All the most prominent, biggest community and feminist movements to alleviate the sufferings of women and girls and support women’s involvement in education and leadership have been championed mostly by women...
By Berlyne Ngwalem Ngwentah
Reasons Why Society Needs to Stop Saying Women are the Biggest Enemies of Other Women
You must have heard the common saying that “The enemy of another woman is a woman”?
I mean it seems to be all over the place. This is a statement used to imply that women as a group do not support other women and that the reason why they are continuously being marginalized is because women are the biggest cause.
Reading a lot online and engaging in debates has made me realise that this does not seem to be a problem unique to Africa but I will love to focus on Africa – the population I am much more familiar with, understand better, and that which I have analyzed better. Tracing the root cause of such a destructive statement that aims to pit women against one another as enemies while removing the real obstacles that prevent women from equally participating in societal affairs and growing like their male counterparts will be a vital step in exploring other blurry obstacles that stop women from living a blissful, fulfilled, and peaceful life and from exploring ways to solve these problems.
I would love to point out that most of my lived experiences with men and women who use such a statement have been predominantly in a Cameroonian/African setting with examples cited by mostly men and some women, based on their perception of how societies only not in Cameroon but also around the globe, function.
The people who use statements such as this cite examples from across the world to support the claim that women are other women’s biggest enemies.
Now, take some minutes to ponder over the following questions:
Are women the worst enemy of other women?
Why is this saying so common and from where does it emanate (what is the root cause of the statement?)?
I will always stand by this: women are not and have never been enemies to other women as a group, and have never placed hateful barriers to ensure that no woman attains success and realize their dreams.
Impact of Patriarchy
Most of these statements that are used by people, including some women, came as a result of people not understanding the impact that patriarchy has had on women’s success, psyche, freedom, and the overall happiness of women as a group. The statement most of the time is also used as a defensive tool to blame women for their predicaments.
For example, if a woman runs for the post of president and doesn’t win, the common debate that results due to a system donimated by men, is that the leader gets blasted for his unequal distribution of power between men and women.
The men – in an attempt to be defensive, are likely to say that a woman ran for the post of president and didn’t succeed because women did not vote for her; the argument will posit to the notion of the sex ratio in favour of women claiming there are more women than men, so it means many more women voted for men instead.
Our Cameroonian men might even draw examples from other countries in the world saying that if women wanted to lead and be in top positions, they would have because they are more women than men on earth. These are assumptions I find very ignorant, and people who think thus need to be called out and educated or let themselves be educated.
These are just usually raw and unproven assumptions. There has not been any data to prove that many more women voted over men, or voted for men more than women did vote for other women, but common analysis of our society in terms of gender relations and sex ratio will tell us, this is false. Again, data on sex ratios doesn’t really show a huge difference between the sexes; there are slightly more adult women than adult men in the world; however, there are also countries where you have more men than women.
An example of such a situation is seen in Ms. Edith Kahbang Walla -- popularly called Kah Walla’s loss during the 2011 Cameroon presidential election where other women were blamed for not supporting her, and were made to feel guilty that it is due to their lack of support for other women since they make up the majority. Many people go as far as pointing out that it is for the same reason there aren’t many women in leadership and politics all over the world.
What is usually not talked about is that many women in countries around the world – worse in developing countries, are less educated than men because women are still seen as property and belonging to men, and so are sold off or forced into child, early and forced marriages, impairing their education both formally and informally. Thus, they end up having a poor understanding of why voting is important and also, they might not really see the need to vote and might deter from it.
There are other women, such as in a country like Saudi Arabia, who have not had voting rights and who only gained such rights in 2015 while other women in Europe, Africa, and Asia gained such rights earlier on. There are other countries in the Middle East, Africa, etc. – Cameroon included, where women culturally still have to ask permission from a male figure to do anything and that will include voting; this is a global problem.
There is no doubt that many men in such counties still see women as their property and will deny them the right to vote while other women – out of fear, will choose not to even attempt to vote in order to avoid conflicts which might earn them the reputation of being a bad, unsubmissive woman, and make them at risk to violence.
So many times women are faced with barriers and mental conflicts that men aren’t – to protest, not obey the men, and have a bad reputation; or to obey the men, have a good reputation, avoid conflicts and violence and forfeit their human rights. All these at the expense of their human rights earned by birth. Rights that all humans should have.
Another painful example is blaming women for being the cause of other women’s pain from acts of infidelity by men, either by saying men cannot control themselves like women can, so women should act perfectly at all times – or because it is due to the fact that they fail to behave perfectly that men cheat. Most men will get defensive or blame their acts of infidelity that hurt women on other women by saying it is because there are way too many women than men on earth , so they get to see women more, get tempted more, etc. Again, it is false and you can see for yourself. Note that I include legalized cheating – AKA polygamy, into this category.
Many times, most men try to paint women who do not accept polygamous unions as bad women who are greedy and do not want other women to feel the warmth of a man. My problem is, it is mostly men who lay these blames [upon women] and not even women themselves.
False: Women are Other Women's Biggest Enemies
I would love to further explore three reasons why I think it is false that women are other women’s biggest enemies, how it fuels the flames of the division of the women folk, and why people need to stop using that statement.
There are three reasons why this statement is false and why we must avoid using it if we wish to achieve a safe and equal world for both women and men:
1. Women are the Biggest Cheereaders and Supporters of Other Women
All the most prominent, biggest community and feminist movements to alleviate the sufferings of women and girls and support women’s involvement in education and leadership have been championed mostly by women. From fighting for a safer world for women, to fighting for women’s rights dating back to the 1920’s, to creating educational, economic schemes to alleviate the sufferings of women in society and train them as leaders. You can find many of such organizations such as African Leadership Centre, American Association of University Women, P.E.O. International, and Safecity. It is worth noting that many women around the globe are still enjoying the fruits of the fight for gender equality by the many women before them.
It is not women who barred women from having voting rights, the right to education, and to be treated with dignity; there are tons of other NGO’s both locally and abroad led by women (and men) fighting to see that women become represented equally in all fields in society, as their male counterparts. I have not been able to mention all of these organizations here, but I wish to say their efforts are appreciated and that they should continue the good work.
Avoiding acknowledgement of the role women have played and continue to play in helping other women thrive spreads false information about women being the ones who are barring the success of other women and continues to make it hard for the fight for gender equality to be achieved. It continues to conceal the role men play in hindering the fight for gender equality and hides the part they have played and continue toplay in causing this problem in the first place, like in denying women land rights, voting rights, educational rights, and the right to be leaders, etc.
Women are not predominantly the ones who harass, batter, ambush, capture and violate other women because they are women; it is men who do this.
Even though the feminist movement was championed by white western women in the 1920’s who were at first reluctant to fight for the rights of all women – including women of colour, it has greatly evolved and is working hard to understand the unique experiences of all women and make the movement inclusive of all women.
As feminism is evolving, so are women. More and more women are starting to embrace intersectional feminism that acknowledges the differences of the lives and the unique struggles of other women in terms of class, race , ethnicity , gender, etc. – how it could create inequality amongst women and ways to fight these issues that create inequality so that they could create equality amongst all women.
2. Women give everyday care to other women and bond with them in ways that men do not, even when they have internalized patriarchal biased gender norms
There are feminist women who identify as one, who understand how the patriarchy functions to limit women, and there are women who feel that all women including themselves are inferior to men. There are other women who do not understand how the patriarchy limits women and only care to see their women folk succeed to the point that they will survive independently from a man and be able to flee abuse if it happens in future. All these three groups of women will likely approach the discourse on gender equality differently and will encourage female success differently.
Women who believe women are inferior will likely not support another woman to get in top positions where they have to lead and men follow, and they will believe in strictly established feminine and masculine gender roles which happen to benefit men and create barriers for women.
Those who are emancipated will fully support women while those who are somewhere in the middle and have no deep understanding of how the patriarchy affects the lives of women will not be as deep in their support as the emancipated women. These women are prone to give women everyday care and support differently, because one group is emancipated, the other is somewhere in the middle, while one still suffers from mental slavery which is not their fault.
Overall, the three groups of women still offer primary care for their fellow women more than men. I am not saying that all men do not care for women or that they do not help women. What I am saying is that, from the way we have been raised from birth, women are taught to cater to, value, and show emotional and human care/support to other people more. Women and men greatly benefit from this.
It is quite funny how – when for example, men are called out for their bias and oppression of women, the unequal repression of women in politics, decision-making, education, etc, they will get defensive and blame women for barring other women who happen to be mostly those who believe that women, including themselves, are inferior.
These are the same women who men praise for being exemplary and good women – who understand the world better, when they support male privileges and double standards in favour of men,for cultural or religious reasons.
Each time people pin on the idea that women are other women’s biggest haters and do not support them, I cannot help but wonder if those same people do not see that when women are sick, it is mostly women who take their time to care for them, bathe them, feed them, do their laundry, and even feed and cater to the families of those their sick women folk. Something that the majority of men will hardly do.
In everyday life, women bond with other women, care for them and support them with love. They encourage them to live good lives with good intentions even though some of their good advice is influenced by patriarchal views of who a woman should be.
Nevertheless, the advice comes from a good place, because they want the best for their women folk and not because of jealousy as some people may claim. For example, many women influenced by the patriarchal views of a *woman* will wish for other women to marry rich men, be successful in what they do, but not deem it necessary to wish for them or advise their fellow women to be independently rich to the highest capacity possible, because they know being independent will help the women and their families; however, it should be limited for a woman because if they are too successful, they might not find husbands to marry or that too much success might create conflicts in their matrimonial home.
These women, too, like men, tend to believe that since culture and religion says that women should be submissive, and the men are the head, and women should be the ones to make most of the sacrifices. Sometimes they could just be blindly following biblical reasons and ideas of a woman’s place in society. These women do not do carry out these beliefs because they don’t want women to succeed, but because they believe that that is how it has been dictated by supreme forces.
Sometimes these women just do not see any other way out of this system
A more disturbing example of patriarchal double standards which create conflicts amongst women is that women have a lot more responsibility than men. Even the younger generation of women has internalized these norms. I have heard younger women in Cameroon; in school or in common ordinary day discussions say how much having women as their friends suck, how much they prefer working with male teachers than female teachers.
I have tried to find out why and realized that, they have unconsciously placed more responsibility on women just like men and society as a whole expects.
For example, a female friend is expected to assist her female counterpart in all aspects of physical, emotional, and psychological support. This includes being there for them in times of pain, help them clean, cook, even when they are just visiting, and cater to all their needs and even financial needs many times.
Men and boys on the other hand, are expected to not help clean, cook, support girls nor handle their emotional pain because women and girls already know that those kinds of work are not meant for the men. The highest numbers of sexual predators in schools are men and these young girls will easily forgive a male lecturer who sexually harasses them than a female lecturer who is strict or just female because they have been taught by our male- dominated society to view strict women suspiciously.
But a closer look has shown that those traumatized and harassed female students cry more in the arms of their female friends, and have the most emotional support from their female friends and not the males. Also, it is mostly female lecturers who have championed the fight to put an end to female sexual harassment and abuse in schools while most of the men have done nothing.
So if the girls are more forgiving of the men in this regard, it is a cultural problem and not because they hate other women.
Just like men who are in positions of power who have created unattainable standards for women and who have excused themselves of bad behavior for generations, women and men are also passing that to the younger generation of girls and boys – teaching them to be passive with men’s bad behavior and continuing to police women, both sexes will eventually end up policing women and girls. The way to stop this is to first and foremost dismantle the double standards that exist between women and men.
The cause of women’s conflicts isn’t therefore the women but the structure put in place that enables women to have many conflicts and clashes during the course of their lives.
Many young women say they don’t find women friendly like the men, but this mostly applies in formal settings. The problem is, the friendliness that most of them refer to is acting flirtatiously. These are sexual standards that have been unconsciously accepted by society based solely on heterosexual relationships which they deem as the right and acceptable relationship. Since the majority of women identify as heterosexuals, they are bound to flirt mostly with men and not other women. So they are likely to have more clashes and conflicts with other women and not men. Again, women's sexual behaviours towards men have been clearly defined by society.
Women are supposed to flirt (submit) and men are expected to demand (control).
I have often taken note of how women interact with men before opening their mouths to speak to the men. Even before speaking they already have a big smile on their faces, an overall positive body language, and are ready to listen and let the men lead. With women on the other hand, there is no clearly defined mode of interaction and this leads to clashes.
The thing is, if you give someone a smile or a positive vibe while talking, that is obviously what you will get in return.
3. Patriarchal influences on female-to-female relations should not be confused with women hating other women
I understand that this statement is common because in many ways, people that are the most biologically similar, who share the same culture and struggles, will love to be treated with more warmth and love by those with whom they share those similarities, the same experiences and life struggles.
The unfortunate thing is that the way women interact with other women has been greatly influenced by a system that works primarily to benefit and cater to the needs of men. A system in which there is a clearly defined medium of interaction between men and women – which is that of power and subservience, and between men and men – which is that of maintaining the power they have over women, and women-to-women – which is not clearly defined, and leaves individual women left to define that on their own, thus leading to conflicts most of the time.
Disagreements amongst women however, do not mean that women hate one another.
The same societal pressures that are put on women to be perfect have also been internalized by both men and women, and are being used to police women at all times; yet women are more likely to be more angry at other women for doing the same thing that men do to them because of the shared similarities and struggles. This is not a problem shared only by women, but is also shared by other oppressed groups. For example, oppressed blacks are likely not to attack or be in conflicts with their oppressors who are white, but will attack other blacks, as seen in the way Africans are largely divided and also in the xenophobic attacks in South Africa by black Africans who targeted other black Africans.
Black Africans tend to be angry at other blacks because they do not understand how the oppression of blacks by whites (colonialism, neo colonialism) affects race relations not only amongst whites and blacks but also blacks and blacks, and whites and whites. Like between women and men, there is a clearly defined mode of living between whites and blacks. which is that of power and subservience, and with white and whites – which is maintaining the power they have over Africa and black people. So even when whites have petty conflicts, it doesn’t stem from their frustration from being under-privileged and poor.
Divide and Rule
The struggle between genders can be likened to the struggles between races, with 'divide and rule' being the modus operandi.
White supremecy utilises a notion that, that no matter how many conflicts they have amongst themselves, they should stand firm on one thing: oppress black people.
This is the same dynamics in male and female relations; no matter how many conflicts men have amongst themselves, men know that they must stand firm to oppress women and maintain the control they have over them.
The whites, like the men, remain untouchable because they hold the power while the oppressed can easily express their anger towards those who are reachable. Those who are easily accessible are still the oppressed, so the conflicts amongst the oppressed will continue as long as they are being oppressed.
As long as there is inequality.
It is like living in a house with a set of rules and hierarchy in which the parents have their own chair but the children have not been offered specific chairs, so they have to scramble and fight over who gets to sit where. Not only are they aware the authority figures are untouchable, but they also know their limits and will express their anger and frustration amongst one another. If one of the children is hurt by their parent, they will retaliate by transferring aggression to their siblings because their parents are inaccessible since they hold the power.
This is not to say that women and black people are children but that they have been relegated to the background and are being treated like children, which generates conflicts amongst these said groups, hampering the fight for equality and to end violence.
I also used this example to explain that it is a common phenomenon for oppressed groups to fight one another; and instead of men using women’s plights to excuse themselves and create more conflicts amongst women, they should also take a hard long look at themselves, especially if they, too, fall under an oppressed group.
The modus operandi of oppression might be different but the oppressive dynamics are always the same.
Women do not hold power over other women and so can never be the biggest enemies of other women. They simply do not have the powers, men do.
Since there are more men who are advantaged, economically and politically, things will happen in men's favor and not women's. Women as a group do not have the systematic powers that men do (economically, culturally, socially, historically, politically and psychologically).
Disclaimer: Views here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent an official standpoint of Safe World for Women, as an organisation.