The Power & Solidarity Of Female Friendships

How I wish there was a special word for female friendships! To encompass the huge gamut of emotion, experience, support, strength and sharing that connotes female friendships.

Somehow, all the other words for friends – ‘buddy, yaar, dost, mate, chum – seem too male. Moreover, while terms such as ‘Brother-in-arms’, ‘brotherhood,’ ‘bromance’ describe the special friendships established between men, we women do not have the support of words to describe the remarkable connections forged between us.

But what can’t be denied is that the bonding and solidarity of sisterhood and female friendships has been the bedrock of women’s lives since time immemorial. From schools, colleges and universities to families, communities, and work places – our female friends, relatives, mentors, supporters, comrades have not only shared our joys and troubles but have also unconditionally supported and stood by us. Female friendships, women networks and girl gangs are still the safety nets we reach out to during our moments of crisis.

Back when women were confined within homes, families, and marriages, it were these female bindings and alliances which sustained wives and mothers with physical and emotional support, more than their spouses and marriages could provide. Sadly, the purported fallacy that ‘women are each other’s enemies’ propagated since ages has undermined these beautiful and enduring relationships.

The connections forged between mother, daughter, sister, mother-in-law, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, nieces within an Indian family, chipping in for each other, building a support network, rallying around each other is tremendous. I find particularly the relationship between co-sisters (jethani and dewarani) fascinating and endearing. My mother was blessed to enjoy the love, warmth, and support of 4 co-sisters who were my aunts, the wives of my father’s four brothers. All five women were from different age groups, varied backgrounds, interests, and cities and yet were united and tied in the bonds of a unique sisterhood. I have seen my elderly aunts serving food to my mother first and protecting her during many occasions. For many women in rural and traditional families, these female alliances are the only source of company during the course of their daily domestic chores and drudgery.

We women have all experienced the love, care, acceptance and support of our girlfriends and girl gangs. The ease with which we share our thoughts, feelings, problems with our female friends is what makes it different. The openness and vulnerability in female friendships is unique as we are able to candidly share things about our body, minds and hearts without shame or the feeling of being judged. Many girls and women draw succour, trust, and comfort from their girl squads. In fact, for many women, their female friends end up becoming as close as their family or even closer, and the connection does not wane even after years. It’s their women friends they turn to, for companionship, emotional sustenance, and advice, that others may find in their partners and families.

Interestingly and unfortunately however, while male friendships and camaraderie have always been celebrated, acclaimed, and glorified in popular culture, female friendships and solidarity is either seen as something more serious in the form of activism and feminism or portrayed as frivolous, superficial, and bitchy. Female friends are supposed to only ‘chit-chat’, ‘giggle’ or ‘gossip,’ thus reducing the relationship as something superficial and unimportant.

While the portrayal of ‘bromances’ between male friends is rarely tinged with confrontation, jealousy and malice, female relationships have mostly been stereotypically depicted as toxic, competitive and spiteful. Also, female friendships beyond families have remained not only unsung and uncelebrated, but also derided and falsely interpreted. Largely because women are usually considered incapable of solid friendships and the widespread belief that women do not have a life of their own to have their own friend circle. Women are often pigeon-holed as – jealous, catty, hysterical and dramatic – thus affecting popular perceptions of female friendships.

While positive portrayal of male bonding have often been represented in mainstream culture more as brother-in-arms and boys’ network images, women together are typically shown as catty, competitive, or envious of each other. Apart from a few films, it’s only books which have perhaps delved deeper into the varied and true nature of female bonding and sisterhood. This negative and under-representation of female friendships not only reflects a patriarchal mindset but have also contributed to its propagation.

Notwithstanding the representations, male friendships and female friendships do differ from each other. Female relationships are more intense as women seem to be more invested. Women spend years nurturing their relationships while men typically bond over a game, drink, or a show. Female friendships often involve a deeper connection as they are more involved emotionally. So much so that the breakup of a close and enduring female friendship for example, causes immense hurt and heartbreak to the women concerned.

Women are more open about their feelings than most men, and often need to connect and share with their women friends. I’ve seen men who for months and years do not keep in touch with their so-called best pals and have no idea about what’s happening in each other’s lives. Research also corroborates that women more than men need to maintain those connections. An endearing part of female friendships is that they’re built to last a lifetime, aptly described by Hollywood actress Jane Fonda as “one reason why women live longer than men.” In one of her famous quotes, she says, “Friendship between women is different than friendship between men. It’s my women friends that keep starch in my spine and without them I don’t know where I would be.”

Quite often, women are restricted from voicing their concerns, feelings and experiences in a society and culture that marginalises their emotions and opinions. But they get to express the whole gamut of emotions with their female friends – good, bad, and ugly. There are things only we women understand and accept about each other.

The beauty of female alliance and comradeship is best epitomised through the impassioned activism of women activists and feminists. Without this sisterhood crusading for a common goal and the solidarity of women campaigners we would not have been enjoying several of our rights today. We still have a long way to go but the path has definitely shortened thanks to these band of sisters who raise their voice against umpteen patriarchal norms and discrimination. Women’s solidarity is definitely a force to reckon with as revealed during the recent #MeToo movement where women came out to show their support, solidarity, and belief for their counterparts.

Female friendships have indeed sustained feminist movements over the years. The world definitely needs more of strong female friendships and alliances to counter patriarchal norms and practices. “I feel like a super woman when I am surrounded by strong, capable and confident women who know to speak their mind. I am truly inspired and motivated in their presence,” says a young female colleague of mine. I often think perhaps one of main reasons why strong female friendships are dissuaded or presented otherwise in conventional quarters is because of the insecurity and the perception that strong and independent women may end up corrupting homely and innocent women!

Hence, a positive representation of female friendships is hugely important. Not just to change the narrative but also as a tour de force to understand, support, encourage and lift other women and to support sisterhood as a whole. Thankfully, with the presence of more and more women with agency, confidence, and exposure and with rising female workforce, female friendships are gaining strength and are being celebrated.

Female friendships and bonding are not confined to friends only. You could find the perfect ally in any woman close to you – mother, sister, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, cousins, colleagues, and our domestic helps who have been our eternal saviours and support. Of course, like any other relationships female friendships can be complex, imperfect, and fallible at times.

But at the end, the power of female friendship is to do with the way women bolster and support each other, celebrate common victories, counter patriarchy, and affirm each other’s values. Surely, nobody better than our girlfriends to rant about sexism, misogyny.

From lending a shoulder to cry on to tolerating your idiosyncrasies, from celebrating small and big wins to lifting you up, from being soul sisters and therapists to feminist life coaches – female friendships are important and need to be celebrated!

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