Some Reflections On Care Asymmetries In Female Friendships 

Female friendships and sisterhood are often the nourishing spaces for women in their journeys of aspiring, struggling, and finding their way.

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One of the founding values of friendship is care. This is more and more recognised and reaffirmed in friendships among or between women. Care seems to act as a reservoir from which women draw their power to function in the world. In that sense, female friendships and sisterhood are often the nourishing spaces for women in their journeys of aspiring, struggling, and finding their way, as well as in their journeys of hope of making a difference, of becoming different.

This space, therefore, has been cherished and celebrated in feminist thought and movement. While acknowledging the immense contribution that such spaces have had to women’s lives, including my own, this article hopes to rather write of the pain within such friendships. It does not claim to provide a comprehensive picture of the politics within feminist circles or female relationships but is an emotive reflection on some painful experiences that at times tend to emerge in female friendships.

One of the founding values of friendship is care. This is more and more recognised and reaffirmed in friendships among or between women. Care seems to act as a reservoir from which women draw their power to function in the world. In that sense, female friendships and sisterhood are often the nourishing spaces for women in their journeys of aspiring, struggling, and finding their way, as well as in their journeys of hope of making a difference, of becoming different.

In doing this, I seek to highlight a few broad patterns which seem to be in place in some female friendships that I have witnessed. Deciphering ‘patterns’ sounds quite un-feminist, a methodology which endorses an emphasis on contexts, particularities and all that probably refuses to be ‘patterned’.

However, this piece does not hope to develop general conclusions or provide prescriptions. Not taking away from the value of female companionship and friendships, which undoubtedly work as durable support structures for women against structures of hierarchy, this piece hopes to pursue a limited aim. It wishes to make space for speaking about those aspects that most recounting of female relations seem oblivious or inconsiderate to.

This space, therefore, has been cherished and celebrated in feminist thought and movement. While acknowledging the immense contribution that such spaces have had to women’s lives, including my own, this article hopes to rather write of the pain within such friendships. It does not claim to provide a comprehensive picture of the politics within feminist circles or female relationships but is an emotive reflection on some painful experiences that at times tend to emerge in female friendships.

These aspects belie the feminist commitments and values by reproducing the same structures of exploitation that one traditionally derides patriarchal relations for. Therefore, despite its limited aim, the hope that this exercise carries is that it would caution all of us as women to ensure that we do not participate in replicating the structures we have so enduringly fought against.

Collective struggle vs the struggling ‘collective’

Most women are struggling against time. While some of these struggles come from the gender roles they are expected to fulfil, others come from justifying their transgressions of those gender roles — that is, the struggle in the very forming of desires or aspirations, let alone in pursuing them. The struggles that women face in society form the basis of sisterhood personally as well as politically.

By seeing one’s struggle as a part of the wider structure of gender-based discrimination, one politicises one’s experience that is nevertheless often felt very personally and intimately. However, an interesting phenomenon within some female friendships is one of claiming ‘exclusivity’. Narratives of women, of their mere description of their lives and choices, is often equated with “speaking liberation”, as an act of rebellion.

But what happens when such narratives are made exclusive? — they become about one’s own ingenious trajectory that they have chosen after ‘rationally’ exploring interactions with the individuals and circumstances out there. Such narratives often fail to be narratives of sisterhood, of a collective struggle against the structures of domination. They fail to inspire hope in the women around no matter how often they sermon about what they achieved.

These remain the narratives of an individual’s grit and determination, of her excellence which others, who fail to replicate her trajectory, would also fail to achieve. It, even if unintendedly, almost negates the experiences and choices of the fellow woman, who is made to believe that she did not put so much thought into it, that she has a primitive or less evolved way of thinking, and is constricted in her explorations. All these feelings and lack of self-worth are simultaneously induced, as one portrays one’s self-image as independent and, more importantly, as having been built independently. They, inherently, are narratives of exclusion. 

Female Friendship: How Women Supporting Women Can Change The World |  Glamour UK
Image source: Glamour UK

None of this would ever be acknowledged for the reason that we have all learnt to parrot feminist values without making a place for those commitments in the way we interact with others. The image of independence, while sufficiently critiqued academically, is not only glorified in interpersonal relations but is sustained through relations of exploitation — a disturbing similarity with the gendered division of labour in a patriarchal set-up.

By seeing one’s struggle as a part of the wider structure of gender-based discrimination, one politicises one’s experience that is nevertheless often felt very personally and intimately. However, an interesting phenomenon within some female friendships is one of claiming ‘exclusivity’. Narratives of women, of their mere description of their lives and choices, is often equated with “speaking liberation”, as an act of rebellion.

I am independent; I am helpful; I do politics; I have always worked very hard — are stories, in the narration of which everybody else and everything else is negated, especially the emotional and care labour on which one creates that independence. There is a problem of care- asymmetry even in female friendships. While the expectation of care work is justified from one side on the grounds of friendship, the non-reciprocity in caring back for the other will often be justified in the name of struggling for ‘making a place in the world’.

The responsibility to be there for the other is relegated to occasional and piece-meal interventions. There is a hesitation in indulging in a sustained emotional and physical availability for the other, while almost completely functioning on the same availability of this friend. Furthermore, there is a distinction made between those friends whose labour one would depend on (mostly female) and others for whom one would ensure a ready presence for.

Such a modality of conducting female friendships creates a virtual private and public. Care and labour of the ‘private’ go unrecognised and unacknowledged while the public constitutes the realm of possibilities and of claiming equality with men as independent individuals. 

While this has been much talked about in the context of domestic work, it is striking that such asymmetries are also present in a sphere which is celebrated for being equal in recognising experiences, a sphere shielded from exploitation and considered a safe space by most women. A friend points out that at the root of such exploitation is the notion that somebody’s time is less important than others.

The marginalised have often spoken about how this idea that “everybody has the same 24 hours” is a sham. As feminists would point out, a working-class woman does not have the same time at hand as an upper-class, upper-caste man. An interesting reversal takes place in such female friendships wherein time is short and more important for some women than others — women who have the luxury to leave everything and singularly focus on their career targets are somehow completely absolved of the duty to be available while another woman is considered available, already and always.

Female friends whose labour goes into the production of an independent woman are often those who do not belong to the same space in which such an image is projected. This has two disturbing aspects. One, the sustenance of that image then is dependent on the continued exclusion of these female friends from this domain of aspiring. Secondly, while it would seem completely okay to call a friend from five miles away; to expect her labour even as she has to go out of her way to do it, does not take much to understand the compulsions and priorities that a friend next door would be having and who therefore cannot be disturbed.

This not only reinforces the virtual public-private divide but also creates a divide within the feminist movement as some women are made to believe in their natural duty towards providing care and others in their justified exploitation of the same.

Also read: Female Friendships: The Gendered Yet Post-Structuralist Companionships

Paradoxically, therefore, such relations often continue to rely on the care and labour of another as one professes and proclaims her independent lifestyle to others. The lack of realisation, disturbingly, also seems to emanate from similar considerations as in a patriarchal heterosexual relationship. Somebody’s time is more important than the other; somebody’s work is more worthy than the other; somebody has duties in a relationship, while one can completely be oblivious of the need to extend the same in need.

Also read: Female Friendships On Screen: We Need More Portrayals That Are Realistic And Layered


Monika is an M.Phil. Research Scholar at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality, sexual violence and law, political philosophy and the political economy of the Indian State. She can be contacted at monikamuks@gmail.com 

Featured image source: HuffPost