TRUE SISTERHOOD AND THE PATH FOR COMMUNITY HEALING TRUE SISTERHOOD AND THE PATH FOR COMMUNITY HEALING
I cannot remember the exact moment I first read about the concepts sororidad (Marcela Lagarde) or sisterhood (Kate Millett), but I do remember it was around the time I was at uni in London. I was studying a PPH (Politics, Philosophy and History) and in the second year I had a class called “Witchcraft in Europe 1200-1650” now called “Witchcraft and Society 1450-1750”. I was so excited about it, I thought I was gonna study the origins of feminist mythology – my mum thought I was really doing sorcery.
On the second semester, our teacher gave us a set of titles to choose from for our next essay, and of course I chose the more “gender issues” based option: “Why did women so often accuse other women of being witches?” When I read that title I immediately felt outraged. How dare he (the teacher) make such a sexist statement! We had already learnt there were the most diverse circumstances for accusation and conviction, depending on the country and the time, depending on the climate, political status, religion, etc. How dare he making such a gross generalization? That’s why I didn’t get an A+, because I spent three months angrily trying to prove him wrong. But he was right, of course, there were mostly women accusing other women of witchcraft and sending them to torture and nightmarish deaths filled with fire and horror.
My understanding of how patriarchy had prevailed took a different turn. Thanks to anthropology, I learned that in groups of oppressed people some individuals ally with the oppressors in orden to gain a certain power, or an illusion of power, within the oppressive structure and over the rest of oppressed subjects. A very used example to illustrate this is the Holocaust, how the deportation of so many people to the concentration camps was only possible with the collaboration of religious leaders within the community. It is quite a touchy subject nobody likes to talk about.
That’s how the concept of sisterhood gained importance in my life as a first step in political and social strategy to liberate us all from patriarchy. I finally understood that the infighting between us, women, had been going on for centuries and was one of the most important reasons patriarchy had prevailed. Divide and conquer! So they say. It made so much sense to me.
However, it is easier said than done. My personal experience with the sisterhood inside feminist politics and activist spaces, for instance, has taught me that it is mostly used to silence dissident voices and to avoid criticism. I have witnessed and suffered acts of extreme verbal and symbolic violence in these so called “safe spaces”. When a few years ago I was active in an emergent political party, I was point blankly ordered to follow and support without questioning the person who at the time was in charge of the area of Equality Politics (they didn’t want to use the term “feminism” as, in their words, it was too confrontational). I was supposed to follow her blindly in the name of sisterhood. I didn’t agree with her principles and her team responded with bullying tactics, I was punished to ostracism alongside other disagreeing women.
And as the feminist movement gets bigger and more fashionable, becoming cool but frequently lacking a deeper analysis or understanding, the violence only spreads and multiplies. In Spain the feminist movement prides itself on being “sororo” but generally speaking and with few exceptions there is no sisterhood for sex workers demanding labour rights. Or for the moroccan labourers working the strawberry fields in Huelva, who have been abused for two decades now. Or for the ones affected by our racist migration laws. Or for the gitanas 1 and all the institutional racism against them, or for all the women who are not able to or will not strike on the 8th of March.
Audre Lorde wrote in 1984 a paper called “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, and her words ring so true she could have perfectly written them today:
“By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist. Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women. Thus, in a patriarchal power system where white skin privilege is a major pop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black women and white women are not the same. It is easy for Black women to be used by the power structure against Black men, not because they are men, but because they are Black. Therefore, for Black women, it is necessary at all times to separate the needs of the oppressor from our own legitimate conflicts within our communities. This same problem does not exist for white women.” 2
Not much has changed since. The new feminist waves (I’m unsure of which one I’m on myself) often forget the most important lessons and the ideas which prevail are the ones keeping us eternally antagonised and victimised. The same endless debates keep being re-enacted within feminist spaces: about race/racism, about transgender issues, about sex workers’ rights. I used to think radical feminism was a “phase” in the awakening of feminism, the first insight into patriarchy and its mechanisms, which would give way, logically, to another phase based on intersectionality and privilege recognition. Now I am starting to understand that some phases can be cyclic and lengthy due to its appealing scapegoat philosophy. Unless we do something to break the cycle.
Picture taken at the 8th of March 2018 in Cáceres, Spain. “Todas somos una” (roughly translated “together we are one”) is a motto commonly used in Spanish feminism, but this “together” is highly debatable..
In the same paper, Lorde writes:
“By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes. We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen”.
And this is what keeps happening, feminist voices which do not fit the current dominant discourse are being ignored and white feminists are simply not listening. In fact, we seem to be stuck in a time before intersectionality and keep on publishing articles about the importance of not losing the “woman” as the political subject of our feminist movement3 – that subject most certainly being cisgendered, white and western.
Is it then unrealistic to believe in the possibility of a real and intersectional sisterhood? It seems quite improbable when we realise the same conversations have been going on for 30 years and nothing, or very little, has moved on. But I do want to believe, and my background in therapy & healing tells me it is possible. However,
it would require from white feminists an honest exercise of deep analysis, of deconstruction, acceptance of responsibilities and reparation without which true sisterhood is simply never going to happen.
Rest assured, there are many healing tools out there we could implement for that purpose in our debates, meetings and general assemblies. We don’t even have to make them up! They already exist. Gestalt therapy, for example, is a form of psychotherapy that emphasizes personal responsibility and focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment. It seems like we could get a lot of ideas from there. There are other branches in psychology we could also feed from, without ever forgetting the healing wisdom from indigenous communities all over the world as well as the teachings from Eastern medicine and philosophy.
Without strategies that give priority to these issues and focus on some form of individual as well as collective therapy directed to reparation, we can only have a kind of “sisterhood”: a racist, classist and elitist type.
So let’s start right now with a small exercise, as the truth, though sometimes hard and painful, has the power to set us free. White feminists of the world, repeat with me:
- Women face different problems depending on (mostly but not only) race, gender, sex, age, functional & neurodiversity and class. My problems as a white woman are different from other women, and ignoring these issues – because I harbour the illusion that they do not affect me – only perpetuates patriarchy and makes me an accomplice of other various systems of oppression. My actions and non-actions affect these processes and systems: “If I am neutral in situations of injustice I have chosen the side of the oppressor”4.
- When other women point out my privileges in a conversation, this offers me the chance question old patterns and habits which do not serve me and the community anymore, a chance to listen and think beyond critique and beyond my insecurities. It is not a personal attack against me but a broader commentary on social justice.
- This is an opportunity to understand how the different layers of oppression work, and only by fully understanding the situation from every possible angle, therefore by seeing things as they really are and not as I want them to be, I can make a significant contribution to changing the system and participate in the abolition of patriarchy.
I think that could be a good start,
but let’s keep the conversation flowing and and the ideas growing, my dear ones.