“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

Earlier this year, as I was moving to my country of assignment, I had to travel through a certain airport in West Africa taking with me many of my cherished possessions (ok, lots and lots of ham and cheese, I confess!). With every step I inched forward in the check-in line I regretfully gripped my soon-to-be-empty wallet tighter, imagining the look of pure glee on the face of the Excess Luggage clerk when he would realise how big my fine was to be. When it was finally my turn, I noticed the raised eyebrows from the agent as I struggled to lift my suitcases onto the scale, followed by a bulging of the eyes and flaring of the nostrils when he read the actual weight. Anybody who has ever witnessed an African family on a trip home from any part of the world will have heard every possible appeal to the generosity of a check-in agent (ranging from feigned surprise that the bags are 15 kg over even though they swear that when they weighed them at home they were well within the limit to outright begging) and I freely admit that I’m no stranger to the art. But this time I said nothing, lowering my gaze to avoid the full brunt of his condemnation, fully accepting of my fate. But to my surprise he didn’t comment and simply went ahead with the normal check-in procedures. When he handed over my boarding ticket, he told me that I would have to go to a separate counter to pay an excess luggage fine, but that he had knocked 10 kilos off. I was pleasantly surprised, having in no way tried to negotiate, since I knew I was carrying the equivalent of an undernourished teenager in excess luggage. I didn’t want to imagine the reasons why a male might wish to provide an unsollicited favour to an apparently single female, but a favour it was and I was grateful.

On another occasion, in another airport in the same part of the world, I had about 3 kilograms of excess weight in my hand-luggage (by now you may have realized that, despite all my travel, packing effectively is not a strong point). The male check-in agent did not blink and proceeded as usual. But, out of the corner of my eye, I was keenly aware of his female colleague watching us the whole time. No sooner had I turned away from the desk, boarding pass in hand, than she called me over to her station and demanded I re-weigh my things. This time it was her male colleague’s turn to observe us as the farce unfolded: despite my pleas that the extra 3 kilos were due to having had to put all my electronic valuables in my hand-luggage due to having been a victim of theft from my checked-in bags on the same airline (which was actually true!), she insisted a baggage handler go through the luggage belt to retrieve my suitcase to force me to empty the 3 kilos into it. Right down to the last gram. I’m fairly confident her primary concern was not to strictly follow airline regulations (given that she checked in a family who boarded the plane with such a large stuffed animal that it couldn’t fit in the overhead compartment and had to be buckled into a seat alongside the wife). It was a blatant power play. I had to know that I could not expect to walk into her domain and simply get favours without her approval. And what happened next simply strengthened my suspicions:

As I made my way to security, venting obscenities under my breath, the original male check-in agent accosted me and muttered ruefully, “I tried to help you. But you women, you just don’t want to be nice to each other.” His words have rung true on many occasions since then, leading me to this blog post, which until now may have seemed like a long tract designed to justify why I should be allowed to carry the equivalent of a small country’s yearly exports in my luggage! But as trivial as it may seem, it is this kind of airport incident that spurred me to thinking about the broader picture. Though nothing as blatant as the above-described happened again, when looking back, I realised that when I enter an airport I instantly do a rapid scan and choose my check-in queue, not based on the number of people already standing in it but rather on whether there’s a man or woman operating it. And I realised that it’s not that I’m deliberately looking for the men.

I’m avoiding women.

A friend of mine worked for several months with women’s associations to support female political empowerment and told me afterwards that her only conclusion from the experience was that women should no longer be allowed to vote…What made me really reflect later on was not what she said but my own reaction. I laughed. Because I knew exactly what she meant and I knew other female friends who might have similar views having had to work with other women.

As a young woman increasingly embracing feminism, discovering this ‘truth’ about myself set my thoughts free to think more broadly about how women relate to each other, but it pissed me off mightily first (hence the title of this post, a quote from one of the leading voices in the movement, Gloria Steinem).

How did it get to this?

Whatever happened to female solidarity? Or did it even ever exist?

It’s not something I found myself thinking about much during my years in academia or in my leisure time but as I’ve moved more into a “professional” phase of my life I find myself confronted with it more. In the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to and work in many countries where prevailing attitudes towards women might be considered “conservative”, to put it mildly. When I moved back to Africa permanently, I was braced for male domination, open discrimination, to be expected to be seen but not heard, and to have to prove myself at every turn to be taken seriously. That hasn’t happened. Barring some heated arguments with particularly pigheaded individuals and, particularly in rural areas, the fact that the absence of a wedding ring often leads to professional discussions being badly derailed towards my ambitions to becoming the 3rd wife of Chief So-an-So, I’ve rarely had any problems with men that I felt were because of their conceptions of my gender role. That is not to say there is no open bias against women. I don’t for one second believe that most of the men I’ve come across are champions of women’s advancement, who are just waiting for us to get our act together. Furthermore, I know my situation is quite different from what the typical woman here faces and I am unlikely to witness the worst excesses of bigotry: in my professional and personal environments, most of the people I encounter are used to interacting with women who don’t take nonsense from chauvinists. Additionally, the fact that I’m a foreigner imposes rules of cordiality that overwhelm urges a sexist might have to “put me in my place”. But I don’t want to focus so much on men, but rather on the particularities of how women relate to each other. My overall conclusion is that women don’t seem to like each other very much.

This shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, I suppose. Anyone who has ever had a brief glance at gossip magazines (and I admit to having a morbid fascination every now and then) will know the special brand of vitriol that women reserve for each other. Furthermore, feminists have long written about the phenomenon of the “female chauvinist pig”. I spent enough time perusing articles and blogs on the internet to know that some of the most virulent backlash against feminism comes from other women. I also knew not to expect women to automatically support other women in all circumstances just because of the fact that they belong to the same downtrodden social group. I knew about the various challenges and failures of women’s quotas and positive discrimination.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the outright indifference, contempt, spitefulness, and obstructionism aimed at women, by women, because they were women.

I’ve often found that if a woman is in a particular position to make something happen for me or prevent it from happening, she will go out of her way to make sure I know she holds the cards. Looking back at the last couple of year, probably the large majority of people I’ve had a major issue cooperating –from getting my luggage checked in at the airport to coordinating a project -have been women.

On the surface, all the right rhetoric is there, with even the language couched in notions of solidarity and kinship: in most of the countries I work in (with variations), I am “sister” if the person addressing me is in a similar age group, “auntie” if it is a child, and “mum” if I’m being shown particular respect or being encouraged to purchase something. There’s an underlying message even if not consciously acknowledged: we are one family. On est ensemble. And when you add the glossy International Development lingo of gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment, and the millions of dollars poured into women’s advocacy groups, well then it seems the basis is all set for the great leap forward.

But is the sentiment there to match?

A caveat: I am not talking about all classes of women because I’m not in a position to analyse how most women in the places I visit behave. Mine is an urban, professional environment, which I’m aware is not necessarily reflective of the broader society (and even then, I’m not saying my experience is necessarily true in all cases within this environment). This means that many of the women I encounter have at least a modicum of power –be it economic or social- that they can leverage. And it seems to me that it is precisely this power that is at the root of the negative behaviour they display towards other women.

So, power corrupts…hardly a novel idea, is it? But why? There’s definitely a lot of blame to be spread around: male discrimination, individual women’s greed, restrictive institutional cultures, etc. all blend into a potent froth, to the top of which rises the “female chauvinist pig”.

In order to avoid inducing comas in readers, I will continue on this topic in my next post trying to untangle a little the dynamics behind the various impediments that I have seen women deliberately laying in front of each other, time after time…


3 thoughts on ““The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”

  1. Thanks for this Cungo.It gives me food for thought. Sorry for my unheralded renascence after years (!?) of idleness… I just came back from the Sahara desert (border region between Morocco and Algeria) and decided to refrain (at least one day) from the usual pragmatism and ‘this is what I have to achieve today before midnight” thinking which seemed to have ruled the past years of my everyday life. Without going too much into detail, if the desert’s silence didn’t teach me to give my ” having to accomplish urge (compulsion)” one day of break, exposing myself to a week of cultural differences, vomiting and diarrhea from nomad’s, with sand flies decorated, couscous would have been in vain.

    So here I am, reading my messages and actually paying attention to the content of my emails. Did the female solidarity ever exist? Living in Rome, I can totally confirm the almost instant scanning of check- in desks, supermarket cashpoints, bars, restaurants and gelateria’s (and flatmates !), looking for MEN. Experience simply tells you how much easier and often advantageous it is to be served by men. Maybe I should make the counter evidence and attempt to look exclusively for women to satisfy my everyday needs. Sadly, there seem to be no reason why women should altruistically make other women’s life easier. Sadly, or logically!? I think there are obvisously factors that can favour or inhibit solidarity and that solidarity can have many different forms. it seems to me that a few simple reasons (e.g. having self-confidence or the cooler hand bag; ) could be enough to give a woman the sense of being in competition with other women. I suppose these are very caveman-like instincts, rather than rational thoughts-based bahviour and that “pure solidarity or altruistic cooperation” is geneally very rare. I must say that in my job there is a quite strong solidarity between women (colleagues and friends working in the same field, similar age, salary, worries about future, instability ec..) as long as there are no fears that her own position/power/influence can be threatened. Otherwise the shared pride of making a career and looking for responsibility “despite the fact that we are women” and unconditional, mutual support gives all of a sudden space for subtle comments that make clear who is in the end the better career woman. This could be about contract (time, money, responsibility) differences, time in which a certain position has been reached, number of important tasks managed,.. withholding of important information that can give other women advandages e.c.. Of course a woman can also increase her prestige by boosting other women’s career because to give somebody influence you need even more influence. I just wonder sometimes at what point the interest in power and prestige becomes so strong that it actually replaces the real motivation behind an action (or even the job). Of course interst in a cause and craving for recognition is not mutually exclusive but I am afraid real solidarity can only come from a shared interst in a cause, not interst in the personal ego. This is not to say that instrumental solidariy can’t have a positive impact. I only fear it is far more volatile and can switch very quickly from helping the other person to using another person (woman) for ones own self-interest. Can women be solidary with women but only if they serve their career purposes?; )

  2. Really enjoyed this. I too find myself gravitating towards men in official positions, and avoiding women (for example, when I missed my train recently, a male member of staff said he would help me get another ticket without having to repay, but then his female colleague refused straight away); I even used to find myself playing the “helpless little girl” role to get what I wanted, though I’ve tried to stop that now so as to avoid total self-loathing and in awareness that it does nothing to help the way some men perceive women! Looking forward to seeing why you think it happens and what can be done.

    While I agree with your analysis, I do wonder if sometimes it’s not always so much women being obstructive and wielding their power, as men enjoying being powerful in a different way, being able to help women out or “rescue” them?

    But I think there are also places where women do help each other – maybe it’s just in my rarefied academic work environment, but certainly here some of my female colleagues are very aware of the barriers that women in academia still face, talk about the issues a lot day-to-day, and are deliberately supportive of one another. More of that would be very welcome!

  3. Thanks for the comments!

    Rebecca, I agree that there are places where women’s solidarity exists, otherwise we would never have made the advances we have made (and continue to make). I sort of took that as a given in the article, and tried to focus on the (unexpectedly) large number of cases where it was the opposite. As regards power, again I agree, and the second part of this article (when it comes!) will look more at power relations. I had started off not wanting to write about men -as I said at the beginning I didn’t want to go too much into why a man would want to help out a young female ”for no reason”, and I do believe that there is power at play there, too -but as I picked about my thoughts I realised how difficult it was to talk about how women relate to each other and power structures without also looking at the masculinity and power…as for the ‘helpless little girl’ thing : well, it’s a difficult balance to strike between actively playing that role and simply ‘allowing’ a man to perceive you in that way…it’s something I thought about a lot and which I will also bring up in the second part : am I doing feminism a disservice if I allow a man to do me a favour just because I am a woman?…but then what would be the alternative? Openly rejecting their help? Is there a non-antagonistic way of doing that?

    Anne -glad to have you and welcome back from your adventures in the desert! You touch upon some points I will try to make in the second part about how the power of other women is a threat…I personally conceive do not conceive of power as a zero-sum game – I see power as being able to have enough influence to boost others up. This isn’t necessarily purely altruistic because of course it’s great for me to know that I personally have the ability to make something significant happen in someone else’s life. But I’ve had to realise that a lot of women don’t see it that way and instead closely guard the power they have and guard it particularly from other women(for reasons I hope to be able to go into)…I can’t speak for Rome or even London but from my experience in the countries that I have been working in “instrumental solidarity” seems, in many cases, to have trumped real solidarity, and the “women’s movement’ is just another means of appropriating scarce power. Anyway, I don’t want to go on too much or I will end up writing the second part of the post in this reply!

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