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The Sisterhood Myth: No, Not All Women Are Friends!

The Sisterhood Myth: No, Not All Women Are Friends!

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For all her adult life, Sandhya’s Thursday evenings were booked for her girlfriends who called her Sandy. It first started as a way for her to stay in touch with her girl gang from school. Soon enough, her newfound college girlfriends also joined the gang. The seven of them remained inseparable, much like the noisy Seven Sisters, that grace our gardens with endless chatter every now and then.

Then, one day, Aarti – a friend she had made in college, and now known for nearly
thirteen years, started skipping the weekly rendezvous. She stopped responding to their text messages, too. Every few weeks, she would drop a ‘Hi ladies, sorry I’ve just been so busy with work lately. Miss you all. Will see you soon.’ Presumably, so she wouldn’t be forgotten.

Sandy, the glue to this group of girls, was extremely troubled by this behaviour. She told her college sweetheart-turned-husband so. Her husband smiled to himself, and said, ‘Maybe she’s having an affair with a married man.’ Sandy immediately retorted with a ‘No, she’d never,’ but couldn’t shake the thought.

Dear reader, brace yourself for what I’m about to tell you next. Sit down if you’re standing. Lie down if you’re sitting. And if you’re laying down already, take a deep breath.

A few months later, almost having given up on having Aarti back, Sandy found out that her husband was right. Aarti was having an affair with a married man. And that man was married to… Sandhya.

‘The affair began a year before I found out,’ Sandhya told me over the phone. By now, she had long left her husband and was living her best life, solo. ‘So for almost eight months, Aarti was acting normal. We were partying together. She came over to our house, and Rajesh (the husband) would even drop her back sometimes.’ If I had not already seen their pictures together, and then, pictures of her ex-husband’s wedding ceremony with her ex-close friend, I’d have thought Sandhya’s story was all smoke and mirrors. ‘I got over what Rajesh did so quickly. I didn’t care – I never expected better from men I guess. But to this day (nine years later), I can’t get over what Aarti did to me. How can a woman do this to another woman? And forget that – Aarti was my friend for so many years. I’ve lost all faith in female friendships.’

This is by no means an isolated incident. The degree of – hmm, what shall we call this? Deception? – may vary, but there are many stories of sinisterhood, where we’re told sisterhood should be.

For her book, The Twisted Sisterhood: Unraveling the Dark Legacy of Female
Friendships
, author Kelly Valen surveyed 3000 women about their experiences of
sisterhood, or in other words, female friendships. Almost 90% of her respondents said they felt ‘undercurrents of meanness and negativity emanating from other females’.

This is quite in contrast with the sisterhood of traveling pants, isn’t it? The fables of
female friendships we sing and pass on from friend to friend, mother to daughter, sister to sister. Popular culture, folk wisdom, and feminist discourse alike tell you that there’s strength in women banding together. They give us examples of bonobos, whose females band together to smash the patriarchy. But, the thing is – we’re not monkeys.

Now that we’re on the topic of patriarchy and female friendships, let’s tackle that. Yes, when women come together in support of each other, they do weaken the fetters of patriarchy. They form their own self-sustaining worlds, going from strength to strength when they look out for each other. But, when is the operative word here.

Women, simply by virtue of being women or female, do not carry within them some magnetic forcefield that attracts other women, and keeps them safe from other
forces which – and another lie here – are out to harm them.

Women – like anyone else – are flawed. We can be competitive, territorial, jealous,
insecure, selfish, and quite often, just have our priorities in different places than nurturing other women. In placing the burden on women to keep each other safe and emotionally fulfilled, we allow men to not shoulder that responsibility. Perhaps, this is why this lie has been consutructed – “women, look out for each other, so men don’t have to behave themselves around you.”

Why is there even a question for members of the same sex to come together so they may be safe from the rest of the world, stronger in numbers? Is it to say that a woman standing alone isn’t equipped to face the world? And is it really true that it’s impossible to navigate the world without a gang of girls cheering you on? Or is this lie constructed to normalise sex and gender-based segregation? Which, if you think about it, is one of the biggest roadblocks to reaching true intellectual, and emotional equality.

Now, let me tell you another story. This one’s personal. After having studied in a co-ed school, I was thrilled to go to an all-girls college. Ironic, I know. But by the time I
finished school, I was so done with rumor-mongering hormonal teenage boys, and was really looking forward to spending the next three years in a safe haven of feminine energy. Those three years were among the best years of my life, but also, rife with clique-ism, unspoken body shaming, and outright dismissal of “Hindi-speaking girls”. In my naivety, I had imagined Delhi University’s Jesus and Mary College to be an all-welcoming, all-embracing sanctuary where every young woman would be embraced.

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Instead, what I found was this – the fashion girls hung out with other fashion girls; the dancers didn’t give center stage to girls that were taller or skinnier; the girls who had boyfriends and wanted to get married were looked down upon by the single girls out to ‘rule the world’; the college music band labeled the readers ‘nerdy’, and the toppers never greeted the nuns.

Despite the fact that in classrooms, we were encouraged to debate on everything from abortions to women drinking and smoking, at the college’s Ms. Fresher’s event, the girl who won the honour was the one who said, ‘to be a woman is to be a mother’, when asked if she would still consider herself to be a woman if she didn’t have a uterus and breasts; and not the one who said, ‘yes, I would, because womanhood is a feeling, not a performance.’

I learnt many things in college – that you can rock sneakers with kurtas, that specially-abled people also have sex, that convents don’t have mirrors, that it’s okay to excel at something you like and to not want to try too hard at that something you don’t enjoy, that you can sneak boys into a girls’ college, that reading for leisure helps improve your grades, and most importantly, that solidarity of sisterhood is a big fat lie.

If an all-girls college isn’t the right place to either confirm or debunk the idea of sisterhood, then I don’t know what is.

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