I read an article this week about a village in Kenya where men are banned, and the women who live there. Umoja, the Swahili word for unity, is an intentional community formed in 1990 by 15 women who had been raped by British soldiers at a nearby base, and met with anger and blame by their families. Residents now range from 98 years old to infancy, as women have fled domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and even the loneliness and isolation following the death of a spouse. They pool their money, which is appropriated to each household for food and education based on numbers, rather than status.
The striking part of the article, for me, was the interview of an 18 year old woman who has lived there since she was carried on her mother’s back at the age of three. She describes how, in the surrounding patriarchal culture, a life outside of the community would have meant no education, probably genital mutilation, and marriage at a young age to an older man as his second or third wife.
I had been thinking for several days before I read this article about how I live this later part of my life in a world encircled mostly by women. I am a family nurse practitioner, which is an overwhelmingly female-dominated profession. I am surrounded daily by nurses, auxiliary health professionals, and administrative staff — also positions with heavy concentrations of female workers compared to men.
I remember, about ten years ago, a conversation with a smart, funny, and motherly nurse co-worker and friend, who heard me lamenting about how my husband didn’t listen to me. “Ohhhhh, honey,” she clucked. “That’s what you have your women friends for. Men aren’t good at things like that. Lawn care and auto maintenance — that’s what men are good at.”
Men, and sometimes women — in a heartbreaking display of internalized misogyny — are prone to describe female-dominated workplaces as hotbeds of emotional mayhem, back biting and cat fighting. The jokes are that hormones drip from the light fixtures, performance is skewed by timing in a menstrual cycle, and reason takes a back seat to feelings. (And by jokes, I mean actual reasons given for the glass ceilings and wage disparity still glaringly obvious in almost every occupation.)
Reading the story of Umoja, however, I thought about what it must be like growing up in a world where you felt safe from the constant underlying simmer of male violence that every woman has lived with since her first toddling steps. No stone faced response to catcalling, no learning to hold your keys in your hand, poking through the fingers as potential weapons, no knowing to walk in pairs or groups whenever possible — what must that be like? Would one take deeper breaths and exhale more completely just naturally? Would one’s limbs be more fluid, more relaxed?
There’s a reason why women plan Girls Weekends, and it’s not — as men may think — because they want to skip the traces and sample other flavors, as it were. Even the men surrounding the village of Umoja are recorded as saying, in criticism, that there is no way the women of the community aren’t sneaking out to meet with the men around the countryside. Clearly, the thought goes, the biggest goal on the women’s minds is men.
Sorry, fellas. You ain’t it.
As I have gotten older, I have hosted a few women’s gatherings at my house, in the back yard oasis with a pool and a deck and a porch swing. You know what we do? We eat, we drink, we laugh. We lean forward in our chairs, knees touching, and listen as one woman talks about her struggle with her teenage son, offering hands to hold and tissues for falling tears, but not solutions or answers or advice. We lean back, knees over the arms of our chairs, without a care for decorum, laughing about our own foibles or those of our men. We hold hands and we hug. We discuss our work lives, our love lives, politics, spirituality, and our dreams for the future for ourselves and for those we love. We connect.
I love going to work, and the number one reason is because of my coworkers. There are a few men at my clinic, outnumbered 20:1, but the women who work with me are my sisters. They notice when I’ve lost weight and celebrate with me. They sidle up beside me and nudge me in comfort when they know my dog is dying. We have perfected a dance, intricate but efficient, where we anticipate each other’s needs and have learned each other’s routines. We are not intimidated or challenged by each other’s brilliance and accomplishments, and we don’t jockey for position in a hierarchy.
I have also worked in male-dominated workplaces, and I can tell you that is very different as a female. Men and women communicate differently, and use body language differently. I’m in my late fifties, and with a lifetime of acculturation as a woman, there is a different kind of wariness for a woman surrounded by men. Wordlessly, we accept the fact that we feel less safe — physically, emotionally, and professionally.
The idea of Umoja, the village in Kenya, continues to bob to the surface in my mind. I imagine what it would be like to live there, relaxing at the end of the day in front of tiny homes, chatting with other women, with children playing nearby. I think about Western women, and how we gather together in occupations and church groups, for girls weekends and women’s retreats. I get it. I understand and I celebrate the Kenyans’ strength and courage and grit, their recognition of their own worth and the way they protect and elevate each other.
Do you have a space where you are wrapped up by other women?