A week ago I was in New York for a conference. I met up with a good friend who was celebrating her promotion to Research Director with a top multinational architectural firm. She was in her late sixties and was feeling great. She spoke about how some of her clients had propositioned her. She said the flirting was all in good fun though and she would never trade that kind of banter for anything in the world. She knew that was not the politically correct thing to say in today’s #metoo climate, but there it was.
As a woman, you learn to practise diverse forms of self-censorship, especially with other women. It is not easy to say that you love to stay home and cook, that you aren’t ambitious, that motherhood is not your thing, or that you are a workaholic and you love it. Your gender is a default filter. Your personal story becomes a political statement. The so-called ‘sisterhood’ may feel betrayed.
Deepa Narayan, one of the 100 most influential global policy thinkers and author of Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women, interviewed hundreds of women across cities and found that ‘middle and upper class women think of each other as untrustworthy and unsupportive’. This instituted divisiveness serves as a natural barrier to fundamental change.
But the West is no India, you may argue. The Netherlands or the United States are far more progressive and the sisterhood here is about empowerment and enablement. ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other,’ argues Pip Jamieson, a female tech founder. Women set a high bar for other women.
But what is being ‘supportive?’ Support looms more like the threat of exclusion than a boon for solidarity. Before we are quick to condemn other women for betraying the ‘cause’ through their choices, whether to flirt or reject the choice of motherhood, let’s stop and listen to their stories. Let’s go beyond the vagina dialogues.
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication