Month: April 2014

In defense of women-only spaces

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.

seemantham

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 [1].)

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 [2] 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 [3] 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.

UPDATE ON 25th SEPTEMBER 2014

I’ve been giving this issue some more thought, and some recent experiences and conversations have led me to look at the notion of women-only spaces from the perspective of women’s friendships. They are, after all, spaces carved out of patriarchal settings and in some ways may be seen as resistant to the imposition of silence about various forms of emotional strain that male-oriented family, work, and interpersonal structures place on women. Of course they could for that very same reason be seen as helping to reinforce these structures. For example, by providing a pressure valve they also may prevent women from feeling the compulsion to take transformative action. They could also reinforce class/caste distinctions by their tendency to form within rather than across these boundaries. Additionally, by comfortably occupying the space marked as “intimate” they may be seen as resisting developing into movements of collective solidarity.

Having said all this though, women’s friendships cannot be so easily written off as inconsequential or ineffectual. They are far too complex for that. As I have discovered, there is a lot of feminist work in this area, and I’d like to look more deeply into it when I have time. Women confide so much in each other, with the full confidence that their secrets will be  taken to the grave. In large part, this does happen. The “mean girls” sort of relationship dynamics is a source of amusement/horror precisely because it is not the everyday experience of women who build up deep and lasting friendships.

So women’s friendships are women-only spaces that have existed for a long time, but arguably have changed in significant ways in modern times. In the footnotes I have included a list of readings that I want to get to when I have more time, and if anyone has anything else to suggest, I’d be grateful you could plop the citations in the comments.

Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.

[3] Rege, S. (1995). Feminist pedagogy and sociology for emancipation in India.Sociological bulletin44(2), 223-239.

Readings on women’s friendships

[4] Kennedy, R., 1986. Women ’s friendships on Crete: A psychological perspective. In: J. Dubisch, ed., Gender and power in rural Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.121-138.

[5] Johnson, F. L., & Aries, E. J. (1983, December). The talk of women friends. InWomen’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 353-361). Pergamon.

[6] O’Connor, P. (1998). Women’s friendships in a post-modern world. Placing friendship in context, 117-135.

[7] Rose, S. and Roades, L. (1987), FEMINISM AND WOMEN’S FRIENDSHIPS. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11: 243–254.

[8] Roberto, K. A. (1997). Qualities of older women’s friendships: Stable or volatile?. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 44(1), 1-14.

[9] Aukett, R., Ritchie, J., & Mill, K. (1988). Gender differences in friendship patterns. Sex Roles, 19(1-2), 57-66.

[10] Aleman, A. M. M. (1997). Understanding and investigating female friendship’s educative value. Journal of Higher Education, 119-159.

[11] O’connor, P. (1992). Friendships between women: A critical review. Guilford Press.

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Dancing backwards

ginger rogers fred astaireThere’s a quote by Bob Thaves in response to praise for Fred Astaire, in which he says “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” This is a small e.g., but a good one, that illustrates how the social construction of the world locates the default in one group of people, forcing others to accommodate themselves to that. As a result, what is easier for one group makes them look better, more talented, more dedicated, more powerful etc. When in actual fact the effort the other groups have to put in to overcome the bias against them means they may only rarely be able to match up. So because in the culture where that form of dance originated men are usually taller, and some attempt at height symmetry is desired, women compensate by wearing heels (rather than say, men compensating by dancing with bent knees). The dancers have to face each other, and men have the default privilege to move forward, so women have to compensate by moving backwards. These compensations make dancing well that much more difficult. And there is no inherent reason why the world cannot be reconstructed such that the default is a shared one, except that losing their privilege makes people in power howl in protest.
The Ginger Rogers quote is often used to celebrate how awesome she was. She was definitely awesome. But celebrating her compensation hides the reason she had to compensate in the first place. Attention should turn to dismantling defaults, not celebrating accommodation.