Discover more from Womaning in India
⚔️Is a woman another woman's worst enemy?
Kicking in the new year by exploring if the popular adage "aurat hi aurat ki sabse badi dushman hoti hai" has any truth to it.
Happy Another Revolution Around the Sun to our planet!
Please accept the only New Year gift I can give to you - a cool GIF.
Falling, as we all do, for a Gregorian Calendar-based optimism, I wanted to ring in 2022 on a happy note.
This is also perhaps the most-requested Womaning piece ever. I would be a very rich woman indeed if I had a coffee for every time someone said to me: “Have you ever thought about writing on how aurat hi aurat ki sabse badi dushman hoti hai (a woman is a woman’s worst enemy)?”
So welcome to Womaning in India: Mean Girls Edition.
Not really, sorry.
In the past, however, I have written plenty of pieces featuring stories of how women are judged, made to feel insecure, even abused by other women - like this piece on how women glamourize the pain of childbirth to other women, or this one about how women in the family can make breastfeeding an even more painful experience for new mothers than it already is. And of course, who can forget the Raja Betas who would be nothing without their Rajmatas.
The immense popularity of this aurat-aurat dushmani trope has made me think a LOT on this subject, especially since I started writing Womaning.
To follow my rather convoluted chain of thought on the matter, let us rewind first to my formative years.
Like most 90s kids of India, I grew up on an unhealthy diet of Uncle Chipps (not a typo) and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.
And while I wrote “my role model” school essays about Mother Teresa, my actual role model was pre-makeover Anjali. I even sported hairbands as hideous as hers in my teen years, managing, somehow, to make them look even worse on me.
The one dialogue that sealed Anjali as my kith and kin was, “Main un stupid ladkiyon jaisi nahi hu jinke peechhe tum bhaagte ho.” (I am not like those stupid girls that you chase.)
Oh, how I prided myself for not being like “those other girls”!
At the time, it seemed like a cool thing to say and feel - almost a humble acceptance of being a misfit, with hidden notes of a toxic sense of superiority over the other members of my gender.
Today, of course, I know that it came from the fact that literally every social and cultural experience - our movies, our games, our jokes, even our language - taught us that men are the better, smarter, cooler species. Which, in turn, spawned many a tomboyish Anjali like Yours Truly, who thought it was the highest compliment to be considered “one of the boys”.
One of the many many things this conditioning stole from my childhood was the joy of female friendships.
At school, all my friends were almost exclusively boys. This was not an accident. I used to genuinely think that boys were better friends than girls. Girls’ friendships felt like minefields of complicated inter-personal dynamics with loyalties that changed with every ring of the school bell. Boys, on the other hand, seemed to find mates-for-life based on little more than consecutive roll numbers.
I discovered - much too late in life - the pure love that female friendships could be.
I have had female friends who have been my therapists - through failures, heartbreaks, and bad hairbands. When I succeed, I know there are women out there who feel genuinely proud of me, even if we haven’t spoken in years. If I ever need support, I can pick up the phone and call them anytime, knowing that they would be there for me.
And that is why 2022’s first Womaning is dedicated to female friendships.
Kyunki aurat hi aurat ki sabse badi
dushman dost hoti hai.
“I poured my heart out to her before speaking to my own parents about the career change”
Sharmili says she has been lucky to have had sister figures and 'girl tribes' enter her life right when she was at the cusp of big decisions.
“My girl tribes are people who genuinely root for me, and help me with resources and pass on opportunities - unlike the stereotype of girls bringing down other girls.”
One such friend is Neha, who was actually Sharmili’s elder brother's friend, but crossed over borders later in life.
“Growing up, I used to look up to her like an elder sister. She was always so warm and sincere and smart... someone to emulate. We lost touch after my family moved cities. Years later, I was attempting the CA exam and facing failure after failure. I was not only frustrated, but knew in my heart that this was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I began writing and it felt 'right'! I somehow randomly reached out to Neha for feedback on some stuff I wrote. She humoured me whole-heartedly despite practically no contact for years, and gave me a lot of confidence and encouragement.”
“She was the one who convinced me that my writing is good enough for me to pursue it professionally. I poured my heart out to her before speaking to my own parents about the big career change. If I had not reached out to her and she hadn't cheered me on like a big sister, I would probably still be struggling with CA finals, certainly depressed to the point of no return. Today, she is such a good friend that when she got married last month, I received an invitation instead of my brother!”
“I am the person she calls when she gets anxiety attacks”
Jess and Priya met when Priya, a writer, attended an artists’ collective that Jess’ company had organized.
“I was a fledgling writer, and knew no one in the industry. I was looking for freelancing work and didn’t know where to begin. After the event, Jess told me she would be happy to meet me again separately and give me detailed feedback on my work, and suggest suitable places to apply to.”
“When we met again, she spent HOURS giving me feedback, guiding me, and answering all my questions. She helped me wholeheartedly and without expecting anything in return! Over time, we became extremely close friends - enough to share all our personal issues with each other candidly and with complete trust.”
“When I sent my first short fiction story for publication in an anthology, she spent HOURS dissecting every sentence and word. Without her feedback, there was no way my story would have become good enough for publication. It was my first major milestone in creative writing, and I owed it all to her!”
Complete trust and support has now become a two-way street between the friends.
“Jess suffers from clinical high-functioning anxiety. Today, I am the person she calls when she gets anxiety attacks. I do my best to listen and support her through them. And in the same vein, I know I can call her right back when I get overwhelmed too.”
“She calls me out when I am under the influence of my imposter complex!”
Riddhi and Amrita went to the same college and were hostel mates for four years.
“As it happens with most college friends, we lost touch after graduating and went our own separate ways. I was working in a traditionally male-dominated field, and didn't have many female friends. Naturally, I always had my guard up. The social media vanity culture fuelled my insecurities further. I always assumed all women I went to college with were doing extremely well - professionally as well as personally - and have it all figured out. Especially Riddhi, who had one of the most illustrious careers in our batch.”
Fifteen years after they graduated, Amrita read an article Riddhi wrote about a topic she was deeply interested in.
“I reached out to her and we got talking. As I opened up to her, I realised she deeply appreciated what I did professionally. She articulated her admiration so well, that I could sense my insecurities vanishing almost instantly.”
“When I voiced out some of my fears and insecurities to her, she assuaged them in her own unique way. Her confidence gave me confidence. Soon, our conversations started going beyond work. Be it advice related to parenting, or accepting a challenging assignment at work, she became my confidante, my sounding board. She is someone who always calls me out when I am acting under the influence of my imposter complex and holding myself back!”
Recently, Amrita was approached to interview for a global leadership role. She spoke to Riddhi about her concerns regarding the opportunity.
“I severely doubted my abilities to face the interview, leave alone get the job. People around me doubted how a mother of two would be able to take on this high-pressure role. Riddhi was the only one, who told me that I should follow my heart and go for it. After I said ‘Yes’ and threw my hat in the ring, she congratulated me, saying that I had already beaten the barrier where 99% women get stuck. She made me realize that this opportunity was not about me alone. It was about showing younger women who looked up to me, that it can be done. Her words made my resolve stronger, and I decided to give it my all.”
“Riddhi told me I would get the role, but I doubted it. Of course, later, I did get the role! I realized, then, that her optimism was not blind. She had her own reasons to trust me. And it was then that I realized she was my one true ally!”
“She taught me how to survive a broken heart”
Sonali has been blessed with some stellar close women friends, who have all had a few qualities in common - qualities that go against every female stereotype you have ever heard.
“They are all easygoing, intelligent, open-minded, and most importantly, infinitely kind. Their kindness seeped into my life in different ways over the years.”
Sonali recalls when she was trying to recover from a bad breakup, a few years ago.
“I was in the middle of a three-month long professional training with some colleagues. Emotionally, I was in a place where I would dissolve into tears at the drop of a hat. My colleague and close friend, Mira, saw my condition and decided to do something about it. She introduce me to dance as a form of catharsis. I had no background or training in dance whatsoever. But we started going to open salsa nights on Wednesdays and dancing our frustrations away.”
“We met some interesting people, had some of the craziest nights I can remember, and by the end of those three months of living together on the training campus, she had shown me how to survive a broken heart (and even to make light of it!)”
“This was a person I had never met, and she saved my marriage”
Sameera has had many close female friends over the years. But when I reached out to her to recall a story, the one she remembered was not the story of a close friend at all.
“It is the story of a ‘friend’ I made on social media - someone I had never even met in person. Andreea was a Romanian student, studying in Cambridge. We bonded over our shared love for Harry Potter. We would send long e-mails to each other, and exchange SMSes on the phone.”
Sameera was a new mother at the time, and going through a bad phase in her marriage.
“At the time, my mother, who was visiting us, was trying to tell me I would be better off walking out of my marriage. I had almost decided to do so, and I sent a mail to Andreea, telling her about my decision. She immediately called me up. She spoke to me for nearly half an hour, and told me that I should not do anything in a hurry. I took her advice and postponed doing anything till my mother went back home. After some soul-searching, I realized that Andreea had been right.”
“We had just lost our father after a really long illness. It was the first time my mother was staying with us. I had two kids - a toddler and an infant. Money was tight. Though I didn't know it then, I was depressed, and life felt like it was spinning out of control. My mother seriously thought that leaving was the best thing for me.”
“To show her support, my mother would say things like ‘Don't think you don't have anyone. You can stay with me. I will look after you.’ It was Andreea, then, who made me realize that my mother’s emotions were probably getting the better of her. She just said, ‘Don't take any decisions in a hurry. Wait till she is away. Maybe her presence is causing more friction between the two of you.’ And she was right. My mother didn't mean it that way. Not at all. But it was happening nevertheless.”
Sameera could not believe she was taking advice from an internet friend.
“This was a person I had never even met. She was from a different culture altogether. Yet, she got the nuances of what I was going through, and took the trouble to call and put me right. I will never forget that kindness she showed me. Fifteen years later, my husband and I are still together. And I thank Andreea often for it.”
“She was the only person to whom I could truly open up about my assault.”
It was July 2016. Chitra had come out to her ex-spouse as a trans woman, and was a few months into her hormone replacement therapy.
“I was being referred to as ‘ma'am’ by strangers, but still had not come out to most of the world. I was traveling alone in the UK for some work, and decided to go out as my true (female) self over the weekend in London. On one of the first such evenings, I was sexually assaulted.”
“I somehow escaped and made my way safely to my hotel. But when I got there, I just broke down in guilt. I thought that it was my fault - for being out alone at night in an unfamiliar place, for wearing a dress, for having a drink, and for being initially polite with the person who eventually assaulted me. I cried through most of the next couple of days.”
The only person Chitra was in regular contact with at that time was Alina.
“Alina was among the first few people to know about me. She and I were both mostly closeted and pre-transition at that time. She had been there for me in some very dark times, and in happy times of course. She was the only person to whom I could truly open up about my assault. She told me that it wasn't my fault at all. I know it seems very simple and obvious now, but at that time, just to hear something like this from a friend was so reassuring and validating.”
Eventually, Chitra sought professional help from a therapist to deal with the emotional fallout of the incident.
“But that was 6-7 months after the incident. It was Alina who helped me tide over that dark episode when it first happened. Today, my child calls her ‘masi’ (Aunt - mother’s sister). And she deserves it as much as - if not more than - any of my actual sisters.”
The toughest decision imaginable
Aditi and her husband were an Air Force couple, posted in the North East, who had just found out that we were going to be parents in 8 months.
“When we found out, he indulged me in every way. He was at least ten times more excited than I was.”
“Two weeks later, his helicopter crashed in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh. I was devastated. With him gone, my only thought was how I would raise this child alone. As family members started arriving from everywhere, I could feel them look at me and think, 'Poor girl, and with a baby on the way' (in the kindest way, of course).”
One day, as she was still coming to terms with her grief, Aditi’s mother sat her down one quiet afternoon.
“She said something to me that I will forever be grateful for. She said, ‘You can terminate the pregnancy if you want to.’ The thought had not even crossed my mind till then, but once she said it, it seemed to be the obvious thing to do.”
It was the toughest decision imaginable, and Aditi is grateful she did not have to face it alone.
“The decision and the follow-up actions required a LOT of strength, and that's where my fantastic friends - all women - came in. They flew in from their hometowns. They stayed with me till I needed them to. They held my hand when I went for my gynae consultation, and had the difficult conversation around abortion. They took over any discussion where visitors prodded me about my future plans as a single mother.”
One day, Aditi had to visit the anesthesiologist for a pre-anesthesia test. Her friend Rochna was with her.
“This doctor told me that a helicopter pilot had just died and his wife was also pregnant. He said he strongly believed that she should terminate the pregnancy. He went on and on about the pros and cons of the decision, not knowing that I was the woman he was speaking about so casually.”
“This could have triggered me, but Rochna was already seething. Seeing her, my own anger disappeared. I smiled at the doctor and told him who I was and that he was right about the termination. The poor chap was speechless for a minute. This could have been an emotional situation for me, but Rochna getting angry on my behalf calmed me down and saved me from feeling all that agitation myself.”
Aditi had to stay at the military hospital for three days for the procedure, and visiting rules were strict.
“My friends made sure that I was never alone. They all took time from their busy schedules to engage me in long phone conversations. This could have been an emotional rollercoaster, but they made sure it turned into a gentle boat ride instead. I came back home healed and whole.”
“It has been five years and life has moved ahead, but these bonds stay strong as ever. We remain there for each other, always.”
The Narcissism of Small Differences
Sigmund Freud coined the term “the narcissism of small differences” which “is the thesis that communities with adjoining territories and close relationships are especially likely to engage in feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation.”
English translation: The more you are like someone, the stronger you’ll dislike them for your minor differences.
E.g. the US can impose restrictions on us, and Australia can have widespread racist violence against our people, but Indians will never hate anyone as much as we love to hate on Pakistan.
Most Indian parents will be okay with their kid marrying a “foreigner” but not a person from another caste or religion within India.
It applies to most warring factions, bands, tribes, even families - who are much more alike to their sworn enemies than the rest of the world (which, by the way, they seem to have no problem with).
I think this is because we hold people who are “like us” to a much higher standard than the rest of the world.
“We expected them to treat like us, but et tu Brutus?”
I suspect the same happens when women act against other women.
Somehow, we expect the men to not understand our struggles. But it just hurts a lot more when a woman boss overlooks us for that promotion, when a woman classmate plays a humiliating prank on us, or when a woman puts on an empty cooker on the stove in the rasoda.
I am not saying that all women are saints to one another.
I am saying that this trope of woman-vs-woman is likely a result of the same social conditioning which had me strutting around feeling better than “those other girls” in my ugly hairband.
I think Sameera put it best when she told me that “while women pulling down other women, often to gain credits with men, does happen. But when women stand up for other women, it is like nothing else.”
Love is (female) friendship, Rahul. Tum nahi samjhoge.
This newsletter comes to you free of cost. But that does not mean that it costs nothing.
Womaning in India is a physical, mental, and emotional labour of love. If you appreciate the work I am doing with it, show me your love by buying me a coffee.