In a nutshell: sexist remarks and the omnipresent patriarchy

Four years after losing her husband in a car accident, Sherlin Giri, 40, is still learning to cope with the loss, while raising two children on her own as a polytechnic lecturer. But she would like you to know that no, she does not sport dishevelled gray locks or wear a permanent black veil of mourning—daily stereotypes she gets saddled with constantly.

“There’s almost this short circuit that happens in people’s minds when I tell them I’m widowed,” she says stoically. “It’s moments like these when I just want to swallow myself in a giant facepalm.” Her dry wit and easy candor aren’t lost on us; it’s probably why she’s being featured in the upcoming line-up of ‘books’ in the third edition of Human Library, happening Aug 27. Well aware that her family model isn’t the ideal one endorsed by the government, she’s volunteered to share her story to the public during the event, as a first step to addressing the ignorance surrounding single motherhood. Here’s to being part of the conversation.

Is there still a stigma towards single moms in Singapore and if so, in what ways have you felt it?

There are still people who believe that single mums cannot make it on their own even though the whole concept of a woman raising her kids alone is nothing new. It's particularly acute with divorced mums, more so than widows. Widows have a different set of concerns altogether, especially young widows.

People are not respectful of the woman as the head of a family. Nowadays when I have to deal with contractors, I get comments like "So where's your husband, how come he cannot help?" When you have a husband and wife pair, the distribution of labour is unconsciously gendered. There are certain gendered roles we take for granted when there are male and female heads of the household, so when we take on roles traditionally taken on by males, people find it hard to accept because they're not used to it.

What misconceptions or preconceived notions do people have of single mothers?

That we are handicapped, deficient or lacking in some vital aspect of our parenting. And I don’t just contend with these misconceptions but also with stereotypes. People make disrespectful remarks, which they don't realise is disrespectful; they think they're being gracious. I get comments like "You are still young, you can still find love". But it's very ageist, and it trivialises the love that you've just lost. It has nothing to do with age. So what if I'm young? I just lost the love of my life. I even get absurd responses like, “But you look so happy!” 

There are also sexist comments pegged to the ideology that a woman needs a man. I get unwanted advances from men who think because I’m a widow I need male companionship. It's a by-product of a patriarchal society where they don’t respect the independencies of a single woman. I love my husband and I chose to be with him but now that he is gone, I am not going to find myself another man just because I ‘need’ one. If I ever fall in love again, then perhaps; and even then, it’ll be because I chose to have a partner and not because my kids need a substitute father. They already have amazing aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., all of whom love them to bits.

The fact is, it takes a village to raise a child and that village comprises not just biological parents, but also family members and friends who care enough to get involved. So as much as I am a single mum, I am not single-handedly raising my children.

Are mindsets improving at all over the years?

I know many successful adults who were raised by single parents but because media representation and government policies continue to define the family unit very narrowly, breaking this mindset is a formidable task.

Which is why I feel social movements like the Human Library is so important. I am hoping that my own sharing will create a ripple effect in spreading the kind of awareness that will eventually lead to a more enlightened society—one that embraces all of its citizens for who they are.

What do you feel can be done better to help yourself and others in similar circumstances, either on a social or governmental level?

More initiatives for open dialogue on not just formal platforms but informally as well, in schools, libraries and community centres; and a willingness to discuss our differences not as a problem but as something to celebrate. These should not be confined to the ‘played to death’ aspects of differences such as race or religion but lifestyle, age, gender, ideology, abilities, everything; recognizing that what ties us together is that we are all humans of Singapore.

It is also important to understand that everyone has a story. People are not folders that can be conveniently labelled and slotted into filing cabinets. It’s about time we stop judging and start thinking. We lose so much of our ability to tap into the strengths of one another if we simply write people off because of the labels we have conveniently ascribed to them.

We need to start seeing one another for who we truly are—humans. Each one unique and irreplaceable. I should know. No one can replace my husband.

To hear more from Sherlin, head down to Human Library #3: The Heartland Edition this Sunday and have a chat with her yourself.