Women are women’s worst enemies…
Women are women’s worst enemies…
So believes a large section of society, including women. Are women to be blamed for not being empathetic enough or is this too another form of patriarchy to which women have been conditioned?
Most of the conferences, workshops and meetings on women’s issues end up with the same argument repeated time and again, that women are the worst enemies of women. In case of female foeticide, it is forcefully argued that it is the mother or grandmother who is most instrumental in ensuring that a girl is not born even if it means aborting a female foetus several times. Similarly, most of the dowry deaths, it is claimed, are caused by the women relatives of the husband. Symptomatically it may be true but the issue is in fact too complex to be understood in such a simplistic phrase.
It is true that women just like men have been habitual to the structures of patriarchy, following the same patriarchal terminology, rituals, customs, body language, gestures and so on. Like men, women have also been submitting to the power structures with a gender hierarchy in place within families, kinship and even public spaces, without questioning these. It is generally found that women get along with a greater ease and comfort with male colleagues and bosses simply because they have been habitual to having them around in such positions. With the feminist consciousness creeping in, however, the modern woman, uneasy with the existing power equations, has started perceiving herself as a victim of patriarchy-subjugated, struggling to earn a respectable space, not only from men but unmindful of the gender dimension of it- from both “other” men and women. In the process, she often indulges into “othering” not only men but other women too.
In the process of her own struggle for survival, while she is totally engrossed in her own self, she completely forgets that other women close to her-as daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, mother, mother-in-law, domestic maid, friend, colleague, subordinate, boss, too are fighting a lone battle. Obsessed with her own plight she fails to develop a consciousness that by supporting other women her own struggle would get easier. What in fact happens is that while “othering” women along with men, she not only distances herself from other women, but more crucially, often antagonises them in different capacities and intensities. This happens because unlike the Marxian notion of class consciousness, which turns a class in itself into class for itself, by othering the rich and propertied bourgeoisie, these women themselves, too heterogeneous within, have no occasion to develop a class consciousness. Instead, with an aggressive invasion of consumerism and self promotion in the name of individual freedom and personal liberty, contemporary women, especially in developing countries, keep getting increasingly self located, both physically and socially.
In developing countries, with an intense competition for scarce and depleting resources, especially in the present context, women are competing not only with men but with other women also, each with a heightened feeling of individuality, often resembling egoism, giving a serious blow to the project of “sisterhood”. All this often gets perceived in terms of labelling women as enemies of women themselves. And with this the whole feminist project is turned very conveniently against women themselves. The irony is that the moment a woman asserts her identity as a separate human entity, she is charged of a coup against not only men, but the total society, equivalent to waging a war against society (with the male at the hot seat), with the assertion that she must learn to live along with society (men). But when she concedes and looks upon the same society to pull her out of the state of subjugation and denial of her individuality, freedom and self esteem, she is directed to seek support in other women and to fend for herself. Society very conveniently tells her that empowerment shall come from within her. Further, absolving itself from the responsibility, the same society tells her that it has never been unfair with her and in fact it is her own community, i.e. women, who thwart her project of empowerment.
And thus, very smartly and shrewdly society manages to pull itself out of the responsibility of granting a just and fair treatment to women, leaving them in the lurch. Is it sufficient to frame policies, legislations, create ministries, allocate funds for their welfare and leave it at that? On the other side, women are busy empowering themselves, conducting gender sensitisation workshops and seminars which are often attended only by women as men find these totally irrelevant and meaningless. Very cleverly, the state, bureaucracy and society, granting a few women born with a silver spoon with an elitist status, entrust them with the job of empowering other women, rolling in poverty, physical abuse and inhuman existence day in and day out. Men again in the process keep watching from a distance with amusement and indifference.
It is as ridiculous to expect all women to behave like a group as men. Like any other human being, a woman too has multiple identities, viz. gender, caste, religious, professional, linguistic, regional and so on. Gender is therefore only one of the identities she possesses. Is it fair to expect that she lives only on her gender identity, forgetting about others? Further, while being a woman, she performs multiple roles in which her identity keeps on shifting just like men. For example, she keeps shifting between the roles of a daughter, sister, student, mother, wife, friend, daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, colleague, worker/professional, boss, subordinate, neighbour, passenger, consumer, victim, perpetrator, patriarch and so on. Each of these having been culturally defined roles. How can society expect a woman to abandon these roles and push herself into “sisterhood”? Take the example of the multiple role performance of a man who tells his working daughter, sister or wife not to overdo her work at office and take care of her household responsibilities properly, at the same time frowning at his female colleague or subordinate when she shows her inability to stay beyond office hours in order to cater to her household priorities.
Definitely then the project of women’s empowerment is not a society’s project but primarily and solely a women’s project. Women too like men live out their socially defined roles which are not only multiple but conflicting too. It is too unfair to expect every woman to be a permanent feminist, fighting for her gender rights all the time. She too as an ordinary human being performs multiple roles, forgetting at times that she is a woman and that she is pursuing the project of women’s empowerment. Enslaved to social taboos and cultural norms, she too like her male counterpart, likes to earn social acceptability and in the process, hurts the project of sisterhood. It is unfair to expect all women at all times and at all places to be working for women’s empowerment. It is doubly unfair to blame them for their own victimisation, keeping society that controls them out of view. It is a pity that for any failures or hiccups, the society mocks at them, treating them responsible for their plight, lacing it with the phrase “women are the worst enemies of women.”
The writer is the Chairperson, Departments of Women’s Studies and Sociology, Panjab University, Chandigarh.