Dissident Friendships

EDITION: Bad New Times.

How can we think about political relations between women? Can intimacy be a radical act? A recent book aims to examine these questions.

Dissident Friendships: Feminism, Imperialism, and Transnational Solidarity, edited by Elora Chowdhury and Liz Philipose, promises to foster a transnational analytic of care that is not defensive or reactionary, and is cognisant of systems of power. In short, the writers evaluate relationships between women that may or may not be conducive to the emancipation of all women. “Friendship” is defined as an experience that is relevant to collective life, containing emotions, love, intimacy, and caring which are essential for the creation of “life-enhancing communities”; and “dissident friendship” is defined by Leela Gandhi as “all those affective gestures that refuse alignment.” At its heart, this book is asking: how do friendships between dissident bodies from different backgrounds work within systems of power that work to undermine togetherness? Are “dissident friendships” possible between women whose class, race, and caste might undermine the connection women have due to being the same gender? Are “dissident friendships” between women enough to start the work of dismantling systems of power? This book struck us as something to review in this moment, because our own dissident friendship has given us political strength to produce dissidence together and apart

However, as feminist scholars from Latin America working in a white Eurocentric feminist space, we also recognize the limitations and romanticisations of friendships between women, where the concept of sisterhood often serves as an excuse for not having hard conversations about privilege and dismantling power in the academy. Though we began this review before the global pandemic radically changed the way we live, the concepts we’ll explore are also applicable to current rhetorics about how “we are all in this together”, when no amount of “togetherness” will erase the social inequalities worsening the crisis, particularly for nations in the Global South. Challenging the positivisms of sisterhood and dissident friendships is important so we can re-formulate these feminist concepts into more manageable goals that are perhaps focused on survival and drawing strength from each other rather than expecting sisterhood and friendship to solve inequalities between us altogether. In this way, we found the book a courageous and essential attempt to start a difficult conversation within feminist spaces; though of course gender is commonground between many feminists, other categories, like race, class, and sexuality, can easily destroy “sisterhood” as it is imagined by liberal feminists. In turn, these other categories are often ignored in order to maintain the image of “sisterhood” alive. This book proposes to put these processes under a microscope, which we view as a courageous first step at challenging the mythology of sisterhood. At some points, the authors are extremely successful in doing this, excavating their privilege and differences deeply; but at other points, friendship between women is idealised. We suggest these idealisations should be taken as cautionary tales, with lessons to be learned from their failings.

The concept of sisterhood often serves as an excuse for not having hard conversations about privilege and dismantling power.

In writing this review, we found it important to reflect on our own dissident friendship: what do we mean to each other, and how does that strengthen our political aims? We are both racialised women from Latin America with a certain amount of middle class privilege who met in an academic space that does not welcome our kind of dissidence. We are both anarchists who saw kindred spirits in each other as soon as we met, finding common ground in our gender, racialisation, and political dissidence. We have found that the way we are passionate about social justice is frowned upon in the academy and within our own cultural spaces; our passion comes across as anger in white Western spaces, and in spaces where we might be expected to feel more ‘at home’, our challenges to the norms of our culture come across as disloyal and queer. Intuitively, when we met, we knew we could be ourselves with each other; loud, political and dissenting in ways people would not expect women to be, let alone racialised women in the UK. There is something we cannot name about why we get along so well, even as we try to explain how we feel about each other. The fact is that we draw strength from each other for working towards our individual political goals, and we also collaborate with each other to produce dissidence. However, we also recognise the limitations of our friendship: our relationship does not abolish our complicity and oppression in a violent capitalist system, but it does give us the tools and strength to survive it. It is with this personal insight of our own dissident friendship that we review this book.

Though all the writers in this book attempt not to romanticise the concept of friendship between women, or to idealise sisterhood as feminist spaces so often do, some of the chapters fail in these attempts. One example of this is Chapter 4: “For Sister or State? Nationalism and the Indigenous and Bengali Women’s Movements in Bangladesh”, by Kabita Chakma and Glen Hill. The chapter gives important historical context to readers who are unaware of the Bangladeshi military colonisation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), and the consequences of this for the Jumma indigenous people in the area. The authors tell the story of two women’s movements – the mainstream Bengali women’s movement, and the lesser-known Indigenous women’s movement in CHT–and describe occasions of “mutual support and friendship” between the two. We feel that characterising the instances these two groups worked together — collaborations which often involved disrespectful colonial and nationalistic behaviour from the Bengali women’s movement, with little gain for the Jumma women — as friendship romanticises relationships between women. Although the authors describe the incredible inequalities faced by Indigenous women in CHT — “indigenous women’s access to development, health, education, and justice appear significantly inferior to that of their Bengali sisters” — they fail to reflect on what this means in relation to their characterising relationships between the two movements as “friendships,” despite the book’s intention to demystify the concept in feminist spaces. That the Jumma women’s movement has sometimes worked with the Bengali Women’s Movement, despite a difference in political goals, is not exactly a show of friendship, but a strategic necessity that is a direct result of colonialism and Bangladeshi nationalism. A strategic alliance that results from colonialism is not a friendship; it is a political relationship with goals, and to classify this as a “dissident friendship” is to romanticise bonds between women, regardless of class, race and history. Unfortunately, to us, this chapter takes the concept of “dissident friendship” too far.

A strategic alliance that results from colonialism is not a friendship; it is a political relationship with goals.

Similarly, but perhaps in the opposite direction, Chapter 9: A Spirit of Solidarity: Transatlantic Friendships among Early Twentieth-century Female Peace Activists (Wilpfers), romanticises female friendships at the expense of any analysis of the material effects of class and race. The writer, Laurie R Cohen, retrieves the correspondence between early twentieth century peace activists from the archives, and argues that the relationships we see unfolding in the correspondence gave women engaging in the novel area of peace activism strength to continue their work. Though the correspondence is often delightful to read (“[Hedwig von] Potting ceased her initial informalities and began addressing Suttner as her dear ‘Lowo’– [Bertha Von] Suttner’s invented and playful words, which deviated from the grammatical gendered German rule of male and female and which we may today render as a queer word for ‘lion’–and signing off as ‘Hexer’(witch).”), the overall argument is undercut by the women’s race and class positionalities which the author, although she touches upon them briefly, does not clarify that certain social and economic privilege would have enabled these women to become ‘unruly bodies’ by engaging in activism at a time where this was unheard of. Here, the romanticisation of friendship obscures material factors that were no doubt essential to the work these women were able to do. Though Cohen discusses how the friendships themselves became complicated by the women’s respective positionalities, the overall sense of the chapter suggests that peace activists drew strength solely from one another, rather than a combination of class and racial privilege as well as their friendship. Perhaps these two chapters can be taken as cautionary writings that use the concept of female friendships and/or dissidence to obscure very complex relationships between women where power relations are either unequal, or underexplored.

Some of the chapters promised conclusions they could not deliver, and we feel this indicates the authors did not reflect deeply enough on their own dissident friendships. The first chapter, “Epistemic Friendships: Collective Knowledge-Making through Transnational Feminist Praxis” gave us the impression we would be getting to know the authors intimately, but instead we got extensive descriptions of the authors’ achievements. We wanted to know, what made some of these women uncomfortable about their position in society? How far did they fall when they realised we are all complicit in the society we live in, even in dissidence? And how did they pull themselves together and attempt to repair this break from reality? To us, dissident friendships are about this intimate breaking of realities, where complicity and/or oppression are discovered through friendships that make us better feminists and enactors of social justice. This is what was missing in many of these chapters — it felt as if these hard parts, this pain in privilege and complicity, were being hidden from us. This was also a shortcoming of Chapter 5, “Solidarity Through Dissidence: Violence and Community in Indian Cinema” by Alka Kurian, where instances of intimacy weren’t observable in the text — as women who value intimacy as a place of resistance, learning, and embodied of solidarity, we were hoping to get at least a glimpse of how dissidence and intimacy relate to each other.

In our view, intimacy and its importance are concepts that should be understood by everyone. However, one of the major problems of the collection is how inaccessible some of the chapters are, especially in terms of language. The chapters in Part 3 of the collection, “Neoliberalism, Agency, Friendship”, are the most theoretical and therefore the most convoluted, even if they’re drawing from a lot of the same theoretical framework as that the rest of the essays. But this accessibility issue also has to do with whom the text is centred on. Although we don’t deny that this collection is intended for a particular audience, we remain critical of forms of theorisation that use the experiences of activists and marginalised communities for content, whilst engaging with these communities in ways that are alienating. Chapter 7, Elora Halim Chowdhury’s “The Space Between Us: Reading Umrigar and Sangari in the Quest for Female Friendship”, is an essay on Thrity Umrigar’s novel The Space Between Us. The chapter analyses the ways middle-class femininity can be complicit in the maintenance of patriarchy by favouring its own security, and is very acute in its critique of friendships and alliances based on gender oppression, and the fragility of these bonds when other aspects of these relationships are left unchallenged. Nonetheless, the text focuses too heavily on the privileged subject-perspectives, and leaves the other side of this friendship unexplored. In a very similar way, Chapter 8 – Sheerekha Subramanian’s “Who Are ‘We’ in the Novel?”, which also looks at Thrity Umrigar’s novel — introduces the issue of globalisation but struggles with analysing the ways in which this might affect the relationship between the characters, by positioning most of the analysis from the perspective of middle class femininity. Once again we find ourselves only being able to understand friendship from an individual perspective. In this sense, Esha Niyogi De’s essay, “Kinship Drives, Friendly Affects: Difference and Dissidence in the New Indian Border Cinema”, an analysis of how the friendship trope in cinema serves the individualistic neoliberal imagination, seems particularly interesting in a collection that has some issues with romanticising friendships between women. At the same time, the selection of films explored manages to bring a necessary multiplicity to the issue of perspective. However, we learn very little about how most of the dissident friendships portrayed in these films might work.

The process of recognising that friendship and solidarity is both possible beyond and restricted by our own disparities in power and privilege seems central to many of the essays in this collection. In Chapter 3 “Bridging the Divide in Feminism with Transcultural Feminist Solidarity: Using the Example of Forging Friendship and Solidarity between Chinese and U.S. Women”, author Yuangfang Dai develops the notion of transcultural feminist solidarity in the context of globalisation, using the example of the fraught relationships between Chinese and U.S. feminists. She critiques notions of “global sisterhood” or “common oppression” in reference to solidarity amongst women, arguing that these terms are incapable of addressing the historical and irreconcilable weight of the relationship between these two nations, and proposes instead a self-conscious form of coalition. Her theoretical efforts in imagining this new form of coalition follow Lugones’ incentive of trying to travel to each other’s world and strive for plurality. Even though this chapter doesn’t really give us an example of a successful coalition over time, it does propose an interesting theoretical framework with accessible language. It offers a historical account of the trials and errors of this transcultural relationship, and, most importantly, gives us an approachable notion of what this kind of solidarity might look like.

The chapters that truly manage to both illustrate and expand the notion of dissident friendships are those that show us glimpses of intimacy; those that can get into the messiness of what these relationships can look like. One of those is Chapter 2 “Meditations on Friendship: Politics of Feminist Solidarity in Ethnography”, which discusses the role friendships play in ethnographic fieldwork and academic rituals. The authors, Azza Basarudin and Himika Bhattacharya, share complicated relationships with their own research as “native” feminist ethnographers with close academic, political and personal ties with their interlocutors in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Lahaul, India, respectively. Basarudin’s friendship with a former member of the organisation she’s working with puts her in uncomfortable positions regarding her loyalties and the kind of private knowledge she has of the organisation, and Bhattacharya finds herself supporting a friend who has made a decision that contradicts both of their work and political principles, in the face of horrifying violence. Neither of them shies away from recognising their own biases in their fieldwork, or from the harsh questions that scholars who are both privileged and powerful in their communities, but unprivileged and vulnerable in academic settings, sometimes have to ask themselves. They struggle with the consequences of their decisions both at an academic and personal level, and they show us the difficult process of embodying it all. Both of their accounts feel deeply personal and let us sit with the uncomfortable feelings that dissidence can produce.

The final chapter achieves something similar. “The Dissidence of Daily Life: Feminist Friendships and the Social Fabric of Democracy” takes the form of a dialogue between Lori E. Amy, a U.S. based researcher on trauma, and Eglantina Gjermeni, a political activist in post-communist Albania. In a text that manages to feel like an intimate conversation, the authors discuss their very different lives: one as the daughter of an abusive war veteran who later became a scholar, and the other a formerly obedient citizen who became politically active through her work in gender and development. They also discuss their constant negotiation of their friendship. From the beginning they admit the benefits, especially in terms of connections, that they bring to each other in political terms. At the same time, they admit how their political experiences differ greatly from each other, as do some of their political goals. Amy constantly remembers the entangled web of U.S. imperialism, and the privileged position she occupies whilst in Albania, and Gjermeni is hyper-conscious of the kind of high-stakes political decisions she manages, and how the two of them are fundamentally different. Despite these challenges, their friendship endures because of their feelings for each other; because each has a permanent commitment to the other’s well-being. This is presented as a political principle, as a means of reconstructing a social fabric in the aftermath of horror and trauma. The dissident part of their friendships is not built on their difference, nor on some assumed commonality, but on the creation of a relationship that seeks to create new knowledge and new values in the everyday struggle.

The dissident part of their friendships is not built on their difference, nor on some assumed commonality, but on the creation of a relationship that seeks to create new knowledge and new values in the everyday struggle.

This chapter ends the book on such a high note that it’s easy to think of feminist friendship as the cure-all for the atrocities of capitalism, especially in times of social isolation, when feelings of anxiety, anger and hopelessness make our anarchist longings for community feel so much more radical and necessary. More so when the sort of friendship this collection talks about is the kind of disobedient friendship - brown, loud, from the Global South, both intellectual and embodied - that can feel both like a challenge and a necessity in the spaces that we routinely inhabit.

But the issue is that the romanticisation of women’s friendships, or any friendship, very rarely manages to accomplish what it wants. The idea is that in this relationship - with the things that we share in it, the people we become in it—we are going to manage to reunite everything that the outside world has managed to separate. That by forming a friendship between women who are not supposed to have anything in common, we are going to overcome our class or caste or race, or by embracing fellow women of colour as sisters in spaces that do not welcome us and seek to make us compete for space, we are going to erase the fact that there’s still only space for one of us, if there’s space at all. That within the little world our friendship creates, we can overcome the structural damage and the structural advantages we arrived with. And the thing is, we can’t.

The best essays in this collection explore this tension and are unapologetic in the ways they mess with us. In these chapters, there are no easy answers and no neatly closed endings. The women writing them show themselves to us in all their doubts, concerns, and regrets. But they show us a sort of intimacy that seems relatable and possible, because it doesn’t promise things it cannot deliver; it doesn’t present a series of unattainable goals that in the end will only make us feel worse because we are unable to reach them. The importance of these experiences lies not in the illusion of equality, but in the ways they show us how dissident friendships are crucial for survival, helping us maintain resistance, but also crucial for thriving, by confronting us with our differences and allowing us to grow.


Nicole Froio and Constanza Marambio

Nicole and Constanza are activists, dissidents, and friends.