Every woman feels a sense of comfort from the presence of other women in some way. This intimate bond connecting millions of vastly different women everywhere has an interesting journey through the ages- a journey of conflict & compassion impacting every woman and being impacted by every one of them.
Sisterhood: Discovering the power of a bond hidden in plain sight.
Shivali Pande is an economist who just completed her MBA and is about to embark on her journey in the corporate world. Writing remains her greatest passion that helps her discuss broader social issues by expressing them in the context of mundane yet magical anecdotes of ordinary life.
Preeti is running late for her work; she hurriedly turns the lock as her young maid exits the house and briskly narrates the list of vegetables that she’ll get the next day because Preeti will have to work late today. Thankfully as Preeti enters the metro, the smiling grandma has held a seat for Preeti- just as she does every day. Finally, Preeti reaches the office and her boss lays out the day’s tasks but only after congratulating her for her brilliant presentation the other day.
The sun has already set when Preeti is leaving for the day and the relatable memes shared by her college girlfriends help relieve some of the stress. As she waits for the last metro, she has to undertake the dreaded but urgent visit to a public washroom at the station. The door of the sole manageably clean cubicle is also broken but the cleaning lady offers to look out for her. The monthly cycle has decided to visit Preeti’s already hectic day but thankfully a complete stranger walks into the bathroom and lends Preeti a sanitary pad. As Preeti unlocks her apartment, she smiles and feels grateful for the unknown sister who acted like a complete savior at the station today.
These women could actually be any and every woman around you. But what these instances listed above highlight is the simple yet profound concept of sisterhood. Cambridge dictionary defines sisterhood as “a strong feeling of support among women”. And it’s possible that there will be a plethora of people (including women) who’ll argue that women don’t always support each other, in fact they pull one another down. Even Google displays 24 million results for “sisterhood” but a whopping 1.6 billion for “women holding each other back”. And this notion is reasonable; think of how Preeti’s boss could actually have completely ignored her performance owing to bitter office politics; how the aunty next-door could be calling out the length of Preeti’s skirt as she returns from a party or how her aunt still taunts her for not being able to cook. Now, add to this the media portrayal of women’s relations- any example from mean girls to daily soap sagas. Suddenly, the idea of sisterhood seems like a distant reality but here’s what’s important, even if distant and not as overt as the crab mentality that the feminine half exhibits, sisterhood is a parallel reality which has stood the test of time and even evolved learning from myriad experiences.
This 10-letter word first found relevance during the second wave of feminism i.e. the latter half of the 20th century. It all began with groups of women regularly meeting to discuss topics of common interest. While most of the research during this period focuses on those groups that played a prominent role in the wider political movement to make women’s rights a reality in policy and law, there were hundreds others which simply functioned as a support system and respite for ordinary women. However, as a result, sisterhood came to be associated with radical measures and political statements- but again this was warranted by the blatant inequality that pervaded every form of daily life back then. However, the conflict was not with the other half of the population or the system only, it existed within.
Bell Hooks’ 1984 publication ‘Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center’ happens to be the most widely referred piece when it comes to understanding how for the longest time women ignored differences amongst themselves and only focused on victim bonding against a common external oppressor. Hooks highlighted how this was a method devised by the superior/white/bourgeois women to evade the responsibility of understanding class/race differences. Only one form of common oppression was recognized. The idea of inter-sectional oppression that women of color or poorer women faced by virtue of being both- a woman and a member of some marginalized group, was ignored.
Years of struggle ultimately transformed the idea of sisterhood from one of victim-bonding with a sole focus on men versus women, to one where women bonded while recognizing their differences with the focus on women-women equations. Half a century worth of efforts finally established that women do not need anti-male sentiments to bond together given how great is the wealth of experience, culture, and ideas they possess to share with one another. These efforts included publications by marginalized women, practices to understand different cultural codes and forced co-existence of many parallel sisterhoods- Susan Brownmiller talks of half a dozen in USA alone in her 1970 publication ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’, that all contributed to the women’s movement in their own way. In fact, internal conflicts became a catalyst that helped women from different backgrounds understand one another better.
With passing decades, the status of women has undergone a massive transformation. Misogyny, inequality, and sexism still exist but in deeply ingrained ideas & seemingly normal subtle practices. Thus, the women’s movement has also transformed from its radical form to a more nuanced continuous process spread across law, digital space, media, corporate houses and hopefully every household.
But what got carried forward from that era to this one is the ability of women to find comfort with each other’s presence despite all the differences. There is now acceptance to the idea that every woman has a layered identity also defined by factors of marginalization such as class, sexuality, caste, religion etc. in addition to her gender. And each of these layers overlap to create unique forms of oppression that all deserve solidarity & solution. This is the idea of inter-sectional feminism that is now emerging almost as a third wave in the movement.
Today, Preeti can further the discussion of equal pay in her office boardroom, respect her maid’s worries about not being able to convince her husband to educate their daughter and also march alongside her lesbian friend in the pride parade. Women are displaying greater solidarity with one another in today’s times.
So going forward, every time you feel a little more safe seeing a woman stand at the bus stop with you or you feel completely okay asking an anonymous sister for a scarf/tampon, just smile subtly recognizing that even when women themselves find the bro code cooler, they have their own code- a deep sisterhood that is binding astoundingly different women in its own intimate way.
And don’t worry you don’t have to carry the burden of being the next Rosa Parks to ensure its existence because every generation will find its own Malala sooner or later. All you have to do is be your own Monica, find your Rachel & Phoebe and hug them a little tighter unapologetically.
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