Half the WorldSisterhood, rivalry, enmity [Archives:2005/893/Culture]

November 10 2005

By Nisha
We often come across two conflicting conclusions about women as a group: according to the first one, women are women's worst enemy. The other one eulogises the idea of sisterhood among women because they women.

I have heard these conclusions from a large number of people including colleagues who are trying to reach women as beneficiaries of development programmes or organize women to achieve some goals. A few months back, a male colleague used the first conclusion to justify one of my female colleague's hostility towards me. He went on to argue that since women are incapable of dealing with one-another's successes, men are needed to resolve their disputes and to organize them for concerted action. This conclusion comes from women as well. Though so far I have not heard any woman who is using this conclusion mention the need of having men to arbitrate and regiment women. On another occasion, a female colleague used the second conclusion when she said that at the end of the day all women face same problems, have the same fears, and are oppressed with same traditional responsibilities. She declared that it is this similarity of women's issues regardless of other factors that makes women naturally come to one-another's rescue.

The first conclusion is arrived at without challenging stereotype notions about women being incapable of reason, higher consciousness and wider perspective. The implicit assumption in this conclusion is that women lack the capacity to understand their situation and their needs, and they are so petty minded that they cannot effectively be united as women. It does not recognize that women are also ambitious and competing individuals. Characteristics like ambitiousness and competitiveness are generally attributed to men. Usually, when men display these characteristics they are regarded as go-getters or goal-driven. When the same characteristics are displayed by women, it is regarded as an outcome of natural jealousy and irrationality of women.

The second conclusion is arrived at without any consideration to circumstances of women and their loyalties to factors other than gender. That is, it does not recognize that women are socio-culturally and religiously, economically, and temperamentally divided human beings. This conclusion tends to camouflage differences rather than recognize them, understand them, address them, and transcend them for supporting one another on issues that may or may not be common to all women. It is based on an assumption that women by virtue of being women will automatically bond and create an ideal, egalitarian, mutually supportive solidarity-based environment to live and work together. This conclusion does not attempt to see that women, due to divisions such as race, class, religion, caste, nationality and so on, could have different perspectives on oppression that they suffer.

So, should we dismiss the first conclusion as irrelevant and regard a woman's animosity towards another woman as a mere (in)human tendency which may surface in any individual irrespective of gender. This not an easy decision to make. My experiences suggest that there are times when a woman simply views herself as a contender for a coveted position or status or recognition or any other returns that one may get by doing a certain kind of work. In such circumstances, she does whatever it takes to bring the other person down, including crafty manipulations, display of hostility, bad-mouthing behind the back, lying, and many other unscrupulous acts. But this kind of behaviour is not exclusive to women. I have heard stories from women as well as men about how a particular male family member or a colleague collaborated with others against them or usurped the credit due to them or engaged in skulduggery to harm them.

It would be wise, therefore, to dismiss the first conclusion as nothing but a simplistic account of women's behaviour. But from the point of view of political work for women's rights one must also note that such behaviour does point out the need for greater consciousness-raising and working towards building what might be phrased as 'group aspirations'. It also shows that whenever such behaviour is displayed it calls for appropriate investigation, elucidation, and actions because often when one is faced with such behaviour from a woman, the tendency is not to act on it. Inaction on such behaviour, more often than not, is influenced by the same conclusion – a woman can't take another woman's success and it is termed as a 'natural' clash between women. Inaction ends up patronizing stereotyped conclusions about women.

What about the second conclusion? Should I dismiss that too and forget my experiences that it is indeed women who often come to support other women, especially in situations where institutionalised support mechanisms for women are limited or non-existent? To some extent I do subscribe to a group identity as a woman and possess a willingness to support other women. But there are also instances to recall which suggest that within this group identity exist classes. One's status in this group identity is often influenced by one's socio-economic and political location. That is, one's socio-economic and political status determines one's capacity to promote one's views. Many women holding privileged status do indulge in navel-gazing and regard their perspective as the representative perspective of all women. I have seen how some women who are from privileged background, individually or together, sabotage and undermine women who do not share that background.

The second conclusion too needs to be rejected for its failure to account for diversity among women. The hierarchy and differences among women need to be acknowledged. They are an inevitable part of social-political life. Denying them implies allowing a few women to continuously impose their ideas and views on women who are not in the position to espouse or promote their perspectives and decisions. Unwillingness to recognize differences also keeps many women who are not ready to give up their ideas and views from being part of a collective identity.

There is an increasing need to recognize the issue that women's solidarity is rooted in its concrete context. That is, women's identity is intertwined with several other social, cultural, economical, personal and aspirational, religious, national, historic and many other such issues and therefore women's solidarity must address the challenges arising from these divisions. Recognition of these differences does not mean that they be viewed as factors against the formation of broader solidarity and wider alliances on the basis of being women. It means recognizing that these factors put each woman in a different context, which affects her motivation to work together with other women. This recognition will help us see the needs to provide rightful space to all women to raise and address their specific issues and have wider and egalitarian participation and decision-making as a vital condition for a strong collective identity.