I have wrestled with writing this for so long that it’s already half-written in my head. Many may not agree with me and they do not have to. Varied life experiences and observations create varied perspectives. There’s room for us all, right? At least that’s what I thought so.
As the saying goes – There is enough room for all women to be whole without tearing each other down. But practically speaking, that’s not what happens. Women can judge each other so harshly and speak equally harshly to each other. If it’s not face-to-face then it’s behind her back. It can also take the form of malicious gossip and seek to ruin a woman’s reputation among those who hold her dear and in high-esteem. The reasons are often petty – she is not liked by women because she is liked by everyone else, her appearance is mocked because others believe she looks good, she isn’t given opportunities to be in the limelight because she is likely to outshine others.
I have experienced some of these personally. I know of women who have experienced all of these and more. Does it hurt more when it’s a woman who doubts your abilities than a man? Arguably, yes.
Why, you may ask… Am I my sister’s keeper?
The phrase “my sister’s keeper” is commonly used, thanks in part to the book and movie of that title. Its origins however are in the Bible in the conversation between Cain and God regarding Abel’s whereabouts.
When Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, he was referring to keeper as being protector and being held responsible. Since then it has been used interchangeably as brother and sister because its deeper meaning is not gender specific. In fact, it is universal; that based on humaneness, we should also look out for the best interests of others.
Given the historical global gender imbalances and in South Africa, the double blow of apartheid that created many barriers for women of colour; I am dismayed that in 2019, many women are still not their sister’s keepers. It means change remains slow – in the corporate world and within communities. It means a woman will not necessarily raise her voice in support of another woman even if injustice is being practiced – whether within the family or in the workplace.
I’m not alone in my experience and observations. At a recent event at the 1860 Heritage Centre in Durban, the esteemed former United Nations High Commissioner Judge Navi Pillay spoke about how she attended a tea where about 10 women spoke about their own achievements but none of them spoke about what they were doing to empower women.
In an article written by Chanelle Lutchman in the POST newspaper, Pillay acknowledges that she is often quoted as saying when women get to the top they need to leave the ladder down for other women to climb up. And she says that’s exactly what’s needed.
It’s a call that must be heeded. It’s time we shifted focus from what women do individually to what can be done collectively. Because who can understand both your struggle and success better than a woman who is going through the same? Be it childbirth, the juggling acts of motherhood and work or the support of your partner – women share more that unites them than sets them apart.
Reflecting on that takes me back to my high school days where I was part of the Junior Women’s Liberation Movement. It was there that I began to understand how unkind history has been to women and that it fell upon us, women, to write a new history. It was also during Women’s Month, some 20 years ago, that I won an award for a poem I wrote on women.
And now it feels like I am somewhat coming full circle. My poem has been chosen to be published in Womandla! It’s a dynamic women’s writing project featuring poetry, short stories, empowerment writing, memoirs and opinion pieces in English and isiZulu. The woman who spearheaded this project – Shabnam Palesa Mohamed – must be commended for creating a space where women can tell their stories in their own voices.
I will also be speaking at the launch of the book. I am excited and nervous, as I will be speaking in the midst of extraordinary women.
My poem in Womandla! is based on the pain experienced both physically and emotionally when women disempower other women. It’s undoubtedly an issue I feel strongly about. More so, because I know how amazing it is when woman support other women. Because, I have experienced that too.
I call them my mini-tribes. They exist within my family, my circle of friends, my colleagues at work, on social media and even sometimes among strangers. They look out for me in the same way that I look out for them. They cheer me on in the same way that I cheer them on. And, they are brutally honest with me and tell me if I am wrong. They expect me to do the same for them.
I am my sister’s keeper and my sister is my keeper. What about you?