Celebrating the Transformative Power of Female Friendship

Unity by Nelum Walpola

Unity by Nelum Walpola

I first learnt about the work of writer Emily Rapp after listening to a radio interview about her latest memoir which chronicles the harrowing story of her young son’s diagnosis and inevitable death from incurable Tay-Sach’s disease. What surprised me the most was that Emily had finished her book and was promoting it just a month after Ronan’s death. The rawness and fragility in her voice was palpable and I was stunned that she was able to be so lucid and articulate given the circumstances.

Intrigued, I did some research and found out that this woman was no stranger to heartache. She had had one of her legs amputated, the result of a congenital birth defect and wears a prosthetic limb. She has worked all over the world in various capacities, but particularly in the humanitarian aid and relief field, witnessing firsthand just how unfair and unjust the world can be.

She has also studied at some of the world’s most prestigious universities (and even did a stint in Seoul as a Fullbright Scholar), and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has masters degrees in theological studies and creative writing. It seems to me that a large part of her existence is based on processing and making sense of the world, of heartbreak and despair. And through her writing, she does so with such grace and poignancy.

I was particularly drawn to one article of hers that was written last year about the importance of female friendship and how her relationship with a group of women she met in her formative early 20’s spurred her own development. In it, she chronicles her relationship with three older women she meets when she arrives in Geneva to work as a naive 22 year old. The women refer to themselves as ‘the Wrinklies’, but despite the age gap, they become like family, as all four women are unmarried, living alone and working to help others in need.

Despite their closeness, Emily admits to feeling sorry for them at the time. As she writes:

They weren’t married, they weren’t mothers – and at this time, and up until very recently, I clung to the belief that this constituted some failure on their part. They found me equally mystifying. Was I really worried about the size of my ass or trying to finagle a recent date with a man they thought (from my description) was boring and slightly odious? (He was.) Was it a good use of my time, they wondered, to hang out in bars getting smashed and looking to score and by doing this (they were rightfully doubtful) find “the love of my life” when I said I wanted to be a writer?  

Another thread weaved throughout the piece is the questioning of what your life ‘should’ look like. In her own words:

I was also keen to make my life look “normal” and “acceptable” in some way because I have a disability; if I didn’t get the body part right, I reasoned (irrationally, although it seemed quite rational at the time), I could get the “what your life looks like” part right. While I was obsessing about how I looked and who would love me, these women were helping to save the world – not in a way that would win them accolades, certainly – but the work they were doing was important and life-giving. And there I sat, foolishly pitying them.

Then, she zooms out and considers how female friendship is thought about in the culture at large, the narratives that are inscribed upon it, the stereotypes and myths that are so prevalent, at least in the west. In her own words:

…it also made me realize how much people diminish and poo-poo the real power and strength of female friendship, especially between women, which is either supposed to descend into some kind of male lesbian love scene porn fantasy or be dismissed as meaningless or be re-written as a story of competition. Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.

She then zooms back in on her own life and expresses how her female friends helped her during the time when she found out about her son’s fatal disease and imminent death (when the article was published in 2012, he was still alive, but died earlier this year). She writes that:

My friends stood with me in the middle of the scary, sky-howling road I was on, knowing they couldn’t take away the pain of the experience, but promising to be there when I emerged on the other side of the grief tunnel when my child would be gone. I feel them, every day, standing there as I stumble through the blissful, heart-breaking hours with my son whose brain and body fail him a little bit more each day. It is not an exaggeration to say that I would not have survived – that I will not survive — without my women friends.

And then, back to the Wrinklies. Emily tells us that the youngest of the three had a stroke as a result of a brain tumor. The other two women took care of her, as if she was family (well, they were). When Emily witnesses the ways in which they had taken care of the paralyzed friend on a visit to Geneva, she has a realization.

The unaffected two had learned to understand the other’s few words; they wiped her face, helped her eat and made her laugh. This was a snapshot of what my own deep friendships could lead to: transformation. I saw, on that afternoon, that it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship. That a friend can take you out of the boxes you’ve made for yourself and burn them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love. When the youngest Wrinklie died, I remember getting the news in my apartment in Berkeley, married, already knowing it wouldn’t last, and thinking she was lucky. And she was.

She then lists all the incredible, above-and-beyond things that her female friends have done for her as she has clawed her way through the dark abyss of the last few years. Finally, she emphasizes the transformative and transcendent nature of these relationships. And her conclusion is nothing short of hopeful.

Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends…what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.


The Day I am Finally Shocked

silenceIt finally happened. Up until this point, I had experienced varying degrees of surprise, anger, disgust, horror, outrage, depression, hopelessness and a sense of injustice when being confronted with daily reminders of Cambodia’s dark side: her tragic past and poverty-stricken present. Call me jaded, but I hadn’t experienced outright shock.

I mean, I had visited The Killing Fields and felt depressed and somber at being surrounded by the mass graves of some 8,000 men, women and children and cringed when I saw the blood on the bark of a tree that babies’ heads were smashed against. I felt the same kind of emotions at Tuol Sleng Prison (now a museum) where 18,000 people had been tortured and executed.

I was horrified when I saw one of the little girls at one of the centers I teach at – her father threw acid on her face and body and now all her skin is burnt, melted away and she has disfigurement, severe scarring and must wear a hat at all times. Then there is another little one, a new recruit who is so malnourished you can count her ribs and who is suffering from myriad diseases. If the organisation hadn’t found her, she would’ve been dead in weeks.

Then there was the news that my fellow volunteer, a banker from Paris was attacked when riding her bike out in the provinces. The young men threw her off her bike and stole her money and passport, leaving her stranded, bleeding with nothing. That was close to home. As was the news several days ago that a French woman had been found floating in a river, dead and naked with severe head injuries in a location that I was in only a week prior. These incidences were disturbing, but not shocking.

So, here I am teaching my class of eight first-year university students. We are talking about Valentine’s Day and its significance in Cambodia. We read an article written by a Cambodian about how the special day has been misinterpreted by young Cambodians as a day to be ‘promiscuous’ and have sex (on the surface, Cambodians are supposed to wait until marriage, but it seems the reality is different), rather than a time to show your appreciation and love for your friends and family.

There is a line in the article about how a significant percentage of young men want to engage in Bauk, or gang rape. I asked my students about this notion. One of the girls then says, “It’s when the man takes his girlfriend or another girl to a hotel and then other men are there too, his friends, and they rape the woman. It’s so common. And they tell her that if she tells anyone, he will kill her.” The other students nod, confirming her explanation.

I proceed to pick my jaw up off the floor.

The drive home is grim and then I make matters worse by googling ‘Cambodia’ and ‘Rape’. I learn about this disconcertingly common practice of Bauk in which a man buys a prostitute for a night, takes her to a hotel or elsewhere where his friends are waiting to attack her and then proceed to gang rape her for as long as she is conscious. He pays her the same rate as he would if it was just him, then all the friends split the cost (the woman would cost about $15 for one night).

It happens with ordinary young women too – some tricked into going to a hotel with a guy they meet at a club and then ambushed by up to 10 of his friends, some girls are grabbed off the street, and some even do it to their girlfriends.

The BBC, CNN and various human rights groups have reported on the shockingly common instances of rape in Cambodia and tried to pry the lid off this taboo subject. I feel a degree of denial – I mean, these guys, they’re so physically small, timid, shy, passive and sweet. But then again, this is a culture that killed over a million of their own in one of the most brutal genocides the world has ever seen. Still, there is a disconnect.

The really terrifying part in all of this is that the victims HAVE NO RIGHTS. Even with evidence, the police are generally corrupt and lazy and don’t really care, especially in a society where men rule and the law is subjective and never enforced. Anecdotal reports state that they’re in on it too. It’s a growing trend amongst the new middle class and the rich – if you have money to pay off authorities, you can bribe your way out of anything, even really violent recreational activities that involve destroying the lives of others.

Now I understand why some of the older students at the organisation are making a documentary about incest and fathers raping daughters. Now I understand why women never go out alone after dark. It’s the ever-present threat nobody wants to acknowledge. Victims from villages in the provinces have to leave as they are shamed and ostracized. Victims fear for their lives if they ever speak out. And even if they do, who in a position of authority or power is going to care?

And then, there is outrage over Valentine’s Day and an effort curb ‘teenage lust.’ As stated in the Phnom Penh Post:

Chea Cheath, director of the Phnom Penh municipal department of the Ministry of Education, said he had asked police to crack down on flower sellers outside schools and urged parents to ensure their children were not doing the “wrong things”.

“We also announced to all school directors in Phnom Penh to tell their teachers to educate their students about the true meaning of Valentine’s Day,” he said. “It is a day for us to stop violence, especially violence against girls and women.”

One token day a year to consider violence against women and girls is really a drop in the ocean. A culture that values and promotes chastity yet tolerates rape is in dire need of more than some half-assed policing of teenagers on Valentine’s Day. As long as the justice and legal system remain broken, as long as corruption reigns, and as long as women are silenced, rape will remain a fact of life for females in Cambodia.