Sisterhood & Silence
Sisterhood between women has been largely robbed from us. We are taught that female friendship is fraudulent; that despite our bonding, we are all perpetually in competition with each other – for men, success, and so we find ourselves in opposition to the identity of femaleness in our society – weak, bitchy, superficial. We proclaim that we are “not like other girls,” while we consume media which portrays female relationships as (almost exclusively) opportunistic, competitive but most of all – centered around men rather than each other (see: the Bechdel test). It’s time we transcend the barriers that have been placed between us; the separation only weakens our attempts at bettering ourselves and the society we find ourselves in. But it isn’t going to be as easy as recognizing, examining and rejecting the ideologies we have absorbed since childhood – and trust me, unlearning sexist racist hegemonic dominance is no easy task. No, this involves something more subtle than protests, than academic theory and rhetoric; it involves silence.
While I share something with every woman (past, present, future), there is a great deal I do not know about their experience. In some cases, there is an entire language I do not even recognize. French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes of the irreducibility of subjectivity. She rightfully asserts that there is only one form of subjectivity which exists in mainstream Western culture and it is male. Consider that Freud’s explanation of female subjectivity looked more like an under-developed form of male subjectivity. Well, intersectional feminist theory knows that there is much more at play than gender in shaping a person’s subjectivity (including race, class, etc). But the Otherness of another’s experience that Irigaray touches on is precisely the issue at hand – that is, the notion that one subjectivity cannot be understood through the lens of another. Each of us are intrinsically ourselves and “such a self involves all that belongs to one’s own world: the way in which the subject relates to itself, to the other, to the world, but also to a cultural environment where this subject lives, an environment which takes part in our subjectivity, and it often confused with identity itself” (Irigaray, An Ethical Gesture Toward the Other, page 2). It is this kind of subjectivity that allows for all the richness of difference that exists between us, and that ultimately makes the world worth living in.
Irigaray suggests that it is only through silence that the Other may come toward me and I may move toward them. This silence allows us to relinquish our commitment to a code of meaning which has shaped our experiences, and to make space and time for the unknown. She calls this the opening of a threshold and it occurs on the borders of the horizons of our selves – we do not invite the other into our subjectivity (as it is irreducible) and we do not step into their subjectivity (it is not ours to appropriate). Instead, we must choose silence. We must let others be, and appear, and welcome what might be changed by this exchange while remaining faithful to ourselves, too. Like I said – it isn’t easy. But this is the path to the Other, that is, to each other.
Bell Hooks writes of a class she taught (more than once) on Third World Women in the United States that I think brings to light the way that these esoteric concepts manifest themselves in concrete interactions. She says that “one factor that makes interaction between multi-ethnic groups of women difficult and sometimes impossible is our failure to recognize that a behaviour pattern in one culture may be unacceptable in another, that is may have different signification cross-culturally,” elaborating with examples: “An Asian American student of Japanese heritage explained her reluctance to participate in feminist organizations by calling attention to the tendency among feminist activists to speak rapidly without pause, to be quick on the uptake, always ready with a response. She had been raised to pause and think before speaking, to consider the impact of one’s words; a characteristic that she felt was particularly true of Asian Americans. She expressed feelings of inadequacy on the various occasions she was present in feminist groups. In our class, we learned to allow pauses and appreciate them. By sharing this cultural code, we created an atmosphere in the classroom that allowed for different communication patterns” (Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center pages 57-58, emphasis added).
I think Irigaray is suggesting something similar – that we allow pauses, we allow for new, varied, forms of communication to appear and stay open to experiences of others without ever believing that our subjectivities are the same, or reducible to a shared commonality. Hooks continues, describing that in this class, which was “peopled primarily by black women, several white women students complained that the atmosphere was “too hostile.” They cited the noise level and direct confrontations that took place in the room prior to class as an example of this hostility. Our response was to explain that what they perceived as hostility and aggression, we considered playful teasing and affectionate expressions of our pleasure at being together. Our tendency to talk loudly we saw as a consequence of being in a room with many people speaking, as well as of cultural background: many of us were raised in families where individuals speak loudly. In their upbringings as white, middle-class females, the complaining students had been taught to identify loud and direct speech with anger. We explained that we did not identify loud or blunt speech in this way, and encourage them to switch codes, to think of it as an affirming gesture. Once they switched codes, they not only began to have a more creative, joyful experience in the class, but they also learned that silence and quiet speech can in some cultures indicate hostility and aggression. By learning one another’s cultural codes and respecting our differences, we felt a sense of community, of Sisterhood. Representing diversity does not mean uniformity or sameness” (ibid).When the white students allowed for a difference of meaning to appear, they were able to meet the subjectivity of their black classmates without bonding over a shallow similarity, or appropriating a difference which divides them. Silence in this threshold is not always literal; sometimes understanding requires a silence of symbols and codes in order to allow for a form of communication that is unknown to us.
Irigaray’s threshold applies to all human relationships; just as Hooks’ words on learning other cultural codes ought to be applied to interactions regardless what difference divides them, but I think this concept is importantly applicable to sisterhood. Sisterhood is a bond of solidarity that is much stronger than reducing each other with regard to our femaleness. We cannot truly welcome each other and our differences when they can only be seen within sameness. Instead, we can be silent as to allow for difference. We can explain to the girl who says she's not like the others that, in reality, all girls are not the same and more importantly that our similarities must not be all that is seen of us. Instead, there is beauty in difference. There is more to be learned in the horizon between us than could ever become known through one aspect of our identities. This is the way to true sisterhood.