Tag Archives: women

Women only communities: feminisms past or future?

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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

Judy has learned English and now has a job thanks to her women only community

Judy has learned English and now has a job thanks to her women only community

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.

Active feminists

“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.”

BEADS EDIT

These Kenyan women sell traditional homemade jewellery to passing tourists in order to provide for their children

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.”

WRAC BADGE

The WRAC was disbanded in the early 90s to make way for gender integration across the military

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.

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Cambridge University: all-female education

Cambridge University became the last university in England to have all-female colleges after Oxford’s St Hilda’s College opened its doors to men in 2008. Some may question whether this kind of single sex living and education is old fashioned. Is it necessary in a society where gender equality is becoming more prevalent? To find out more, watch the video below:

Carmelite Nuns: under the habit

Quidenham PuesA sense of tranquility at the Quidenham Carmelite Monastery is one you would expect of a Catholic convent where the nuns live in almost complete silence, and it’s certainly one that lingers… Most of the time.

However, I’m told it’s not always a placid and peaceful atmosphere within the walls of the cloisters, as under the habit of each nun lies a normal woman, like you and me. Listen to this podcast where Sister Stephanie tells me about the trials and tribulations of squabbles in silence:

A life of silence: Carmelite nuns

The silence was peaceful, not eerie, around the grounds of the Quidenham Carmel.

This group of dedicated nuns follow the Rule of Carmel, a pledge of silent prayer, which was actually written by a man, for a group of men on Mount Carmel, in the early 13th century.

Quidenham Carmel Window“The stamp of a woman”

“Then in 16th century Spain, Sister Teresa of Avila, who had been a Carmelite nun for about 20 years, reformed the order to become the Discalced Carmelite Order and that’s what we belong to”, explained Sister Shelagh as she broke the silent rule to tell me about her experiences as a nun.

“So in fact our order was founded by a woman based on the original male tradition, but it’s got the stamp of a woman on it.”

Sister Shelagh was 33 when she entered the convent and had lead a colourful life prior to making her vows.

“I had done various different jobs, I was teaching for the first four or five years before I entered. I was active in the peace movement, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and I did a lot of music, but there was a hunger that wouldn’t go away.

“Whatever I did never felt as though it was quite enough and I was constantly searching for more.”

From the bridal veil to the habit

Shelagh was married before she became a nun, but after about ten years both her and her husband chose lives of monasticism over their relationship.

“In the end I found that when I came here, that deep hunger was satisfied and I had a contentment which I had never managed to achieve before.”

“Deep bond of unity”

While living in such a closed community, Sister Shelagh says she still feels like an individual.

“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 am grateful for the support.

“But it is also a constant challenge to live with people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”

Quidenham PuesSacrifice

Sister Stephanie spoke to me about how tensions sometimes arise and are resolved through trust and silence within the convent.

“I think a hard part about community like ours where so much of our time is actually lived in silence apart from necessary work talk, if you know you’ve really made a boob, you’ve really mucked something up, even your opportunities to apologise and say ‘I’m so sorry’ are limited.

“I think, for a lot of the women here, and certainly for women coming in today, so much is out in the open, is talked about. There’s a lot of ‘we’ve got to sit down and discuss this’, or ‘lets talk this one through’, and I think that is something particularly feminine.

“So in a sense, we’re actually being asked to sacrifice that by living in silence and allow that to happen on a deeper level.”

While there are still arguments and disagreements, like in any community, in this convent, during my time there I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of calm contentment among all of the women.

Call of Duty: WRAC Ops

WRAC BADGE

The WRAC was once the all-female branch of the Army

For a room where the average age was most likely over sixty, they were a rowdy bunch at the Britannia Birmingham Hotel on this chilly Wednesday afternoon.

The Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) Association’s Christmas celebration was dubbed the liveliest of the month so far by the catering staff – a title the ladies fought to keep throughout the afternoon.

The WRAC was the female branch of the Army since the early 20th century but was later disbanded in the 90’s and the women were forced to integrate with the men.

During the life of the WRAC there were all-female units across the country. Trudi Banning joined the WRAC in 1991 and had a short-lived career in one of these all-female army environments.

Best career move

Despite her brief encounter, however, she still described it as the best career move she ever made.

“It was like family and friends and a job all in one.”

Trudi Banning, went through the transition period as the WRAC was disbanded

Trudi Banning, went through the transition period as the WRAC was disbanded

When Trudi began serving in the WRAC, recruitment was all women. As she put it herself: there were “no men allowed”.

Then, when the corps was disbanded in 1992, she had to undergo the transition period.

“Women had to conform to what the men had to do”, she explained to me as we escaped the mayhem of the party.

“Not only were there to be mixed sex units, but all the training had to change. The women were expected to run as fast as the men in the basic fitness tests.”

While some members of the WRAC were pleased with the transition and introduction of gender equality, others were dubious about the change.

“I think if it had been down to us, our decision and our choice, we’d never had got rid of the WRAC but again, that decision was taken out of our hands.

”It was a shame. Personally deep down, I think they should never have disbanded the WRAC because of the structure that it stands for. The WRAC will never die.”

In fact, at the age of 39, Trudi is one of the youngest members of the WRAC and she could eventually be one of the last surviving members too.

“It is sad because we will lose our identity and eventually we will die out and people will forget all about us” mused Babs Blay as the party dispersed.

A sisterhood

Babs Blay is one of the more active members of the WRAC

Babs Blay is one of the more active members of the WRAC

She explained to me that the last generation of WRAC ladies is already 38 years old, as 1992 was the last year women would be assigned to all-female units.

Nonetheless, she ensured me her enthusiasm for the association is certainly not dying – nor is anyone else’s.

While she had never served with any of the women at the Birmingham branch of the association, she said it didn’t matter.

“It’s like a language that we have, we understand each other. If anyone, even now, is in trouble then everybody comes together.”

“Where would we go for this camaraderie? That’s what it’s about really, the camaraderie and the sisterhood, knowing there’s always somebody there for you.”

The Women of Umoja

Set on the banks of the Uaso River, Archer’s Post, Kenya, this small community of women have struggled, fought and worked hard to rebuild their lives after fleeing conflict, abusive husbands and controlling fathers.

A woman of unity

Under the equatorial scalding sun there is a buzz of conversation, productivity and gossip among the women of Umoja, Kenya.

This small, extraordinary village is a simple yet beautiful arrangement of mud huts and acacia trees, with only one rule: no men allowed.

The women gather in what little shade the sparse foliage can provide and get to work on their livelihood: bead making.

The Umoja (meaning unity) Women’s Village has residents from all over Kenya who have remarkable stories to tell. They have come here because family members or husbands have forced them to run away.

Nagusi, who had to leave her family after she was allegedly raped by a British Soldier, was one of the founders of the village.

“We started building this village in 1990 because we had so many problems with our families that we had to run away.

“We asked ourselves ‘how can we build a home and provide for our children?’ So we decided to build this village for us, no men allowed.”

“Then we started making the beads and selling them to passing tourists. Thanks to them we had enough money and energy to build a preshool for our children.”

After escaping forced marriage to a HIV positive old man, Judy (pictured above) arrived in Archer’s Post, to find the women of Umoja.

“My father wanted me to marry an old man, so I said no, because that man had HIV Aids and he was 60 years old. So I said no and I ran away.

“When I came to Archer’s Post I heard of this village called Umoja. The women took me in and treated me as their child, so I started making the beads, and now I’m ok. I am happy now.”

Since joining the women of Umoja Judy has been to school, learnt English, and even had a daughter.

Learn more about their stories and see the Women of Umoja web video here.