Women should be other women’s natural allies. The fact that they are not is not accidental. It is the genius of cultural design – to ensure that each woman stays alone and isolated. If women came together to stand up for each other against unfairness or misuse of power, whether in the home, offices or on the streets, it would break the cultural, social, political and economic arrangements that prop up the power and privileges of men, and the non-existence of women as full human beings.

When I asked women and men about women’s relationships with women, especially after seeing them in happy groups in shopping centres, malls, cinema halls and coffee shops, I expected to hear stories of sisterhood, empathy, compassion and love. Instead, what emerged was a stream of negativity, example after example of broken trust.

The more I probed, the more the pattern showed up. Women talked about women as if they are deeply flawed characters beyond correction.

I did not find a single strong case of an adult woman standing up for another adult woman within her circle of family and friends who was in trouble. This was true even of women who work on issues of empowerment of poor and abused women. Women speak about empowerment but they do not embody empowerment in their own lives.

Trust is the firm belief that someone or something is reliable, predictable and will not harm you. When you trust, you feel safe; the world is safe. Without trust, the world could not function. We would drown in rules. Trust makes exchange and trade possible – it makes collective action possible. Women who are trained in childhood not to trust others are therefore at a great disadvantage. It is like living permanently stalled at a red traffic light. Living in a world with women you do not trust is frightening; it cheats you of a sense of belonging and makes any collective action or resistance to unfairness, exploitation or disrespect almost impossible. Women start to hate themselves and other women; it comes with the territory of belonging to a group that is so marginal that it is not supposed to exist. For the larger culture this is perfect because it limits any possibility of fundamental change on a large scale. It preserves the status quo despite advances through legislation.

Jyoti, 36, is stylish, with a shaved head, and is raising two young daughters. Jyoti says, “Trust means faith in someone for your own peace of mind. The biggest reason I trust easily is because it brings me peace to imagine that the world is good, that I am in no immediate or long- term threat from anyone. Having doubts destroys my peace so I choose to be at peace by trusting.” She listens well to other women and displays what researchers call both cognitive and emotional empathy.

Further conversation reveals, however, that in reality, Jyoti does not trust anyone including her own mother. She says, “My ability to trust is ambiguous and paradoxical. On the one hand, I trust strangers easily. But I keep distance even in my closest relationships, keeping my innermost thoughts absolutely to myself. I am socially and emotionally self-sufficient.” In other words, she does not need or trust anybody. But she is proud that she is trustworthy to others which to her means an “absence of judgement followed by the ability to listen and understand others”.

In fact, most women we interviewed categorise only themselves as trustworthy, the exception to the rule, but they categorise all other women as untrustworthy. These women see themselves as good but judge other women as “not so good”. Devika, 25, with a degree in economics, says, “Such a suspicious girl I am. I don’t trust anyone. I believe women are a little loose with secrets. I keep my secrets with me. I don’t trust telling them, it is like putting a loudspeaker on the rooftop.” Many women said, “Why trust anyone?”

I interviewed several mother and grown-up-daughter pairs in the USA and in India. None of the mothers or daughters was willing to talk in front of the other even though they love each other. And they all said that they did not trust women, not even within the family.

Like many women, Saloni, 25, who is an HR officer, said, “As far as women in the family are concerned, I don’t feel comfortable being open with them. They have never gained that trust for me to talk with them without suspecting their intentions.

Some women hesitate but others openly say that women are jealous and constantly compete with each other. “In front of you they appreciate you but when you are not in front of them they say negative things about you. Women are hypocrites, men are not like that, girls deceive you easily, they will say things sweetly, but in their hearts they are bad. Women backbite more than men,” says Indira, 60, from a well-off family. Muskan, 15, a science student, has reached the same conclusion. “There is a lot of backbiting among women, so I tell my mother just not to meet other women.”

Deepa Narayan

The most institutionalised form of competition and meanness is evident in the saas–bahu soap dramas, a response to a structured system in which women derive their power from competing and fighting for control over the same powerful man, the son/husband. The well-being of the mother-in-law in the long run depends on her son’s loyalty to her, and the well-being of the new wife depends on her control over the same man, her husband. Even though marriage is essential to continue the lineage, for the mother-in-law the daughter-in- law – the new, young, sexual being – embodies the notion of romantic love, making the jodi, the couple, the most dominant threat to her son’s loyalty to her.

Educated, older, salaried daughters-in-law are even more of a threat than 18-year-olds who are easier to control. No wonder that in many households position, rank and power are clarified even today on day one, sometimes crudely, across social classes.

Sunita, 35, from the lower-income group, says, “When I got married and came to their house, she gave me boras [jute sacks] to sleep on. Such a bitch, she used to tell my husband to beat me up, I am happy she died.” Lekha, 27, from the educated middle-income group, says, “On the first day my mother-in-law told me she didn’t like me and had never liked me and my parents were cheap, my father useless.” Her husband stood by silently. Anu, 50, from the upper-income group, says, “If there’s one person I detest it’s my mom-in-law. I would shoot her point-blank if I had a chance, but I won’t since we have a common link, my husband...She is cruel.” Sometimes the struggle for power is more indirect, through silences and pretending the other does not exist. Sonia, 31, complains, “No matter how much I do for her, she only asks after her son, she never asks how I am doing.” For her mother-in-law she does not exist.

In addition to backbiting, women speak about gossip, another “weapon of the weak”, which also has a social and evolutionary function. It spreads information and it reinforces norms, but it also isolates women from each other.

Sireesha, 25, has developed a strategy to cope with her need for close girlfriends and the possibility that secrets will become weapons used against her if a friendship ends. She diversifies her secret portfolio among her friends to manage risk. “Women cannot keep things inside, it’s a big no. So, I consider one friend, one secret at a time only. Example, none of my friends knows all my secrets. I share my secrets based on their intellectual capacity.” If the friendship ends, the damage is limited.

When women judge each other as untrustworthy, mean-spirited, jealous, gossipy and unsupportive, it makes sense that they do not want to associate with each other, let alone organise themselves into groups, networks or their own political parties. Men have more extensive and influential networks than women. The absence of women’s groups, alliances and networks in the middle and upper classes is not accidental. It too is guaranteed not to happen, an outcome of a system that keeps women divided from each other. Divide and conquer is a proven strategy that always works.

Despite the famed women’s self-help groups in rural India, almost none of the women living in cities with whom I spoke belong to a women’s group. In fact, just about all of them are anti-women-in-groups.

Most women laugh at the very idea of a women’s group. Suwbha, 31, an outspoken woman who teaches at Miranda House, a premier women’s college in Delhi, says, “No...ha ha, this is funny, I never had such an idea in my life. If I join any group, it will be the ideology of the group that will take over me as a person, which I never want to happen. I don’t want to be part of groups, they kill individuality and I am determined to live on my own.”

When asked if they belong to any groups, many women said they do not indulge in gossip, assuming that when women come together gossip is all they do. In addition to judgemental negative attitudes, most women just do not see the point of women getting together. Aditi, 44, says, “No, I never felt the need and never had the time.” Similarly, Ridhi, 25, says, “I don’t mind but I have no specific desire to join one. I have never even thought of one.” Powerless people often do not see the point of getting together with other powerless people.

Excerpted with permission from Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, Deepa Narayan, Juggernaut.