On the importance of sisterhood
I was brought up in a family where I was encouraged to dream big, to respect everyone I meet as equals and not to accept things always as they seem. In a family where my mother didn’t like me playing with Barbie, my father plead with me and my sister to wear jeans and doc martin boots instead of the latest fashion and in which both my parents cooked, cleaned, worked, socialised, had interests and had a happy, equal marriage. Despite all of this, growing up I somehow liked the idea of being a tomboy, of roughing it, listening to rock music and wearing skater shoes (despite not having a skateboard.) In secondary school I was part of a group of friends that met and formed together and although we tended to not go with the norm in our school we were accepted totally by each other. Growing up, my mother always told us friends are more important than boyfriends which of course we shrugged off as Irish catholic mammy propaganda. But the older I get, the more I think she might be right.
I never realized then how that first powerful experience of female friendship would go on to shape me and my future friendships.
University came and went and was punctuated by long nights trawling through books in the library on gender and identity and arguing over cradled naggings on the 46a bus about the sexualisation of young girls. Travel came and went: South East Asia, India with I silently playing with my food in bars and restaurants because my attempts to make conversation had been overlooked in favour of my male counterpart. In Cambodia, where the sex tourism industry is thriving I talked to women on the street and in buses about how their ‘European’ boyfriend, whom they had lost their virginity to wouldn’t be coming back and now she couldn’t marry a Cambodian man because she was ‘damaged goods.’ Snippets of memories from volunteering with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre; of cases not progressing, of victims being further victimised by ineffective justice system and unsympathetic, insufficiently trained police officers. Teaching in an all girls’ secondary school and seeing the girls’ unwillingness to speak up, give their opinion, debate because they’re scared how it might be perceived.
It is only now that I am putting these pieces together.
And I knew from then that I would need to find a partner that was deeply feminist and not in a learned sense but in a way my father had been, as the youngest sibling in a family of five sisters and a widowed mother. Growing up, Granny Mellon’s mantras filled all of our hearts and minds and although I never remember meeting her as she died while I was young somehow she stood out to me, as a model of strength and resilience, a model I looked up to and admired. And maybe it’s because my husband-to-be has 4 older sisters and no brothers in his family and a mother who was also a shining example of strength and kindness, that we fell in love in the first place. He, unlike me, never spent long nights learning about feminism but lived it, as the little brother in a family of wonderful woman in which respect and equality were unquestionable truths. And I can’t help but wonder if these two women, my Granny Mellon and his mother had ever met, what they would have said to each other. If, unhindered by language, they could ever have seen the similarities of their lives lived out so far apart, if they ever could have shared the struggles of being a wife, a mother and a woman from rural Ireland to bustling Sao Paulo, Brazil.
It is only now that I can see their connection.
Let me bring you forward to now. I am coordinating a team of 9 20-23 year old women volunteering with Suas Educational Development. 2 have graduated, 7 are still studying to be primary school teachers. We are working in Zambia where the people are bubbly, positive and oozing charm. The vibe here is happy and relaxed and the life of many people has so many aspects I’d like to learn from. Knowing that early pregnancies, child marriages and rates of Gender Based Violence are amongst some of the highest in the world here in Zambia, I knew we would be focusing on the girls in the schools we worked in.
So while we focus our attention on the girls in the schools we can’t help but wonder how and why this issue of gender equality is so present here. I have had conversations with intelligent, well-educated, nice men telling me that they think it’s ok for a man to cheat on his wife and that the home is the woman’s responsibilities. These men send their daughters to school, they are seemingly open and measured people, but in these instances they seem to fail to see the hypocrisy in wanting an educated wife, but wanting for it to be ok to cheat on her while she’s at home cooking for you.
But we haven’t been focusing that. Instead, we have had girls’ clubs twice a week after school, we have written a song with them (which was recorded in a studio!) we have held a career day inviting only female speakers, we have written a blog featuring inspiring women we have met and it has been wonderful. It has been so uplifting to see these women and girls grown and learn together, regardless of age, nationality or experience.
Girls’ club gives the 53 girls that attend it the opportunity, if even for a few hours after school to avoid the many extra responsibilities most of them have in their lives and to be a girl, to be a child, to be free. But more than that, I think it makes me happy because it reminds me again that women all around the world have something very powerful in common-sisterhood.
And I write this because I think so often women forget that.
We go to countries where women don’t have the same rights as men and we find it difficult to engage because perhaps they don’t speak our language (because they didn’t finish school) or perhaps they don’t work or perhaps they have larger families. For these reasons we may feel different, unable to connect. A reality which my experience has taught me, is much less common amongst men.
Men can have a beer together in many countries in the world. Men can talk about football in most countries in the world. Men can talk about women in most countries in the world. In most countries in the world, these are luxuries that are not afforded to women. And in many countries women might not be able to speak about shared fashion ( a seemingly female interest) because of man-made rules about the way women should dress and man-made stereotypes about how certain nations dress and what this reflects about their sexual availability.
But don’t get me wrong. I am hopeful. I am aware that there are powerful, empowered, strong, beautiful women who like their fashion and their families and their cultures and their languages and I appreciate that but I want to move away from race and religion and talk about women, to women.
Women , (in the words of the late Jo Cox) we have more in common than that which divides us.
My journey has brought me to a place that deeply values sisterhood, that deeply values female friendship, that deeply values women, the world over. And that deeply understands, that it is patriarchy that has put in place barriers to divide us: rules and stereotypes, ideas of jealousy and cattiness and competitiveness. Where are these things? Because there certainly aren’t in our girls’ club, they certainly aren’t in my mother, or my sister, or my friends, the team of volunteers or my students in Ireland.
I hope that at least, I have shared with the team of 9 young women, the power of sisterhood and the power we, as women have to change the discourse that defines us. And I think if I had to say it, that’d be #whatireallyreallywant.
By Sorcha Mellon
Action at home:
1. SET UP GLOBAL ISSUES GROUP IN MY SCHOOL FOR ALL STUDENTS FROM 1ST-6TH YEAR INTERESTED IN JOINING
2. ALL STUDENTS
3. MARYFIELD COLLEGE
4. FROM SEPTEMBER 2016 ON