Learning to navigate the world as a single, unmarried, older African woman despite family and social pressure

A black woman on lingerie holding a glass of wine and laughing
A collaboration with Zinhle for Adventures From

By Juliet Nnaji

Two months before my 21st birthday, I received a call from my aunt. After all the necessary pleasantries, she asked me if I had someone I was in a serious relationship with. I was a single pringle. As I write this article, I still am. I was still seeing myself through the eyes of a child, and so I told her that I was still too young and single. She then told me that I needed to start actively looking for a partner so that I could marry before I turned 23. As a woman who does not want to marry (this narrative may change someday), I found it amusing but told her everything she needed to hear until we ended the call. African parents expect you to stay clear of boys, and then, out of the blue, they also expect you to be in a serious relationship. From where ma???

When I was 22, I went to see my mother, who had relocated from Lagos, Nigeria, to Enugu. It was my first trip back to my hometown as an adult. And for the one week I was there, most of my uncles, aunts, and mother’s friends kept saying “mmanya na-esi” as soon as they saw and recognized my parents or family, which translates directly as “Palmwine is smelling,” but means she is ready for marriage and we can already smell the palm wine her suitors will bring. 

My younger cousin, to whom I was always compared, married on my 24th birthday (talk about timing), and my mother repeatedly called to ask, “Ada, when are you going to make me proud?” I’ve been away from home since I was 20 and have worked hard to be the best version of myself. I put myself through school and put myself out there. Is none of my accomplishments worthy of praise because I am not married?

Marriage is often regarded as a pivotal milestone in many African societies, a rite of passage that signifies a woman’s worth and societal acceptance. Unmarried, older African women, on the other hand, are a diverse group of women who have chosen a different path. These women have defied social expectations and embraced their independence, charting their own path in a world fraught with family and social pressure. They have refused to settle for less and are living their lives to the fullest despite “not having the ring.” They often face immense pressure and encounter disrespectful treatment from strangers, who make unfounded assumptions about their personal lives, and are sometimes labeled as prostitutes merely for being seen with more than one man or because they are financially independent and unmarried. Such baseless accusations not only undermine their character but also hinder their professional growth. In business dealings, these women may struggle to be taken seriously and have their abilities questioned due to the perception of promiscuity or desperation associated with being older and unmarried. 

Furthermore, when it comes to finding housing, landlords may discriminate against unmarried women, making it challenging for them to secure suitable accommodations. In work environments or interactions with artisans, these women often face disregard and belittlement, implying that they must have a man supporting them in order to achieve success or competence. These frequently seen biases and prejudices show the systemic problems that unmarried women face in different parts of their lives. They reinforce stereotypes and make it harder for them to be independent, regardless of their marital status.

In Igbo culture, a woman’s time is thought to pass from “Whose daughter is she?” to “Whose wife is she?” As a result, the ideal age to marry is between the ages of 18 and 27. A woman who is not married between those ages is thought to have few options as menopause approaches and may settle for less, which is thought to be an old man in the village, a man whose wife is dead, or a divorcee. So, in addition to the societal pressures and disrespectful treatment, unmarried older women in Africa often find themselves subjected to relentless matchmaking efforts by their mothers, aunts, and married friends. These well-meaning people think that these women’s lives will be complete when they find a man and get married. But these attempts can be intrusive and dismissive of the women’s personal choices and desires. While coming from a place of concern, these actions can further contribute to the notion that these women are lacking or incomplete without a partner, disregarding their own aspirations and independence.

In many African societies, there is also a prevalent concern among women about getting married at an older age due to fertility and the desire to have healthy children. The societal emphasis on biological motherhood and the perceived risks associated with older eggs contribute to this fear. Adoption, although an alternative, is often disregarded due to the prevailing belief that giving birth to a child is inherently different from adopting one. Additionally, the social stigma surrounding single motherhood or having a child before marriage further reinforces the perception that marriage is the safer and more socially accepted path. These factors create a complex web of pressures and considerations for African women, highlighting the multifaceted challenges they face when navigating the expectations and choices related to marriage and motherhood.

I spoke with women aged 30 to 35, the majority of whom requested anonymity, about how they have learned to navigate the world as single, unmarried, older African women in the face of family and social pressure. And in this article, I’ll go over these remarkable women’s experiences, challenges, and triumphs, as well as the lessons they can teach others.  

“As an unmarried 31-year-old in Africa, I guess I’d be seen as lacking something,” Maka says,  “regardless of my other achievements in life. At some point, it felt like I only wanted to get married to please my family. I was no longer thinking about my aspirations and happiness; I just wanted them – society and family – off my back.”

Families, friends, and communities frequently scrutinize and judge older African women who are single. The pressure from society to conform to traditional gender roles and expectations can be overwhelming. Despite peer pressure, unmarried, older African women have discovered the inner strength to live fulfilling lives on their own terms.

“As a musician, my family has told me that no responsible man would want to marry me because we are perceived as ‘wild’ or untamable,” Maka continued. “I’ve also been advised to change my career and appearance to appear more ‘wife-able’ – this is something I’ve been told by a few solicitors as well. Regardless of the pressures, I concentrate on my work and my happiness, which includes my faith. I believe I am well grounded, and if it is meant to be, it will happen in time. Caving into the pressure will only make it worse. I have heard that we grow to be bitter and angry black women; if anything was going to make me angry, trust me, it wouldn’t be because of the lack of a man. There are many things in the world to be angry about.”

One of the most difficult challenges for unmarried, older African women is navigating family dynamics and the expectations of their loved ones. When asked about any personal experiences or stories in which societal and family norms and expectations influenced how she lived her life or the choices she made, Adea* mentioned that she is in a distant relationship with her partner and that the only reason they are not living together is that she knows her parents are not as progressive as to be that permissive for her to live together with a partner before marriage. “Even though I would do it and it wouldn’t affect my life, I know it would affect them and their perception of me, and I’d rather not have something like that affect our relationship,” she says. “So it influences my decisions, but only in the context of my family, because I don’t care about society.”

On the issue of the delicate balance between maintaining familial bonds and asserting one’s autonomy, as well as the strategies employed by these women to handle difficult conversations and confront misconceptions, Adea* discussed how the biggest cultural, social, and religious norms, rules, and expectations that have influenced or affected her life as an unmarried, older African woman were when she had to move out of her parents home. She stated that her parents, particularly her mother, were adamant about her living alone because she is unmarried. “The girls are married in the house,” according to her mother. “You don’t go to Lagos and find a girl to marry. You come to her parent’s house and marry her there,” her mother explained. She also emphasized that, hearing these reasons from her very progressive parents, who paid millions for her education in medical school, and who have also been so proud of how outspoken and intelligent she is, was surprising. 

Adea* stated that she left without their permission from the eastern part of Nigeria to Lagos after presenting them with logic and discovering that there was no reasoning with them.

“At the end of it, I had to leave home without their permission and come to Lagos and start building my life, which worked out, and true to their character, my parents immediately forgave me; in fact, they didn’t hold it against me,” Adea* explained. 

Contrary to popular belief, unmarried, older African women have found happiness and fulfillment outside of marriage. Chenzira* discussed the various paths she has taken in her pursuit of personal growth, self-discovery, and meaningful connections. “I live the best I can. Watching movies, buying what I want, going out to places I want to go, and doing things on my own time, with no pressure from anyone. You can pursue your dreams as an unmarried woman without distractions and have fun doing it,” she stated. 

“Some men believe that once a girl reaches the age of 33, no man will want to marry her because men prefer them young and fresh.” Chenzira* finished by laughing at the attitude because love and compatibility transcend absurd societal expectations. Age does not determine a person’s worth or desirability, and there are men who value qualities such as wisdom, maturity and shared life experiences over age.

While societal pressure can be overwhelming, there are unmarried, older African women who have been fortunate to find unwavering support from their parents, family, and friends. Amara*, armed with a support system, navigates her everyday life despite the vitriol from society. 

“It’s easier to deal with pressure when you have a very supportive and encouraging family. I keep mentioning my family because they are a very strong support system. So even when I get pressure from outsiders, when I come in I am able to have a good conversation and forget about my unpleasant encounter with outsiders.” Amara* pointed out.

Women like Amara* find solace in their loved ones’ acceptance and understanding, allowing them to navigate societal pressures with resilience and determination. Supportive parents, siblings, close friends, and communities of like-minded people can be invaluable allies, providing encouragement, love, and a safe space to thrive. With their allies by their sides, these women defy societal norms and forge their own paths, demonstrating that age does not define worth or desirability.

“And even if you have a family, like mine, that doesn’t stress you about getting a husband, neighbors, church members, and any other person will use the slightest opportunity to remind you how incomplete and unfortunate you are for being in your 30s and single. It’s like being an old milk bottle on a shelf.” Amara* also discussed scenarios in which there are normal relational issues in her apartment, and instead of dealing with the problem, her singleness is attacked. 

Amara* said she is told things like, “No wonder you’re not married” or “Is this how you hope to get a man and remain married?” And sometimes, in order not to make the whole situation turn into an argument, she walks away or just avoids those people. “Somehow, when there are normal disagreements, I can’t get involved for fear of being told I’m single rather than the matter being addressed,” she added. 

“Over time, I have come to know and understand that being married or staying single is not a ticket to happiness or any other good thing in life. Though it was difficult to learn, it has become my mantra. Having a good support system like family and friends who I can share sad experiences with also makes it easier to manage or handle.” Amara* concluded. 

In order to empower younger African women who may be subjected to similar pressures, I sought the advice of my interviewees. They offered valuable insights and advice to those who are struggling with societal expectations, including advice on self-acceptance, assertiveness, and the pursuit of personal happiness. 

“You can make your own decisions as long as you are an adult. You understand your goal. You already know what objectives you want to set for yourself. You are aware of the standard. You know who you look up to as a woman. You know what you want to accomplish in certain years; it may or may not be academic; it may or may not be personal; it may or may not be business; it may or may not be traveling outside of the country, exploring, meeting new people, and learning new things. So simply be yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be looked down upon. Don’t let anyone convince you that you should get married or have children as soon as possible because you’re young. Everything has a time and a purpose in life. So go ahead and enjoy yourself. Get everything you want in this life. Don’t let societal pressure get the best of you because you’re afraid of falling into depression or making the wrong decisions about getting married early or not getting married at all.” Yejide* responded when asked how younger women who do not want to marry or marry “early” can navigate the world despite pressure from their families and society.

When asked what advice she would give to younger African women facing similar pressures and considering not marrying as society expects, Yejide* suggested they find a mentor. “Find a mentor if you’re like me and don’t have any groups or communities. Someone of your gender who you can look up to and who will give you sound advice every step of the way. I’m not talking about mentorship from family members because family members can be biased. We’re discussing your happiness here. So do everything you can to take care of yourself. Don’t let peer pressure influence you. Don’t be compelled by certain rules and cultures, some unknown, because we don’t know when some of these cultures, such as the ‘ideal age’ to marry, whether or not you are ready, began. Don’t feel compelled to settle just because ‘you should marry on time.’ I know happy and content women in their 30s and 40s who are just getting married. These women are also successful because they have met at least 80% of their objectives. That is my advice.” 

Unmarried, older African women have chosen to live life on their own terms in a world where societal expectations frequently overshadow personal happiness. They’ve defied cultural norms, faced down family and social pressure, and embraced their independence with bravery and resilience. Marriage does not define these women’s worth or happiness, as they have demonstrated. Their stories inspire us to question the status quo, celebrate our uniqueness, and pursue our own dreams. They empower younger generations to navigate the complexities of societal pressure and carve their own paths to happiness and self-fulfillment by sharing their experiences and wisdom. Together, we can change the narrative and build a society that values the diverse choices and aspirations of African women.

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