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…