Sanitary napkins wrapped in newspaper passed under the desk in class, group trips to the bathroom, sly notes in secret languages, mutual aid groups selling crisps, shared recipes and silent solidarity in the kitchen. In India, friendship between women can look like many things. For 17-year-old student Anita (name changed), it took the form of a late-night phone call to an older woman, the daughter of her father’s friend. “I skipped my period for a month after having sex with my boyfriend for the first time. I was freaking out,” Anita recalls. , Anita couldn’t ask her feminist mother for help. “I needed a friend, another woman who would understand what I went through without judgment and tell me what to do.” Anita is not got pregnant. Instead, she was diagnosed with a hormonal disorder called PCOD. But she recalls the shame she felt at the time and adds how grateful she was to have a wife she could call on for help at a time when she couldn’t call on anyone else.
Like Anita Have I got, women are often the first to respond to any crisis faced by other women. Whether it is the common history of oppression faced by women in patriarchal systems in all countries and cultures, or the result of an oft-enforced homosocial norm of existence, solidarity of women arises from the need to support each other in the face of hostile situations and common oppressors. And in India, women’s solidarity and networking has helped spearhead several movements for the socio-economic and political upliftment of women. Yet most Indian women grow up hearing and believing that “women are women’s worst enemies”, a stereotype perpetuated by countless saas bahu soap operas depicting evil mothers-in-law and evil vampires to crowd out innocent, “good” women.
Turkish feminist scholar Deniz Kandiyoti in her seminal 1988 essay Negotiating with the patriarchy spoke about the strategies employed by women to make the most of oppressive gender structures and move up the social and family ladders. But while pop culture widely promotes the trope of women hating women, Professor Mary E. John, former director of the Center for Women’s Development Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that such simplifications undermine the complex set of factors that actually dictate gender relations and dynamics. “Family and marriage form the fundamental blocks of patrilineal and patriarchal society in most parts of India. These institutions are organized with the notion of a male head of household who has a certain notion of power, while women live in direct dependence on male members. On the other hand, there is an emphasis on homosocialization and the application of the public-private divide, which forces women to be grouped together, whether at school or at home,” said John. Outlook. “Negotiating with patriarchy was a way of saying that even within such patriarchal structures, women do not simply become victims of fear, always oppressed and subjugated. Instead, they have the power to bargain because they have something to give, be it sexual gratification, reproduction, the potential for male heirs, or work,” adds John. However, despite their apparent superiority, she points out that the fact that they negotiate means they are not in a position of control.
Most Indian women grow up hearing and believing that “women are women’s worst enemies”, a stereotype perpetuated by saas bahu series.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a prominent left-wing leader, believes that solidarity among women plays an important role in the socio-political and economic upliftment of women. “I wouldn’t be in politics if it weren’t for the friendship between women and the very strong bonds of friendship that drew me to activism,” she says. Outlook. Krishnan points out that patriarchy compels women to become guardians of patriarchal morality within the family and thus demean other women. “The directive to oppose women who challenge patriarchal norms runs deep and finds a voice in all of us women at one time or another. The fact that friendship and camaraderie among women can provide a safe space where women can challenge this strong directive is important and little talked about,” says Krishnan. Those who impose patriarchy are very aware of this power of female friendships and solidarity and are constantly trying to diminish or undermine these In the 1980s, Krishnan says, there was a wave of self-help groups and micro-finance movements that grew into more expansive movements against women’s issues like domestic violence and sexual abuse. Today, the same government or the same public agencies behind microfinance institutions have begun to encourage women to turn against each other in cases where one of them does not not repay his loan.
Despite these attempts, female solidarity finds a way. During the Covid lockdown, when marginalized women faced job losses and massive debt, women from the microfinance movements banded together and protested; some even got their governments or state agencies to reverse the punitive measure and give women more time to repay their loans. Several sex workers from Telangana and West Bengal Outlook interviewed about the increase in debt during the lockdown, testified to the problems they faced in repaying their debt and to women’s efforts to buy more time and leeway for defaulters instead of acting as loan sharks against them.
In Uttar Pradesh, women’s rights activists who previously worked with the now defunct Mahila Samakhya program tell similar stories of solidarity networks that continue to provide assistance to victims of gender-based violence through meetings and informal sessions that work even without government funding. Activists have attempted to harness the power of female friendships and networking to create constructive resistance, especially in rural parts of India where many women who experience violence or abuse have no social structure or safety net. of security. Since the majority of systemic abuse comes from intimate partners, parents or family members, victims often have no place to file their complaints or even disclose their trauma to anyone. “The need for women’s networks based on mutual trust and cooperation can be critical in such situations,” says Khalid Chaudhry, Regional Director of Action Aid Association, which runs the Adolescent Girls Network at UP to provide an environment protective and supportive by involving women in the community to act as watchdogs against violence experienced by women. One of its members, Anjali, 13, recently succeeded in preventing the early marriage of a friend who was studying at his school in Badaun. “His family was not supportive. It was only up to some of us girls in the school to know what to do,” says Anjali. Outlook.
While male friendship is celebrated in tales of bravery and resistance like Bollywood’s Jai and Veeru or the legends of King Arthur and Lancelot in the West, women’s stories remain untold.
Not all women are activists and not all female friendships lead to movements. Women in a family may come to form solidarity against an oppressive male or form a sisterhood to influence socio-political change. But even the simplest of friendships between women can shape female identities not only by challenging patriarchy, but also the notions of kinship underpinned by Indian caste-based family structures, which mostly result in women being cut off from their own family or sources of socialization outside the home.
Eileen Green, in her 1998 essay, describes how even women’s recreation sites often become gateways to reconstructing femininities. Green argues that phenomena like “women’s discourse” can be examined as examples of “key mechanisms by which female subjectivities are secured.” Interaction in leisure settings with close friends or acquaintances – as when women interact at the common well in villages or “work-woman” discussions in urban office cafeterias during lunch breaks – provide essential spaces for women to “review their lives” and assess their lives. pains and satisfactions through the social “mirror”, humor and shared advice on how to survive. Surabhi Yadav, who has documented women in their leisure time as part of the “Basanti Project”, says: “Leisure brings women together, it is a glue that can bring people together, especially the oppressed, without an agenda.” The Instagram handle, which has over 17,000 followers, is a selection of photographs and stories depicting everyday women at leisure, sharing moments of intimacy, individuality and sisterhood. “Perhaps in leisure, because our guards are down, we are lighter on our human condition, which is often complex and daunting,” Surabhi muses.
Examples of the contribution of female friendships and solidarity to movements against oppression are not lacking in history. Krishnan, in his latest book, talks about the friendship between Shah Jahan Appa and Satya Rani Chaddha during the anti-dowry movement in Delhi in the 1980s, which was intrinsic to the success of the movement. Or the powerful friendship that developed between stalwarts like Savitri Bai Phule and Fatima Sheikh, who played a huge role in empowering thousands of women. Or the kinship and shared love for the forest between the women who were at the center of the Chipko movement to save their trees. While male friendship is often praised in stories of bravery and resilience like Bollywood’s Jai and Veeru or the legends of King Arthur and Lancelot in the West, women’s stories, as usual, remain untold.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Sisterhood of Solidarities”)