds of thousands of single women who moved to Dubai with only one thought in their minds: how easy will it be to navigate life as a single woman?

They already know the answer.

It cannot be easier.

‘For a single woman, I think Dubai is the best place on the planet’

Saliha Waqar, Banker and Pakistani expat who lived in Dubai some years ago

“I remember only finding out it’s nearing midnight on weekends — when I used to be out alone — when malls started shutting down the lights. Otherwise, it was a norm to be out till way past midnight… I would go alone for a movie or to the beach. Every other weekend, I would take the metro to the other end of Dubai, literally, and just sit alone on Jumeirah Beach eating pasta. For a single woman, I think Dubai is the best, most secure place on the planet.

Those moments I treasured more upon my return back home as here, unfortunately, we map out our journeys according to ‘andhera kab hoga? (when will it get dark?)’. It’s always like let’s not go too far off and return home before Maghrib (prayer) — which, in Pakistan, is around 7pm.

We were brought up a certain way. As a child, we were told that ‘Maghrib ke baad bahar nahin khelna (Don’t play outside after Maghrib)’, and I used to hate this line a lot. I find it a bit sad — and ironical! — when, at times, I repeat those same lines to my 7-year-old and dragging her back into the house (from her own lawn!): ‘Maghrib ke baad bahar nahin khelna’. I am pretty sure kids being raised in the UAE never get to hear this!

A few months ago, a midlife crisis type feeling hit me and I wanted to do all those things I would do as a child again, and I expressed the desire to ride a bicycle to my husband. He didn’t take me seriously at first and then when he realised I was serious, his concerns were: ‘At what time?’ ‘What will people think in the neighbourhood that an adult woman has suddenly lost her marbles?’ and so on.

It does feel suffocating at times that back home a woman is somehow always under scrutiny — whether single or married — but in Dubai as a single woman I literally blended with the crowd. It’s a melting pot of sorts really. I’m actually still in touch with all those there who would be helping me get by. Some would be dropping me off to work, to the airport etc. If someone saw me struggling with bags of groceries on my way back from Spinneys past midnight, they would always offer a hand. A boy from the local dhaba, who later became a good friend, knew I lived alone so he would always try to help me out. I miss that kind of ‘neighbourhood’ feel that I got as a single woman in Dubai.”

‘Dubai gives me the motivation to focus on myself — as a single woman’

Claude Al Hachache, Entrepreneur, Lebanese expat in Dubai

“When I decided to leave Lebanon in 2006, Dubai was my first choice for a couple of reasons. One, it’s only a few hours away from home — so I could go home for a weekend anytime I felt homesick. Two (and more importantly), it was safe.

Safety was a huge concern for my family, and my parents, like any parents, were always worried till they visited me for the first time a few months after I moved here… They realised how safe and easy life is for a single person here… that really put them at ease.

Hailing from an Arabic culture, being single is not always accepted and the pressure from family and friends to get married and have kids is huge… and sometimes, the pressure comes on our parents from neighbours and relatives, which is passed down to us!

Although it’s my choice to remain single, single women of my generation used to be looked upon as pitiable creatures, and were called spinsters — which I think is a horrible description. Back home, everyone around you wanted to stick their nose in your business and give you unwanted advice… thankfully, it’s something I don’t have to deal with in Dubai. Living in a city with so many different nationalities and cultures opens your eyes and broadens your mind at so many different levels. People here are easygoing, and much

less judgemental. When you are surrounded by people whose main goal in life is to grow and grab opportunities to improve their lives, it gives you motivation to focus on yourself, on your self-development and growth.

At home, while most of my friends’ goal was to build a family, mine was to grow in my career and build something for myself in order to secure an independent life… and a future away from any social pressure. And I am thankful and grateful that Dubai provided me with all of that.

Honestly, I don’t feel that I’m away from home. I am as close as I could be and as far as I want to be. Here, I can find everything that I miss about home. Lebanese fruits, Lebanese restaurants and chains — they are there everywhere I go, so, in many ways, it feels like I never left home. The culture is similar here… especially in the way families bond.”

‘For single women, Dubai is welcoming, safe and liberating’

Nerry Toledo, Yoga instructor and mental health advocate and Filipina expat in Dubai

“My decision to move to Dubai was one of the best decisions of my life. The UAE is not my first country where I have lived and worked, and as a single person who moved from my home country at an early age, I can say living here has given me better opportunities in terms of work, travel, and living standards.

It is a very welcoming, multicultural city for single women. Women can grow their careers in Dubai thanks to so many opportunities. With a thriving infrastructure, success here doesn’t depend on gender. It is here where I built my career in public relations and then found my true calling. Currently, I’m living the life I want — where my professional and personal lives intertwine beautifully. Alongside teaching yoga, I work with one of the world’s leading workplace mental health care providers.

Women enjoy a high level of comfort and safety in Dubai. Here, they can safely move around anytime, day or night, without crippling fears of harassment. In addition, due to the strict laws against violent crime, walking home at night or catching a cab alone is never stressful. I have never experienced such safety anywhere.

Moreover, even if you don’t drive, the city is easy to navigate. It is convenient to use the Dubai Metro, and there is always a place that separates men from women, just as there are separate areas to process documents at government offices.

The city is also a shopper’s paradise — with everything you might need for an elegant and stylish wardrobe from high fashion to international brands. There is a bustling social scene, with ladies’ nights not just on Tuesdays but every night of the week! Dubai has a fantastic culinary scene with Michelin-starred restaurants and hole-in-the-wall gems… and, if I am craving Filipino food, there are just so many places!

But most importantly, Dubai has truly shaped me into the woman I am today. Here, you will realise you are not bound by society’s standards to be married and have children at a certain age; instead, you can choose a path that brings you greater peace and fulfilment.

‘There is no stigma and discrimination about me being alone’

Melissa Whitehead, Branding and PR professional and South African expat in Dubai

“Dubai is the ideal place for single expats to grow as individuals and make a career for themselves. While you can’t get citizenship, there are many alternatives to obtain extended visas like the golden visa or the freelance visa. It’s a great place to settle down. As a single female, Dubai offers me the safety and convenience I can’t get in my own country. I am safe 24/7 no matter where I go or at what time. If

I forget my keys in my car, or my bag in a trolley, I’m not stressed at all since I know I’ll go back at any time and find it exactly where I’ve left it. Services are so easy and convenient to deal with, there’s a process for everything. As long as I can provide a copy of my visa, ID and passport, payment and sufficient documents, I can easily rent an apartment, a car or get a credit card. There is no stigma and discrimination about me being alone.

In my home country, South Africa, it’s possible to rent alone, but it’s so unsafe that you would think twice about it. People prefer to stay with family or with groups of others. It’s also unaffordable, considering the state of the economy. In many other countries, there is also this stigma around single females. They can’t rent their own apartment as the landlord is concerned about payments coming in, or the type of lifestyle you lead. Here, there is no discrimination.

Dubai is convenient and everything is so easy. There is plenty of public transport — the tram, Dubai Metro, taxis, car rentals etc. It’s easy to get around, and safe. All the services are smart, conducted through apps on your phone… if you go to a physical facility, a token is issued indicating your turn… This means no one can jump the queue or get preference over anyone else. Groceries can be ordered online any day, anytime, along with medicines, food, pet food, you name it. You have access to everything 24/7. Even the malls only close at 10pm (or later) on weekdays and at 2am on weekends.

Back home, I would need to work around a shop’s availability; online orders are tricky and unsafe; banks close on weekends and are only open half-day during the week days; government facilities never answer the phone; and when you go somewhere, you’re constantly worried about your safety, you can’t travel alone as a single female, especially to some parts of town. While I love my country and it has so much to offer in terms of lush greenery, mountains, beaches, forests, good food, being with family and friends, I love Dubai more for the safety and convenience it offers me, and I look forward to making a long-term settlement here. Not to mention I’m surrounded by my passion: horses. They are in reach no matter where I am in Dubai. I can do all the things I love: horse riding, hiking, snorkeling and diving, there are no limitations, and I can always do anything with peace of mind… I know that I am safe.”

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