What She Said: Disarming for Sisterhood
\’You are Disarming\’, was the most, well, disarming, comment I have received on my training delivery style. It was a humid Saturday afternoon at the beginning of March, and I had just completed a facilitation of a Roundtable Discussion for AWIB members on the topic of \’Supporting Other Women\’. One of the participants who had impressed me with her insightful comments and whom I was about to find out is a well-known media personality, was sharing her take-away lessons from the session.
Supporting other women is a topic close to my heart. Fostering and amplifying Sisterhood is one of the goals of Setaweet as a growing movement of gender equality in Ethiopia, and as the session I had led at AWIB on the same topic had been well-received last year, it was an afternoon that I was looking forward to. It was a good mix of women and I enjoyed the conversation that ranged from feminist tips to raising strong, confident daughters to supporting our women employers at the workplace. A consistent theme that emerged was the tricky job of balancing the need to keep a professional and personal distance from the women and girls in our lives with the desire to be friendly, warm and approachable.
As part of the discussion, I shared a story of an incident I had encountered a few weeks ago. As I was driving in a crowded part of the city, I slowed at a Zebra Crossing to allow people to cross to the other side of the road. A young woman peered close into the front window of my car, made a threatening gesture and actually slowed down her walk to hurl insults at me. I was baffled because I had slowed down my car to let her pass and our interaction had only lasted those few minutes. Upset at this young woman\’s behavior and worried, in a general sense, that our public appears increasingly more prone to unprovoked anger, I considered driving around the square to confront the angry woman at the other side of the road. As I started to drive again, the thought occurred to me, \’and in the larger scheme of things, what good would such confrontation bring?\’ All I recalled from the young woman was how angry she had looked, and generally speaking, anger is not conducive to listening. I also started wondering what could have made her so furious, her frustration manifested in that outbursts towards me, a driver on the road, minding her own business. I remembered the old adage, \’be kind, as you have no idea the struggles that the people you meet have had that day\’, and I steered clear of the young woman. I wished her well, I wished her less anger.
\’But Women Don\’t Like Other Women\’
A thorn on the side of the Setaweet mission of fostering conscious sisterhood among Ethiopian women, and an issue that was also raised at the AWIB Roundtable Discussion is that of women\’s treatment of other women. In the workshops and trainings that we do, and in particular, within the Gendershops, our specialized feminist curriculum for secondary schools where we emphasize a stronger bond among women, Setaweet trainers encounter the common response – \’But women are not nice to other women.\’
Let us examine this line of argument. As women, our mothers, sisters and friends are usually who get us through the most difficult periods of our lives, from giving birth to bereavement. We expect them to be there at landmark moments but we take not only their presence but also their invaluable support, for granted. Those of us who have been blessed with sisters think nothing of having them live with us to help raise our children. Yet, many women give preferential treatment to their brothers over their sisters, to their fathers over their mothers and to their sons over their daughters. We often give more value to the stereotypically \’male\’ role of providing and protection, than to the nurture and support we expect from our female kin as their duty, and our right. We reflect our own internalized patriarchy when we shower more love and attention on our sons than on our daughters.
Through discussions, I have come to see this phenomenon as an extension of the diminished value we give ourselves as women. The care work that we do at home and for our families, often uncredited and almost always unpaid, is not important so therefore, it goes by with little notice when it is provided to us by other women. Our sisters\’ and friends\’ support keep us upright but that is what women do for each other, and so it goes by with little appreciation. In this regard, a participant at the AWIB Roundtable shared a personal story that brought tears, and a deep sense of recognition in the rest of us. She said that growing up as one of six siblings, she had always given more affection to her father over her mother. However, when she became a mother herself, she slowly came to realize the importance of her mother\’s role in her life. To express her new-found appreciation, and following the beautifully Ethiopian tradition, our member washed her mother\’s feet, and presented her with an expensive gift. Understandably moved, her mother cried and blessed her.
It is not only that we as women take each other for granted – the reality we wish we could deny is that women are often actively aggressive with each other. I consider this the strongest weapon in the anti-equality arsenal. Women as well as men point out that \’women don\’t work well together\’, and that we compete over clothes, over work positions, over men.
To provide analysis for this phenomenon at the Roundtable as well as at other fora, I apply the concept of abundant thinking (or the lack therefore) that I have learnt at AWIB and add to it a feminist twist. We think as women that our opportunities are limited. That there is not enough beauty to go around and that we must fight each other for it, that our value is determined by our attachment to men and that \’good\’ men are far and between and that we must beat each other down to get that ring, and that the corporate table has only a few seats open for women.
A feminist pursuit of sisterhood would have us re-imagine this scenario. What if we came to realize that our intrinsic values as women are unshakeable? What if we came to understand that the more we give, the more we are provided for? What if we built a longer corporate table and invited even more women to it? What if we taught our daughters to practice complementing each other\’s reading level, their skills with a football or their compassion for others? What if we got in the habit of celebrating each other\’s successes and giving feedback to women colleagues and employees in constructive ways? What if we came to the beautiful realization that there is no stronger bond than the one holding together women committed to their own liberation?
We at Setaweet go out of our way to offer examples of women working well together, from neighborhood Edirs to Temsalet, the social enterprise restaurant run by single mothers. Amplifying each other\’s successes and contributions is what we do everyday. Furthermore, we put the Setaweet money where our mouth is, and if not impossible, we solely use women-owned vendors. Our Gendershops Manuals, currently in the last stages of production, has been prepared by an all-woman team.
Lastly, and on a more personal note, I have taken on humility and the sharing of my vulnerability as one strategy in which I create the space for sisterhood. I practice falling and learning from my mistakes in the audience of my sister-friends-colleagues, and thereby invite them to do the same. I am thrilled to find the same commitment to practiced, lived Sisterhood in the team I lead. At Setaweet, we laugh with each other, not at one another. We Disarm.