No more playing damsel in distress

Tomorrow is not a leap day. That's bad news – and good news – for women, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Women need not wait for men to offer them engagement rings, such as these three from Tiffany's, says Shelina Janmohamed. (Photo: Lauren Lancaster / The National)

Bad news for single women: there is no leap day tomorrow. The once-in-four-years auspicious day when women are permitted to propose marriage to men is not until next year.

Good news for women everywhere: this is not the dark ages, and you can make decisions and live your life. Women, it’s time to stop being passive bystanders in our own lives.

Pining helplessly for Valentine’s Day cards, or crying over the lack of a leap day, February is the month of love, as women who run their own businesses, bring up children, influence world events and set family agendas are suddenly reduced to Rapunzels who twirl their hair waiting for the prince to arrive, and sleeping beauties who snooze through their lives waiting to be rescued.

Ladies, it’s time to get over the distressed damsel act. We’re ambitious at school, over-achievers at university, and climbing up the career ladder with determination.

And yet in our love lives we are blubbering masses of jelly, whether waiting for Prince Charming to rescue us from the dungeon of singledom, or for a husband to step up and do some of the heavy lifting of managing a relationship.

While it’s vitally important that women have freedom and choice to take part in the public and working domains, the personal sphere is the one that shapes our life experiences and who we are. So why are we so reluctant to grasp the nettle in the area that is most significant and intimate to us?

For women wherever they are, no matter how many rights or how much liberation we enjoy, we still defer to men to initiate relationships.

And once that relationship is in full swing, we take on the burden of its success (except in the bedroom, where that would be considered far too forward). It’s the worst of all worlds, and fails to give us a fighting chance to create the personal lives we really want.

The passivity we accept unquestioningly is exacerbated by other marriage traditions. While a diamond ring is beautiful, something rankles that the ring was originally the sign of ownership by the husband over the woman, just as rings were attached to cows to indicate the owner. The changing of the woman’s surname was also to indicate her transfer into his property.

These traditions perpetuate the idea that marriage and relationships happen to good women if they wait long enough, and that being proactive is an aberration.

Of course, some women argue these traditions have changed meaning over time, and the brazen association of women with a man’s chattels has faded from our minds.

But even so, they should act as reminders that girlie, helpless passivity is still the baseline of behaviour for most women, no matter how successful in their professional lives.

Women even continue to describe themselves in passive object-like ways.

Women should be proactive agents in the search for who they want to marry and in the marriages that they sustain.

So what can women do this year to precipitate a diamond ring? Simple. Grab your credit card and head to the shops.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at