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Building The Sisterhood

Updated: Nov 12, 2021

Ruby Marks, South Africa’s Ambassador to Benin, writes about the joys of female friendships and her personal rules for them.

Ruby Marks with media personality Ingrid Jones
Ruby Marks with media personality Ingrid Jones

Here is an extract of a post she shared in the Lockdown Recipe Storytelling Book Facebook group, of which she is a founding member.

On loving women.

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other.” – Audre Lorde

One of the things that I love most about being part of this group, is the strong sisterhood that it creates among us. And I mean “sisterhood” as an inclusive term that also involves the men in this group. Sisterhood is such a powerful, transformative source of sustenance and love, and it is clear that over these long and difficult months we have created something really special. And it’s not something we should take for granted, so it’s something that needs unpacking, or we will lose it over time. And now so many of us have also formed bonds of friendship. The bonds are fragile, and has to be understood if we want to find a different way of building sisterhood through friendships.

So... women and friendships. Let me start off by saying that I love women – our vulnerabilities, our complexities, our journeys to become fully ourselves – and I fully acknowledge the highs and lows of female friendships; those moments when we are not our best selves to each other, when we hurt each other, betray each other, love each other fiercely, and give of ourselves completely. Throughout the ebb and flow of friendships, we witness each other’s lives unfold. There’s something truly gratifying about female friendships – the intimate chats about life, our hopes, our dreams, our fears. The delicious sharing about the one that didn’t get away, and the sad sharing of the ones that did.

And we don’t even have to know someone deeply to feel that sense of friendship. I believe that all women are potential friends, because we are all potential allies to each other because of who we are, the challenges we have to deal with, and where we come from as women. I hold onto that innocent belief even more fiercely if another woman, acting from her own wounded place, hurt me in some way or another.

Female friendships can sustain you, nurture you, carry you to a higher regard of yourself and what you can be. Sometimes female friendship is situational and linked to a particular period in your life and so become transient, or lasts as long as it takes you to sit next to someone in a bus and talk about life and times. I’ve started instant friendships with cashiers at a check-out counter, waiting in a queue, sweating in a sauna. Sometimes the little candle of friendship burns only briefly, and it flickers out just because life takes you into a different direction. Sometimes, magically, that flicker burns into a warm fire that sustains us in our life journey, and becomes a place where we can rely on each other emotionally; where we can be vulnerable.

Our friendships with other women are therefore a sacred space and it’s a space that we have to hold for each other with reverence for all time, whether we are still friends with each other or not. Life happens and sometimes we drift apart, but that sacred space, that little clearing in the forest that we created for ourselves, remains. We must honour that space.

My (personal) rules for friendships between women I have recently been thinking about female friendships and how there really are a set of unwritten rules and assumptions that we all work with when we conduct our friendships with other women. I thought about this because there have been painful moments on social media that reminded me yet again that we don’t travel with the same set of assumptions about female friendships. This post is about making explicit some of my own rules and assumptions that I hold about friendships between women. I don’t always get it right, but I try.

  1. When you take me into your confidence, you can be confident that what you say to me will not be used against you in a different time, and in a different space, and when you are a different person.

  2. I will accept that you are always evolving and always in the process of becoming, and so who you are in this moment may change in time. We all change as we learn and grow from our life lessons.

  3. I will not take you back to that moment that was, and where you may not have been your best self, because I, too, have not always been my best self. Instead, I will be grateful that we have come so far in our own individual journey. And celebrate your journey with you, quietly.

  4. If you do stumble and fall, I will hold you in compassionate regard, even if we are no longer close. I don’t know what your personal struggles are anymore, but I trust that you are trying. And that you have your own battles that no one else knows about. And that sometimes the battle feels too much, and so you stumble and fall. As we all do. But that you will get up again. I will give you a hand if you ask for it, and offer it if you don’t.

  5. If you succeed, I will be glad for you because I believe that there’s a place for all of us, and not just for some of us. I will not ask: “Who did you sleep with to get there?” Or “Who do you think you are now?” Your success will inspire me and make me even more determined to be more, do more. Because I do not believe that your success threatens my own ability to succeed.

  6. If I hear others speaking badly about you behind your back, I will call them out on it. I won’t be silent, because I know that my silence makes me complicit in that effort to tear you down. I will be a friend and not a frenemy, whether you are present or whether you are absent.

  7. I will not believe that the persons that you chose to share your love with in your past defines who you are today. As women, we have fought hard for the right to define ourselves in our own terms. This is a fundamental feminist right: the right to be self-defined. Anything else takes us back to a patriarchal space that denies women’s agency and women’s selfhood and ability to change, to make different choices and to grow into our own greatness.

  8. I will hold space for other women, particularly when I see that we are in a minority, in numbers or when issues that affects us as women are discussed. Because holding space for other women is part of a sacred sister bargain that we make. To enlarge the space, to create opportunities for others, because we know that we have to stand in full solidarity with other women, irrespective (and sometimes because of) our differences – of class, sexual orientation, religion or physical ability.

  9. I will not allow a masculinist political culture to make me betray another women, because I know that the exclusionary spaces where we are all fighting for a place at the table makes it easier to betray other women. And creating a gender-equitable political culture, strategy and structure depends on our ability to stand together, and act in solidarity with each other, with men as allies. And that our political goals should not be attained at the cost of our emotional and spiritual solidarity with each other as women.

  10. Others will tell you that loving and trusting women will lead to betrayal. The truth is that sometimes it does. Oftentimes it does not. So love and trust women anyway.

What about you, my sister-friends? How do you hold space for other women?



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