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Women's March in Chicago_ShutterRunner_C


April 15 2021

Photo credits: "Women's March in Chicago" by ShutterRunner is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Last week felt like the sisterhood was watching out for me. With the sisterhood, I mean that unspoken agreement between women who have each other’s backs and act as each other’s allies rather than each other’s worst enemies as is often the case.

Something about being in this unofficial sorority, without having done anything to deserve it - besides being born female -  felt quite empowering. As I felt the sisterhood at work, there was a sense of complicity that rushed over me, whilst simultaneously feeling like “I better live up to it and owe this membership status”.

I’m a big advocate of women looking out for each other. Of female empowerment. Numerous studies have been done on the benefits of empowering and educating women. Just take a look at the Global Gender Gap Report: the economy grows, child mortality rates plummet, it prevents child marriages and proves to be a social vaccine against HIV and malaria. Empowered women seem to excel at forward planning and at creating a virtuous circle of prosperity and development for their communities.  

But women having each other’s backs should not come at the expense of other – marginalized-  groups of society. Yet that is exactly what happened this week in one of my encounters with the sisterhood.

As I was driving through central Brussels and approaching a traffic light that had just turned red in my worn-down Suzuki Swift, I spotted a beggar. I felt like giving him something but as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I remembered that my last coins had been dutifully handed over to my daughter who now systematically reminds me when  her allowance hasn’t been paid on time.  All I had on me was a ten euro note, a bit much for a random stranger. With no money or food to hand over, there was nothing I could offer the beggar except my humanity. So as he made his way to my car, I rolled open my window to announce that I wouldn’t be able to give him anything, whilst promising I wouldn’t fail him the next time. It took a bit of convincing but the conversation ended amicably.

As he wandered off to the vehicle behind me, I suddenly noticed agitated movements from the car next to mine. Two girls, they couldn’t have been more than 25, ardently motioned me to reopen my window. As I did so, I was met with the most surprising words of caution that left me completely baffled: “You shouldn’t open your window for beggars”! They said it in such an urgent, almost pleading manner, I knew they had nothing but good intentions at heart. Having been left speechless I still managed to mutter a - quite angry -  “I have no problem with opening my window for beggars”, before the light turned green and our cars, each clearly representing a different school of the sisterhood,  continued upon their separate paths.

I sincerely believe these girls meant well. Us sisters, we have to watch out for one another because there is so much danger out there!


"But aren’t the #metoo movements and women speaking up about the constants threats and harassments they face, sowing more distrust into a society that is already fueled by fear?”,

I wondered as I drove on.

I have endured my share of harassments, cat-callings and unwanted groping. Do I wish this upon my daughters? No. Will it happen? Yes, probably. Do I want them to know that they have the right to call out for help and stand up for themselves? Of course! I never realised this myself as a young woman,  and as a result of my youth and ignorance I probably underwent a few too many of these harassments passively while I had every right to shout out and denounce it. I wasn’t prepared because I wasn’t informed. The #metoo movements are a powerful antidote to this ignorance.

But it should be about empowerment and solidarity, not about sowing fear. Empowerment to have your voice heard. Empowerment through information about your rights and knowing that if anything happens to you, you can rely on  those rights. Knowing that you call the shots on what happens to your body.

What we must avoid  is a paralyzing sisterhood that instills fear and paranoia by tweeting, posting and  instagramming about the dangers we face on a daily basis and which paints a picture of a very scary world. Such a sisterhood risks causing misconceptions and further divisions, an inevitable search for scapegoats and finger pointing, and most worryingly, as I witnessed last week, targeting those at the margins of our society, simply because the real culprits are all too often untouchable.

A sisterhood of women should be unifying and humanizing. It has to create strong, informed, emancipated women. Women who will stand up for themselves so they in turn can stand up for others, not denounce others. Women who will lead by example and who will roll open their windows for beggars, conscious of the potential dangers this might carry, fully aware that a truly humane society where everyone treats everyone the way they themselves want to be treated, can only prevail by leading through humanity and kindness. I call it the sisterhood of the virtuous circle.

Further reading:

Still as relevant today as 10 years ago: see the video on The girl effect! ↓  ↓

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