Of feminism, a supportive sisterhood and lifting up other women: Lessons from 2017
Whether it is supporting the enterprise of women, helping out a friend going through a rough time or asserting one's own brand of femininity, feminism must be a lived practice #YearInReview
This article is part of our 2017: A Year In Review series
It is neither a cult nor a club. Nor is it a secret society that grants selective membership once in five years after being presented with the right references. Nor is it something resembling a kitty party with a rotational reward structure. It is not a singularly founded organisation. It is not an organisation at all, at least not anything conventional with rules and by-laws and registered codes of behaviour. It is something more intangible than all of these, and less exclusive. I like to think of it is a counter to ‘fraternity’, a term from a more male-biased lexicon that offers its specific member gender—men—the advantages of brotherly association, often at the cost of women’s rights, freedoms and dignities. It is the opposite of that “boy’s club”. Its primary modus operandi is not purely even self-interest or profit. It is the consequence of reaching out. It is a bond established not necessarily through a common experience of victimhood. In fact, at its purest, there is an implicit recognition that no two experiences of abuse can be the same, separated as they will be along lines of class, race, and sexuality. It is the understanding that our differences can be translated into our collective strength, and our solidarity, a renewable source of energy. It is more sorority. In Latin, ‘soror’ means sister. So I choose to refer to this somewhat ambiguous, continually expanding, never static community of people as the sisterhood.
Notice I wrote ‘people’, not women. It belongs to no one and yet to anyone who believes and proves themselves to be worthy members. It functions on the principle of loyalty, primarily to the basic tenet of the feminist ideology that we must practice today as an update to the waves of feminism that existed before: the revolutionary ideal that empowerment is a privilege that must be shared.
This year that is on the cusp of closing in on itself—2017— has been one of many great personal revelations. A lot of it stemmed from my research into a questioning of the category of women artists. But naturally, I began to read Linda Nochlin’s pioneering and provocative 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists, which, in this browser-enabled world, led me to an obituary in The Guardian upon her death in November 2017. One line resonated with me in a very profound way. It was a simple sentence. It read thus: “Her capacity for friendship was enormous.” If anything, was it friendship that served as the underlying organising principle for the sisterhood, I wondered?
Two years ago, as I was turning 30, I decided to enumerate my accomplishments. I’d released my first book, a non-fiction memoir that found a generous and varied readership, a significant number of whom have since written in to inform me of how they thought it was brave, bold, and game-changing as a narrative of the emotional and sexual awakening of the female self. I had somehow also managed, with no dearth of challenges, to assert my voice as an art writer, with each day successfully widening my network of artists, gallerists and collectors who believed in the authenticity of my opinion. But those triumphs were incidental. Ephemeral even.
I genuinely believed and continue to, that at 30, my great achievement was the quality and volume of friendships I had built, mostly with women and fellow queers. Their company had become vital to my identity as a feminist.
It was their solidarity that was responsible not only for any career success I enjoyed, but for the boundless sense of contentment and confidence to which I finally felt entitled, because I, too, felt compelled to give much more than I had received, and in the process, to build a still-growing community of people who felt invested in my evolution, as both a person and a writer. This year, when I turned 32, I found I no longer sought the validation of men, particularly those of a misogynistic frame of mind, who drew their positions of power by asserting the alleged superiority of their male upbringing and status and cared two hoots about how their behaviour actively marginalised voices that were the Other. Not only that, I had even displaced them from my orbit. “Sucking up has its advantages,” I still have this paraphrased memory of a text message from a renowned, best-selling author who had been trying to do damage control in early January because of a Facebook post I’d put up about how a literature festival I’d cut my teeth on had systematically rendered me and my writing invisible, despite its impact, despite the glowing critical reviews my book had received. I was hurt by the assumption that, as a woman, in order to see any recognition, I had to be subservient and ‘lick ass’. I had issues with licking ass, because of how the behaviour primarily only reinforces the status quo, enables the men in power to remain in power because their rank is continually re-asserted through the proliferation of hierarchy. It was my women friends, primarily writers, who stood up for me, who called the festival out for ignoring my work, for not offering me the opportunity to be on equal footing with my peers and contemporaries.
“Do not discredit your own work, do not diminish its value,” I found myself scribbling in my notebook in the middle of a panel in which I was invited to participate at the Jaipur Literature Festival. I remember feeling so small. The subject was memoir, and I was seated on the extreme end of the stage, opposite from the moderator, Samanth Subramaniam, a writer whose work I greatly admire. I was placed next to Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector, Emma Sky, a British citizen who chose to leave the comfort of her known world to rebuild post-war Iraq, and Bee Rowlatt, whose book, In Search of Mary, is a ballsy following in the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft, baby in tow. There was something so incredible intuitive about Bee’s ability to pick up on my insecurities. I didn’t know her from Eve, and had been introduced to her barely 15 minutes before show time. Yet, somehow, rather marvellously and with great facility, she managed to tailor her comments in a way that magnified the originality of my comparably humble memoir.
A few weeks ago, when she and I met for what has become something of a monthly ritual, catch-up lunch, this time around with another friend I got to know better at Jaipur this year, Amrita Tripathi, we happened to speak about it in a different context. We all happened to refer to the same article we’d read probably the year before, about a strategy that the women in Obama’s Whitehouse had devised in order to have their voices heard. When I got back home, I re-read the piece and noted down this excerpt: “The women in President Obama’s administration banded together and used what they called ‘amplification’ to ensure they had equal say in every conversation. As Quartz reports, "When a woman made a good point, another woman would repeat it, and give credit to the originator. This made the idea harder to ignore, or to steal." A former Obama aide told The Washington Post, "We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing." Obama reportedly noticed, and began calling more frequently on women and junior aides.
The amplification technique is also known as shine theory. It works like this: befriend and support successful people in order to promote both of you. New York Magazine puts it more simply: ‘I don’t shine if you don’t shine.’ Writer Ann Friedman elaborates, "When you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better." When, at that panel, I picked up on Bee being supportive of me by ‘amplifying’ what I was saying, I began to feel instantly more confident. I started to draw great strength from her articulacy.
It felt like some kind of miracle boost — something I hadn’t asked for, didn’t know I could even have done with, and was yet so revitalising, like a feminist elixir.
So, when one night in the first week of December, at the after-party at my freshly renovated apartment, in honour of the launch of fellow writer, Janice Pariat’s third book The Nine-Chambered Heart, my friend, another writer a few years younger than me, Skye Arundhati Thomas, began to thank me for doing unto her what Bee had done unto me, I felt her gratitude. Except, I was convinced it was the other way around, that she had been the one to amplify my argument. She was referring to the week before, when I’d decided to drop in on her late at night after learning that her back was out and she was in pain. I was with an Italian male curator friend, someone I’d only recently met, but had been chaperoning so he could have a more welcoming experience during his first-time trip to India. The conversation had something to do with the art world, and how gnawingly difficult it is to be welcomed into its complex domain and the entry fee you have to pay, which is humility. I’d said something about my re-watching of Ally Mcbeal, I quoted this bit where Elaine registers hers and Ally and Georgia’s not-so-secret resentment of their new colleague, Portia, not because she was a b**ch, but because she was exactly like them — beautiful, intelligent, smart, witty, and equally fragile. “We hate her, right?” Elaine says to the two, and I’d found it funny because you know they don’t actually hate her, and you know from your adolescent watching of the show that they will all get along soon enough.
It reminded me, however, of something I’d read in Laurie Penny’s Bitch Doctrine, which I had to review mid-year for Vogue. “The opposition to full equality runs deep. Patriarchy can cope with the notion of a few women in top positions—but not 50 percent, or anything approaching it. That would mean that women would no longer be a special interest in politics and finance; we would have real power, and men would be obliged to share it with us. When culture reserves only a few places for women in a world of men, women are forced to compete against each other for that smaller space. I vividly remember being told that there was no more room for another young woman at one media organisation that I won’t name—after all, they already had one. The more women there are in the room, the less we’ll be fighting each other for crumbs, but rather competing with everyone in the room for a fair share of the whole cake.”
Of course now that I have quoted Penny verbatim, it makes complete sense. But that night I had been relying on memory to convey my argument about how today, since we can claim more empowerment than the few generations before us, women like Skye and I no longer saw each other as threats, as rivals. In fact, we drew great pleasure from helping each other cope with the frequent disappointments that can arise from cavorting with the Indian art world. We saw each other as equals, not as rivals. The Italian didn’t just disagree with us, he accused us of having too gendered a perspective. He said he saw both men and women as rivals. We told him that was his white male privilege. Then he made a convoluted argument that seemed to completely deny the reality of any historical bias against women. To not call oneself a feminist is one thing, but to completely whitewash the existence of patriarchy and its persistent proliferation is a form of inherent misogyny. I told him it was like saying that just because he hadn’t experienced caste humiliation and repression, it didn’t mean India is and has not been a casteist society.
The thing is I’ve never been very good at debating, because it involves linguistic confrontation and my words are always more potent in retrospect. But that evening I was starting to make sense, and I knew it had everything to do with the fact that Skye had my back; she was feeding off me and feeding back ideas. It wasn’t as though we had ganged up on our Italian friend, it was more that we were trying, despite our verbal limitations, to express to him why feminism is so vital, because it offers us a framework within which to discuss our discontents and to empower ourselves through the solidarity of the sorority. That night, the sisterhood was in action, as it was on that panel with Bee, and on that Facebook post about how young women writers who had chosen not to suck up were often left excluded from positions of opportunity and privilege.
This essay was being born in all of those moments that urged me to reflect on this notion of the sisterhood, how participating and investing ones energies in it was about so many little things, small gestures, like asserting how one’s female friendships were as or even more important than our romantic affairs, both heterosexual and queer. Skye and I spoke about how we were both individually committed to helping out other women, either through our time, our networks, or our reserves of empathy. How speaking up against injustices, how calling even other feminists out on their hypocrisies was a way of consciously registering our non-complicity in the insidious supremacy of patriarchal set-ups. The governing belief was not to approach this business of solidarity from the prism of victimhood, but rather, from a position of great strength in the potential impact we could have as a collective.
This year I discovered how the sisterhood can be a place of overwhelming refuge against the maliciousness energy we have to wrestle with daily, the increasingly caustic nature of ‘anti’-social media exchanges.
Feminism is more than an ideology. I remember another writer friend Sharanya Manivannan speaking about it as a lived practice. It is a lifestyle. Not in the casual, capitalist understanding of the word, but as something that must be engaged with on the basis of the everyday, in terms of the choices we make and the consequences they will have. It means dynamically supporting the enterprise of women making art, writing books, directing films and telling their stories in whatever format. It implies supporting a single friend who has decided to take a sabbatical by occasionally taking her out for a fabulous meal. Or listening to a friend who calls you in the middle of the day to rant about something heinous that happened to her. It means accepting the multifaceted ways in which femininity can be asserted without prescribing singular narratives. It demands making ourselves available to each other, for comfort, solace, and light.
The sisterhood is about establishing a wider nexus of feminist individuals whose similar fervour makes them allies. This alliance of women across many walks and stations in life is so important because it can be a revolutionary way of working together towards a common goal: the toppling of the institution of patriarchy that oppresses both men and women and marginalises the LGBTQI community, too, forcing us all to comply with heteronormative agendas that run contrary to our personal narratives and desires. The radical element is that we no longer look to men or male-run anything for validation, and in doing so we start to function as our own lobby, wrestling away the power to which we historically believed we weren’t entitled.
To be part of the sisterhood is to not be alone. It is to bask in the light of an intimidating togetherness. It is to do unto others as you would like to have done unto you. It can be a dramatic, guerrilla way to preserve the intrinsic sanctity of all the movements that came before us, and to guard against the threat of divisionary politics that revel in pitting woman against woman, feminist against feminist, thus promoting schisms that can damage the greater ideal of equality. Gloria Steinem phrases it poetically in the conclusion to her brief essay titled Sisterhood, “I am continually moved to discover I have sisters. I am beginning, just beginning, to find out who I am.”