At the start of every workshop, we begin with a session on ‘gendered understanding’, the topic of the workshop notwithstanding. The first day is invariably spent in lively discussions of gender discriminations at home and school, of unfair customs and practices that one doesn’t want to confirm to, of the television, street hoardings and schoolbooks showing women that one cannot identify with.
Discussions on how we ourselves propagate these practices are less lively. Girls cannot understand how they can possibly support beliefs that oppress girls, and thus go against themselves.
Something similar happened in a Videography workshop being held with a group of about 25 girls in the age group of 18 to 21 years. Coming from a lower socio-economic background, struggling to complete their education in the face of pressures to marry / work to support the family, they were very much aware of the restrictions placed on girls. This awareness is much rarer amongst girls from a better-off background, because oppression at that level is much more camouflaged and therefore much more dangerous. Anyway, just as I began to think that our gender workshop had gone off quite successfully, one girl states: “ The biggest enemy of a woman is a woman.”
I waited. Surely, many in this sensitive, vocal group of girls would debate this point.
To my utter amazement (and some horror) all the girls were so vehement in agreeing to this, that for a moment, I was at a loss for words and wasn’t sure if I could even dispel this notion of theirs properly. At this point, Medhavinee, a senior worker with many years’ experience as a trainer, asked the girls,
“Why do you think the mother-in-law treats her daughter-in-law so badly?”
Pat came the reply, “They are just jealous. Women are jealous..”
“Why do you think the mother-in-law is jealous of her daughter-in-law?”
When no answer was forthcoming, the trainer again asked, “What are most fights between them about?”
“About what to cook..”
And then the trainer gave them a succinct, and very effective explanation of what is known as kitchen politics. Since there is such little power given to women anyway, they fight amongst each other over that little power. Each woman is a threat to the other because of this. An example is a woman in the house, whose sole domain of control is the kitchen – or decisions of what to cook. All other decisions are taken by the men – of who will earn, how will they earn it, where will that money be spent, who will study, how much, who will marry, when and to whom and so on. When the daughter-in-law enters the house, this domain of the kitchen is threatened, and therefore the mother-in-law resists her. Thus it is called kitchen politics. Also, the mother-in-law gets some power through her son (in the sense that mothers of sons are preferred over mothers of daughters). The daughter-in-law threatens this power source too.
This same analogy can be applied to many other areas of life, where women manage to gain some foothold but this foothold is so small that any other woman trying to enter it is deemed competition. This is what turns women against women.
And does man have no hand in this? Take the example of the kitchen again. The otherwise powerful man, who has the right to take all other decisions of the house, does nothing to reduce the friction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. He does nothing to save the oppressed younger (and sometimes older) woman from the other. Why is this so? Why does he suddenly become powerless?
The myth of women being the biggest enemy of women serves the purpose of creating divides amongst them. This is not to say that women don’t oppress other women, of course they do. However this oppression must be seen in the larger context of the patriarchal system. By putting the focus on trivial issues, larger trends of oppression go unnoticed. Men also oppress other men, yet you hardly ever hear someone say, “The biggest enemy of man is a man”.
-Amrita De and Anu Salelkar