What I Learnt About Feminism Through Female Friendships

Posted by Madhavi Shivaprasad in Feminism, Sexism And Patriarchy
February 15, 2017
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recently, a friend of mine shared a conversation thread on emotional labour and friendships. Some of the things that people were saying in the thread were truly unnerving and scary to say the least. First of all, it made me very uncomfortable to think about relationships as economic transactions. Claiming that one should probably start getting paid for being the shoulder to lean on when a friend is going through hard times was disarming.

But think: do we not use the term “invest” to refer to the effort we put into any important relationship in our lives? We certainly give, but we also expect, positive reciprocation, or “returns”, continuing the economic jargon.

With time and maturity, we agreed, we have now become more discerning about who we want to ‘give’ to, and who we want to ‘lean’ on, during rough (or, for that matter, even happy) times. More discerning, but still not always immune to feelings of betrayal and loss when the other person does not reciprocate.

This conversation got me thinking about how our choice of friends, and the level of engagement with each group, also involves shared personal ideologies and politics. That as our politics evolves, our interactions with different groups of friends also changes significantly.

While In Search Of Feminism…

I began thinking of the importance of friendships and social movements. Feminism and its connection to female friendships, in particular. Could our confessions, our outbursts, the exhilaration shared with none but the closest of our girlfriends afford insight into the ever-elusive thing we like to call feminism?

Even us feminists, I think, do not ever get a grip on what it entails. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously said that we should all be feminists. She recounts, in her talk, how she was told by a well-meaning man, that

[F]eminists are women who are unhappy because they cannot find husbands. So I decided to call myself a Happy Feminist.

Then an academic, a Nigerian woman, told me that feminism was not our culture, that feminism was un-African, and I was only calling myself a feminist because I had been influenced by Western books. (Which amused me, because much of my early reading was decidedly unfeminist: I must have read every single Mills & Boon romance published before I was sixteen. And each time I try to read those books called “classic feminist texts,” I get bored, and I struggle to finish them.)

Anyway, since feminism was un-African, I decided I would now call myself a Happy African Feminist. Then a dear friend told me that calling myself a feminist meant that I hated men. So I decided I would now be a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men. At some point I was a Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men and Who Likes to Wear Lip Gloss and High Heels for Herself and Not For Men.

Adichie is addressing the audience. She is wearing a printed blue and brown top against a black background
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Tedx Euston. Source: YouTube.

It seemed to me as if she were saying that one can never be adequately feminist. Frustrating as that sounds. The root of the Tree of Patriarchy have delved so deep that at some point or another each of us has perpetuated it. It’s like we all have our own personal banana peels, strewn all over the path in front of us, such that eventually we slip and fall, if we’re not careful. Remember that time when we laughed at jokes making fun of wives, girlfriends and mothers-in-law…perhaps still do? Remember that time when you liked the sari-clad Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai rather than the “tomboyish” one in the first half of the movie?

…We Found Each Other

These little slips, these banana peel falls led me to take a different journey altogether — one which was built on narratives: oral histories made of personal stories, gossip, and innumerable secrets that we shared with each other. What we couldn’t find in “classic feminist” texts, we found in long random midnight rants, WhatsApp texts and Facebook messages. The slips in our understanding of feminism led us to nurture deeper bonds with each other.

For instance, consider how most theories on feminism are built on rejectionist ideologies. Reject marriage, reject religion, reject men, reject family (as I write this, my privilege already wrought in this narrative as a cis, upper class/caste, heterosexual woman, and hence exclusion is not lost on me). And understandably so, because the feminist movement began with the idea of challenging the status-quoist attitudes of society toward women. Having been in gender/women’s studies departments as students or teachers, we are taught to question everything, trust nothing. I fear sometimes, that in the quest for questing, we stop believing in goodness, and stop belonging altogether.

…And Forged Unlikely Bonds

As feminists, we tend to glorify aggressive activism, a great deal. “Beat all odds, break the shackles, reject patriarchal norms.” The feminist activist herself, it is agreed, has to sacrifice her belongingness to other groups and only pledge allegiance to the idea of equal rights for the socially oppressed. All very legitimate and truly commendable ideals to aspire to. But isn’t this a myopic understanding of feminism? Just as feminism can be the classic bra-burning, proud activist, can it not also be classic conforming homemaker who binge watches TV serials at home everyday? Perhaps as feminists we need to look beyond the loud “rebellious” feminists, to the quieter, subtler forms of feminism that our homemakers represent as they claim entire evenings to themselves through demanding control of the TV remote. For some time and space of their own.

And it is the homemaker, the mother, the wife that often comes up in a myriad of conversations between women. They may be derided for their “crass” TV viewing habits, for their lack of “worldly knowledge” or even praised for exceptional culinary skills. But stop to think of this. In their actions also resides a feminism that is powerful in its understatedness. The feminism of negotiation. A feminism that truly believes and practices harmony.  The homemaker’s is perhaps the feminism of true empathy that is often ignored. In fact, even they may never apply it to themselves!

…To Be Inadequately Feminist Together

So it was that our conversation that began with the burden of emotional labour and friendships has finally led us to realise how important these un-theorised spaces of bonding and negotiation are. And perhaps they will continue to be so. But more importantly, it is the discovery of the potential of these spaces that keep feminism alive and thriving, leaving behind seeds for future feminists to discover and nurture. So that they too realise the pleasures of reading Mills and Boons all day, and continuing to be inadequately feminist.