I am going to admit from the outset that I haven’t figured out quite how to articulate this yet. It’s an emerging idea. I make no claims that it is completely new in the world of feminist thought, but it is new for me. As I deepen my reading and come across works which are relevant, I will provide the details in this post. If you read this post and something comes to mind, I’d be glad to hear it.
I write as a woman born into a Hindu family in Singapore in 1970. My parents came from Andhra Pradesh in India in 1960 and settled here in Singapore. I’ve written a few posts that deal with my struggle to understand the paradoxical and contradictory nature of the various aspects of my identity. No statement is the final one, as my struggle is still very much work in progress. This little introduction is necessary for any reader who does not know me, because without it, my attempted defense of women-only spaces will make little sense. Here are two prior posts that mark moments of reflection along my journey:
1. Feminine empowerment coded in ritual: August 22nd 2010
2. I am the invisible goddess: June 13th 2012
I have no strong objection to rituals in general, nor do i embrace them on principle. However rituals which celebrate the embodied feminine seem to resonate more strongly with me than those that worship the divine feminine (even though the former are no less implicated in patriarchal structures).
Recently I attended one such ceremony which, loosely translated, is a baby shower, except that that term doesn’t fully capture the amount of attention devoted to the mother-to-be by her mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts and other female relatives and friends. They put flowers in her hair and bangles on her wrists, while surrounding her with love and music and good wishes. I remember my “Seemantham” 18 years ago as one of the happiest events of my life. I felt so loved by the women who came to bless me and my unborn child. This photo of my mother kissing me makes me smile even now.
18 years later, I was on the giving end of the love and attention as a young mother-to-be anticipated the birth of her child.
Such spaces for women to celebrate one another in a culture which is so openly misogynistic are valuable spaces. There are problems of course with glorifying these events as great sources of feminist wisdom. Women who choose not to have children, women who cannot have children, women who are unmarried – anyone who does not comply with the rules – are rendered unworthy of this show of affection, and therefore effectively invisible. But it occurs to me that it may be possible to try to sift out the valuable element of female solidarity from the murky mess of patriarchal rituals. While in theory the ceremony is defined in terms of patriarchy, in its actual enactment there are practices that may be seen as resistance. Or at least, the possibility exists to claim that space for resistance. I’d love to do an ethnography of women-only spaces in ritual cultures at some point in the future.
“What we need is not to break the tie, but to make it healthy – to wrest it from its patriarchal context, to allow for its full impact on us, strengthening the line of women” (Arcana 1985, pg. 149-150, quoted in Koppelman 1993 .)
Koppelman’s argument was about detaching real feminine ties from the psychoanalytic tool of patriarchy – where psychoanalysis was applied to separate daughters from their mothers in order to strengthen the patriarchal machinery. But we could use the same argument about wresting the tie from religion. Not just mothers and daughters but all feminine solidarity. Koppelman suggests detaching through narratives about mothers and daughters. I’m suggesting detaching through celebrations of femininity.
All religions assume a theory of toxic femininity – that femininity is somehow dangerous for men. This leads to the emergence of a masculinity that is in practice toxic for women – at best it infantilises them, and at worst it abuses them. bell hooks  wrote beautifully about the need for men to be free of patriarchy as well in her book “The will to change: Men, masculinity and love”. Her theory is that men and women need to work together to dismantle patriarchy. There are as many women as men who are complicit in perpetuating the oppressive structures, and there are as many men as women who suffer from the oppression. In the context of Hinduism, Sharmila Rege  has written about how Brahmin women comply with patriarchal structures in order to maintain their supremacy over women of lower castes. All this is by way of saying that there can be no gender-based classification into villains and victims categories. The patriarchy is too complex for that. The ideal anti-patriarchal future is one in which masculinity is not toxic, and women therefore do not need exclusive spaces.
However my sense is that both need to happen at the same time. Where the theory that femininity is toxic is so deeply embedded in daily practice and spiritual pursuits, masculinity in its most toxic forms is a real presence in women’s lives and may necessitate a retreat into women-only spaces. Do these spaces need to remain women-only forever? Perhaps not. Perhaps men who are able to detoxify their masculinity may enter with no adverse effect on women. Is being a women sufficient for membership in this space? Perhaps not, given the patriarchal bargains so many women make. But awareness and consciousness-raising seems to be an important part of reclaiming women-only spaces for detoxification. On their own, these spaces may do nothing more than reinforce theories of toxic femininity and practices of toxic masculinity.
 Koppelman, S. (1993, February). Between mothers and daughters: Stories across a generation: The personal is political in life and in literature. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 47-56). Pergamon.
 Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.
 Rege, S. (1995). Feminist pedagogy and sociology for emancipation in India.Sociological bulletin, 44(2), 223-239.