I wrote this post a year ago and just remembered it after seeing this quote from Toni Morrison:
There is something very beautiful about female friendships. They have always been central to women’s lives, and yet we spend much more time analysing relationships with men than we do with each other, except when we talk about how destructive women can be towards one another. That is true; many women are socialised to see other women as competition – that continues to be one of the central pillars of patriarchy. We all do it – we say “women are like this” or “women do this and that.” We talk about how much easier it is to hang out or work with men. We worry a lot about where we are in terms of looks, intelligence, etc compared to other women – all the while measuring ourselves according to what we think men like or want. All of this is true and a lot has been said about this in feminism.
But there is also a beautiful and somewhat intimate side of platonic relationships among women. 2016 was a tumultuous year for me during which a lot of good but also a lot of bad things happened. It was unpredictable and often a rollercoaster of emotions. It was also a year during which a lot of things shifted in my life, at the end of which I find myself ready to start an entirely new chapter. It is not an overstatement to say that without the friendship of my close friends I would not be who I am today, and I would not have learned from my experiences the way I have. I am grateful to my male friends too, of course. But I’ve chosen to focus on my female ones because a big part of growing was the practice of sharing experiences with other women, and realising how alike or different they are. Most of the time we found that they were alike. These are women from all over the world, all different ages and at different stages of life, all in different fields of work. Some are mothers and some are not. Some are in relationships and some are not. Some I met a year ago, and some I’ve known for over a decade. And yet we share experiences that connect us in ways that are tremendous.
Many of these experiences have been shaped by patriarchy, a system that is universal. Experiences with how we feel about our bodies. Experiences with how we’re perceived as women in academia or the work force in general. And of course, experiences with men – the classic shared pot of memories, lessons and emotions women share across time and space. [On a side note, it’s quite something to me how women will always tell you the same thing when it comes to relationship advice. I’ve always wondered what that says about men: are they all that similar, even though I wouldn’t want to homogenise? Or does patriarchy continue to socialise men so strongly that it creates such as a uniform universal set of behaviours? Food for thought!]
The conversations and non-conversations [those moments of shared comfortable silence] that I’ve shared with my close women friends over the past few years have given me so much strength and courage that I couldn’t even image where I would be without it. I’ve started to wonder why this is – why are these moments so powerful? I think a lot of it has to do with validation. When you are constantly being told by society – explicitly and implicitly – that you are wrong, or that you’re emotional, or that you’re dramatic, you live with a sense of doubt that can be debilitating in certain situations. You become susceptible to the idea that the way you see a situation is not really how it is. You question yourself. You lose touch with your voice and your instincts, which are always trying to tell you what’s going on. I’ve found that one way of dealing with the self-doubt is by sharing it with friends. That process, more often than not, results in your friend telling you of a time when she was in a similar situation. You begin to see patterns and repetitions. You see that what’s happening to you has happened to so many women you know. You see that they too doubted their interpretation, and that by sharing it, they too are getting some form of validation. This moment of connection is not just intellectual or mental; it’s also a moment when that person just “feels you” and feels what you’re experiencing. And that comes from experience, from their having experienced something similar.
The reality is that racism, sexism, and so on function in such implicit ways that it’s easy to convince yourself that what you felt wasn’t actually racist or sexist; that you imagined it. That the person didn’t mean to do it. Or that maybe you did something to provoke them. This gets amplified when it’s someone we are close to; we always want to find excuses for them – this is something I’ve seen women do so often. It’s something I’ve done quite a bit too – it took a very recent incident to finally break out of this, simply because the things this person said were so shocking that I couldn’t make any excuses for it. And at the end of this experience, my friends – who had of course known all along, and seen all the signs – were there. It made me think that it is these spaces of friendship within which we are held accountable – we are confronted for the excuses we make, and told that we need to stop making excuses. It is also a space in which your contradictions come out and are embraced. I have often felt that they just get it. No more and no less – it’s that simple. This is something I’ve experienced in relationships too – that the person gets you and all of your complexities (even if they ultimately may not be accepting of these complexities) – but I do feel there is a gendered dimension that makes it slightly different when it comes to your female friends.
And finally, this extends to reading the work of feminists and women who have opened up about how their lives have been lived. I will never forget reading Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Simone de Beauvoir, and other amazing women writers precisely because I could relate to so much of what they said. Their skilled interrogation of how feminism is personal and political, about their families, friends, and relationships, and about their work, all made them come to life in ways that also created that space within which you can connect. It’s like they were saying: “This is what we’ve been through, this is what many women have been through.”
I find that as I’ve grown older, friendship continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I have moved around a lot throughout my life, and while that has meant meeting so many amazing people and experiencing different places, it has also meant that I’m not always around long enough to connect with people in the way I would want to. Despite this, I still find myself so humbled and happy by new people and new friendships – meeting people and feeling like you’ve always known them, or enjoying the process of getting to know them. Recently I went through lots of exciting ups and downs at work, and coming out at the end of it, it’s been, again, the way in which people were there that really strikes me. People who I’ve only recently met, but who I feel like I’ve known for years. Men as well as women; but women especially. In a way it’s emotional labour – work that is not recognised as work, but also work that is nice, soft, easy to do. Being present and supportive, being there or letting people know you’re there, checking in and giving space. It is this emotional labour that makes the world go round; ironically it’s unpaid and doesn’t get counted as real work. But how many of us would be where we are today without it? Looking back at relationships, when this emotional labour was missing, things always went south. And it’s terrible to be in a relationship where that is not something someone is willing to give. But that is why acknowledging that there are always people in our lives who not only give it but are happy to do so is so important. In a world increasingly drowning in individualism and competition, where we should always think of what we want first, it is an act of resistance in and of itself to pause, to share, to give, to hold, and to think collectively.