The only sound to be heard is the clack of my shoes on the hard floor as I step inside the chapel for Vespers. Twenty Carmelite nuns stand before me undisturbed and immersed in prayer. They live in silence and upon entering the order they vow to let go of their material possessions, to be obedient to God, and to submit themselves to a life of chastity.
No, I haven’t travelled back in time to meet these women but in fact to the tiny village of Quidenham in Norfolk. Sister Shelagh broke the rule of silence for me as I asked her what it’s like to live in such an intensely female environment.
“There is a deep bond of unity between us and it’s very supportive, living in a community. I know I couldn’t live this life on my own, so I’m very grateful for the support of the community.”
Sister Shelagh was married before she became a Carmelite nun. After ten years in her relationship she says she still hadn’t found contentment. She said turning to a life of monasticism, without our sexual counterparts, gave her a sense of contentment and comfort.
“It’s very rewarding and it gives full scope for human relationships, there’s no sense of having to cut bits of ones self off in order to live this life.”
Echoes of a patriarchal past
I’ve spent seven months investigating women-only communities, how they live and the issues they face. From Kenya to Brunei and now the UK, this convent is my last stop.
While I won’t disagree that all of the Sisters at the convent seem tranquil, I can’t help but think that chastity, obedience and silence echo past expectations of women in our once patriarchal society.
In today’s culture feminism and gender equality are two pressing and widely debated movements for the development of society and have been gaining momentum for over 100 years since the struggles of the Suffragettes in the late 18th Century. While all-female communities seem to be empowering women I wonder if they are holding women back.
This is not the case says Kat Pinder. As an organiser of RadFem 2013, a radical feminist conference in London, Kat considers herself a women’s liberationist and gender abolitionist. She says that all-female communities are essential for women’s liberation, “they are spaces where women can find themselves and remember themselves and understand who we are outside of male society”.
“A group of nuns, for example, who are based around a patriarchal religion, may not brand themselves as feminists initially but I have spoken a lot of women who have spent a lot of time in women only spaces and that’s how they’ve ended up coming to feminism, even though what they were doing was not necessarily organised around feminism.”
Jenny Eaton, from the Eos personal development programme for women, has seen this theory in motion and she says that women often become conscious feminists as a result of women only environments.
“Women who have never thought like it before begin look at the world in a different way because they have a different experience of being in groups of women because, with the odd exception, I have found that women learning and training together bond and they bond very quickly.
“Women who have a positive experience of personal growth in a group of women it actually makes them a feminist in a more active way.”
Of course, it’s not just religion that brings women together and not all these women are feminists. So what makes them want to be part of a world without men?
Clinical psychologist Bhavna Negandhi says that, as women, it’s in our nature to thrive in all-female environments:
“If you look at it from a biological and historical perspective, an evolutionary perspective, that’s what women did. Men used to go out hunting and the all female community was left behind to help each other out with children, companionship, emotions, and have general chit chat.
“Even now, while men turn to women for emotional support, women don’t seem to get the same from men. Women prefer to get their emotional support from other females and maybe wanting to be a part of all female group is probably for that emotional and even practical support.”
A Kenyan cooperative
It was in the Kenyan Chalbi desert where I met a group of women who do just this. Having escaped from forced marriage to a HIV positive man three times her age, twenty-year-old Judy, pictured, found the Umoja Women’s Group: a community of women working and living together, where there are no men allowed.
She told me how when she arrived in the small town of Archer’s Post the women here took her in as their child and looked after her.
“When I came here, I heard that the village called Umoja was for women with problems, so when I arrived the women here took me in like their child and now I am ok, I am happy.”
Since its modest beginning in the 90s, when the village was just one mud hut and handful of destitute women, the community has grown enormously. Now the 48 women who live here, belonging to many different tribes, make and sell traditional tribal jewellery to tourists in order to keep the village running and have recently built a preschool for their children.
Bhavna says that when it’s not religion bringing women together, it’s the need for support of some kind like that of the women of Umoja, but there will always be competition and rivalry, there will always been bitchiness.
Surreptitious sabotage and sisterhood
As an American teen, writer Jillian Lauren lived in an opulent palace in the colourful city of Brunei occupied by over 20 women who were all competing for the attention of one man: the Prince of Brunei, Jefri Bolkiah.
In this modern version of the traditional harem there was fierce competition, surreptitious sabotage and shifting alliances among the girls. But even while they were contending with one another, it wasn’t always a mean girls act.
“It was a really competitive environment in terms of the relationships between us girls, but there were some real friendships that arose out of it and I do think that women will take care of each other and that we did on some level.”
It is this consistent theme that runs throughout the groups that I have met in this investigation: this sense of sisterhood. Gender segregation has been a habitual part of society in the past, from single-sex education to the units in the armed forces, and men and women have fought for equality and integration in such environments. The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) was disbanded in the 90s after women demanded they be treated equally to men. Now both sexes live and work together throughout the military but some are still not happy. Ex-members of the WRAC say they often preferred the single sex structure, leading to questions about whether it is actually gender integration rather than segregation that is holding women back.