In Malawi, a career woman in her late 20s and unmarried does not completely sound normal, to some people of course. For such minds, a woman has a defined route for her life; after completing tertiary education, her next step should be marriage and then make babies.
In their eyes, women should wed by their late 20s, otherwise they will start questioning you!
Gender stereotypes are unfortunately more of a norm in Malawi as well as other third world countries. Labels also exist, but not for women who are not married. They are just segregated, frowned upon, among other social ills.
Weirdly so, just like many other African countries, Malawi is not alone in this boat of crude cloud. China, as arguably it is the apex of modernisation, however, primitiveness still exists. Today, women still face harsh judgements for remaining unmarried past a certain age. Such women are actually labelled.
Sheng Nu refers to single women in China at or beyond the socially-recognised marriageable age of around 27. While the derogatory term is new to Malawians and some parts of the world, for millennial Chinese women, it is an all-too-familiar concept.
Thirty-year-old Gao is a teacher by profession. She represents a fraction of the Chinese society frowned upon and called names for being unmarried at that age. She, just like other women does not agree with labelling them based on marital status as that is segregation.
“I don’t like being called ‘leftover woman’. It sounds discriminatory towards women, feeling like you were failed to be sold out. Leftover women now are a social problem.
“There are many discussions going on regarding this kind of phenomenon. Of course, it does not only happen in China but also in other societies,” said Gao in an interview.
She emotionally adds: “I am considered to be a leftover woman now. I do have pressure to get married. Every time I am asked about it, I really feel uncomfortable. It’s like I have done something wrong.
“However, the truth is I am ready for marriage. I am quite sure of this point. I just don’t want to be married because of age instead of maturity.”
In Malawi, most times the degree of pressure to marry comes from friends and relations compared to one’s family. Of course, there are situations whereby the family is at the fore front piling pressure on a woman including asking odd questions likes “kodi tivina liti”?
In China on the other hand, it is one’s family, especially the mother leading the onslaught. To them, marriage has less to do with love but more with societal expectations.
Most Chinese ladies called leftovers are outstanding in one way or the other; smart, successful, but continuously judged by overwhelming societal stress.
One tends to wonder then as to what brought the idea of calling single women of the marriageable age leftovers? Again, is the issue just about women?
“I don’t think it is kind of culture. I think it is a specific social problem that has arisen due to more independence modern women have gained today. There are labels for men like Leftover Men.
But more focus or emphasis is on women. Men can marry much younger women while it is very unlikely for women to marry much younger men.
“And sometimes the truth is when a man is older with more fortune, he has more choices of younger women. There is a saying nowadays ‘Men love for sex, women love for money,” she explained.
The situation has created several other issues which are a cultural shock to people from other parts of the world like Malawi. Ever heard of marriage markets?
Take Shanghai, for example, marriage parks are a conventional. On designated days, hordes of people trek to the parks which are saturated with a sea of umbrellas, each one featuring a different lady, unmarried, mostly in her 30s. This practise is not common but not surprising for most Chinese.
Beijing has similar overtures. Called ‘marriage markets’, parents of single children gather at the city’s Zhongshan Park, in the hope of matching their child with the offspring of another desperate parent.
“Marriage markets exists and I also know many people both men and women who pay for some websites or institutes to look for their potential partner. Actually, more parents would do so for their adult children.
And young people who have pressure are also very likely to do so,” explained Gao.
For some, matchmaking is the correct term to describe the parents’ initiative which subsequently end in a blind date for their children with hopes for sparks to fly and not marriage markets.
Mostly, it is mothers who are involved in marriage market apparently as a means of making sure that their daughters have someone to look after them in old age.
Initially, the markets were just for parents. But later on, they friskily dragged their single children into it. So more and more single children are hauled along with their parents.
At Zhongshan, the marriage market takes place on Saturdays and Sundays and afternoon only. Gawky as it is but experiencing such kind of a market is a necessity.
A tour of the market on a particular Sunday found hundreds of parents lining up on a pavement with display cards placed on the ground.
The laminated display cards reveal everything from the height and age of a potential suitor to their income, profession and whether they own a car or not.
One carefully laminated A4 paper had a few lines of text Chinese characters loosely translated as: “A girl, residing in Chaoyang, born in 1983, 1.60 metres tall and has a house is looking for a conscientious man, 1.70 metres tall.”
Moving around the stilted pavements full of people from both sides, one gets to hear one parent asking for more information about a possible suitor or girlfriend.
While some of the papers have pictures of the potential partner some parents even show each other photos one the phones.
Some ‘leftover women’ however, are shy to go through the process of searching for a potential suitor and in this kind of an arrangement where one bends to have a clear view of the information on the display cards.
It’s a surprising afternoon, like a fair for parents and their ‘leftovers’, mostly.
Even though there’s no guarantee that their effort will get the desired result, over a thousand parents, including fathers descended on this Beijing Park.
Every week, trek to Zhongshan with the hope of their child’s better half. In fact, for some, days turn into weeks, then months and of course years but they never give up.
Zhao Jiu is one of the parents who have been visiting the park with the hope of finding a suitor for her 31 year old daughter.
“It’s not easy to get a suitor or if things will work for the two after meeting but I am tired of waiting for my daughter to get married. I have to do this for her and her future,” said Zhao, in a disoriented Chinese conversation.
She has been visiting the market for the past three months and is not giving up.
“I am hoping for the best for my daughter. Even though it is not guaranteed that she might have a relationship with a man I can find here, but I still have to do it,” she explained.
Since the 1950s, arranged marriages have been illegal in China, but parents still find other ways to stay involved in their children marital decisions.
Now, the unbelievable fact of women as leftovers has created another interesting phenomenal side-shoot, fake boyfriends.
The Lunar New Year is the only opportunity for many Chinese to see their families. Going home with a boyfriend or girlfriend at this time is like winning a lottery.
As a way of running away from questions and alleviating some of the pressure parents place on their daughters to marry, some women rent a boyfriend.
Not so long ago, the trend was so formal such that hundreds of temporary boyfriends and girlfriends offered their services on China’s largest e-commerce site, Taobao, until it was closed.
With that particular section dedicated to renting boyfriends and girlfriends for the day out, now everything goes through China’s equivalent of MSN Messenger; QQ or AOL.
So, just a little under 100 dollars can cost one a bogus lover. The woman in this case pays transportation, meals and housing. Some fake boyfriends even set price tags for different activities like kissing and free hand-holding.
After agreeing on the conditions which normally result in a contract, the fake couple meets to share information, mostly about the man’s background, family, his profession among others as well as how they fell in love, before visiting the woman’s parents.
“I can understand those women who try to comfort their family or to escape from those endless conversations about marriage by hiring out boyfriends. But I myself won’t consider that way to solve the problem.
It may hurt your family more,” explained Gao.
She believes most Chinese ladies want freedom; from the expectations some wild imposed on them by society, from family pressure to marry and to follow whichever path they choose.
“It’s really not easy for women being old to get married. On one hand, more young women want more freedom and independence. Once you get married, you must sacrifice for babies and housework. It is for sure that wives hardly have their own time and space. That is why more educated young women prefer to delay the marriage thing. Their mind is much more open than before. It is a symbol of social progress,” she started. n
Nation Publications Limited (NPL) Journalist Yvonnie Sundu is among 27 African journalists attending the fourth China-Africa Press Centre Programme in Beijing, China.