Since time immemorial, feminists have emphasized on the need to nurture sisterhood, mutual feelings of empathy and kinship among women to be able to overcome patriarchal oppression. But we know that women too oppress women. If I am to list down all instances of misogyny being inflicted upon women by women, the list would unquestionably be endless.
I once heard a religious woman preaching to fellow women devotees in a temple about “that time of the month when we women are impure”. She went ahead to shame herself and other women and declared that menstruation is a form of “god’s punishment” and we must “cleanse ourselves by acting dutifully and should not enter temples during our periods”. In public gatherings and while commuting, I have overheard conversations between women shaming other women for their lifestyle choices and clothing.
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It would be wrong to surmise that educated women know better. Teachers often end up labeling several students ‘immoral’ for being friendly with boys. In the name of disciplining young women, massively coercive practices of slut shaming, victim blaming, psychological and physical violence and silence of complicity take place very commonly and women do partake in these.
Smriti Irani, Hema Malini and Maneka Gandhi have made some outrageously sexist remarks in recent past. We commonly designate mother-in-laws as villainous; women from rural areas regressive in their thinking towards their urban counterparts or celibate women as judgmental of women with active sex lives.
But the problem is more complex than that and it is difficult to categorize women in such simplistic binaries. At some level, unconsciously or consciously, we all have been guilty of the same malaise, though the degree of such behaviour may not have been as severe.
As embarrassed as I am to admit this, I feel that a confession is a step towards the idea of female kinship that I profess in this article, that I too have looked down upon several women as intellectually inferior simply because they had different interests. I have tried to assess them based on their attire and different lifestyle choices.
The conditioning of a patriarchal culture is such that women are taught to despise and degrade other women. Our cinema will always depict women squabbling over the same man, cruel mother-in-laws, jealous exes, home-wrecking outsider women and conniving mistresses. To pit woman against woman is one potent way to uphold the patriarchal, heteronormative power structure.
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Over time and with a more nuanced understanding of feminism, I have tried to incorporate several ways in my everyday behaviour that will help me understand other women better. Or will at least have me free myself from prejudice towards them. The next, greater step is understanding and empathy. Here are some of the ways in which we can inculcate a sense of companionship and female bonding –
1 – Realize how deeply distorted is women’s representation throughout history and culture
Throughout history, the amount of literature, laws, religious scriptures, movies, music, cinema that represent women as they really are and not how they must be or how the men assume them to be is heartbreakingly minuscule. Be conscious of this fact every time you listen to a man’s account of a woman.
The man in question may be a close friend, husband or a colleague who is kind to you. In such instances, it is difficult to disbelieve him when he vilifies the other women in his life. But the mere recognition of the fact that the woman in question here is not present to give her version of the story must direct us to be more objective.
Also remember, a vast majority of our favourite authors, artists, thinkers and rulers have regarded women as inferior. The list will even include our beloved national hero Gandhi and author Jonathan Swift of our childhood favourite Gulliver’s Travels. From Freud to Eminem, and from the President of United States of America to our own leaders back home, almost every man in a position of power and repute has been sexist. And given that such a massive number of men today still fail to recognize their own deeply internalized misogyny, the need for women to be kinder towards women is all the more important.
2 – Recognize intersectionality
It is far more difficult to forge friendships with women with whom we share little in common. A common example I have often seen is this – women often view their female domestic helpers to be licentious and thieving. The problem of gender is intertwined with class.
Recognize the difference of class, caste, linguistic and cultural diversity that has led to several women leading a different lifestyle than yours. Try to cross the barriers of language, culture, nationality to befriend women whenever you have the opportunity to do so.
Their stories will have new insights to offer whilst will retain the recognition of shared grief and victimhood that will lead to collective empowerment or at least will become a source of comfort. Entrust them with your secrets and assure them that you too will hear them out with patience and understanding.
3 – Refrain from sharing the stereotypes that circulate on social media
A lot of sexist humour, stereotyping and parochial ideas flourish on the internet. I recently came across a post that said “Ladies, guy best friends are far better than girl best friends. No drama, no jealousy, no judgement”. Another illustration showed a lonely woman holding a book in her hand while the rest who surrounded her wore make up.
I was appalled to see the number of women who had liked and shared the posts. Regressive stereotypes about women were circulated in form of pamphlets and conduct books in Victorian England. Today they thrive through Whatsapp forwards and posts on the internet.
Their popularity is reflective of how deep the problem is and we stopping ourselves from sharing these is a step towards the long battle against sexism that we have to undertake. Do not just stop at ignoring them. Inform others about how sinister these can be.
4 – Hear women out and motivate them to speak for themselves.
When a woman tells you her story, hear her out. You do not have to speak on her behalf but you must encourage her to speak up. Self-representation is essential and therefore, it is important that we do not appropriate other voices in our zealous attempt to bring unheard or marginalized voices to the fore.
That being said, there have been times when women have often asked me to write their stories and share them on public platforms because they do not have the means to do so. Many of them are not literate enough to be able to write. Some of them fear their kith and kin. In such instances, do become the medium of their story but do not replace their voice with your own.
5 – Be careful while you compliment
“You would look prettier only if you (INSERT) – were thinner/fatter/fairer/wore XYZ clothes”. Our notions of beauty are very obviously governed by an essentialist conception of ideal femininity that has been glorified over centuries. Certain ideas of beauty are more widely accepted than the rest.
But understand how a simple compliment implies degradation of the female self. Compliment women generously, do not shy away from doing so. Help them boost their confidence and build positive body image.
But while you do so, move beyond back-handed compliments and unsolicited advice on how they should dress, look and eat. Rather, compliment them for their work, their accomplishments, their success in overcoming everyday challenges and different aspects of their lives than just the way they look and dress.
6 – Be inquisitive, not prying.
Show eagerness to learn about them, their families and friends but do not pry excessively into their private lives. Such nagging will lead to judgement formation and will make the fellow woman uncomfortable.
Most certainly, avoid asking questions such as “Why are you single?”, “When do you plan to get married?”, “Are you still a virgin”? or “How many boyfriends have you had”. No matter how innocuously asked, these questions are inappropriate. You cannot forge new friendships by posing questions with moralistic undertones.
7 – Choose what you watch, read and listen to
“How is listening to Honey Singh oppressing women?”, “Pyaar ka Punchnama may have been a sexist film but it was really funny” or “I know Jason Mamoa made an insensitive remark about women but I still like him a lot”. Unfortunately, many of us become oblivious to men’s personal misdeeds in the light of their intellectual work and glowing public persona.
Choose your heroes wisely. Choose your cinema, music and literature judiciously too. Most of our favourite books and movies almost always require a critical analysis, a feminist interpretation to be able to reach an adequate conclusion about its aesthetic ideal. With time, I have been able to keep aside my awe and admiration for many great authors and thinkers to examine their works critically.
8 – Be proactive
Write, read and speak. Debate on public platforms. Try to sensitize others around you. The recent #MeTOo campaign, despite its shortcomings, was an important move to further the cause of fighting gender-based violence through female solidarity. A few such other platforms are #speakup and Women Helping Women.
Featured Image Credit: Scot Scoop