This week, Pope Francis caused quite a stir when he warned hair dressers not to gossip. Many articles have been written about the Pontif’s words, many in jest given he was not wading into another major socially wraught political issue like abortion, divorce or gay rights. I thought I’d offer a rather different perspective on the Pontif’s admonishment, especially as regards female spaces and mental health.
There’s a growing medical data and evidence that shows that women who keep a tight and close knit of female friends are generally happier, their mental health on the up, and they live longer than those who don’t. Keeping these friendships going after marriage allow these women outlets to discuss their marital issues with close friends who love them and may be able to offer them support, both emotional and material when they need it. Generally, women with good small close knit friendships are also able to have avenues outside their marital homes to do things that are emotionally fulfilling so that they are not 100% dependent on their husbands or children for emotional fulfillment. This broadening of emotional dependence, the literature says, is the healthier option for women.
But how do men and society feel about women’s friendships?
We can only hypothesize about these things and I have a few based on how we talk about exclusive women’s spaces.
When I was a child, I used to love sitting down and talking to and listening to my grandmother and her friends. My grandfather will ALWAYS chase me away from such places. His main complaint was that women “gossip” and it was unbecoming of a man to listen to or engage with gossip. The word gossip carries a derogatory social attachment to it that renders the conversation puerile and the conversants immature or unintelligent. That is how women’s exclusive spaces conversations are regarded in our society. And my grandfather wanted me not to get tainted by such low level kind of conversation.
I was always wondering about why he had such hostility to me sitting and listening to these women talking because he had his own clique of buddies with whom he sat down and talked with about all kinds of issues from national politics to community politics to people’s household issues. My grandmother to me had more interesting things to say because there was always talk about Savelugu market or another market(my grandmother or her friends traveled to) and the cost of materials and changes in market prices based on harvest patterns etc. I found this very intriguing to listen to on the few times a week her friends came around. My grandfather though, had his buddies there every single day. And they’ll shoe you away if they wanted to talk about things they thought children weren’t supposed to hear. So in all, my grandfather engaged in more idle talk than grandmother did. But for some reason, his talk with his friends wasn’t tagged as gossip like my grandmother’s.
I believe that the Pontif’s admonishment to hairdressers to stop gossiping is part of the long line of society’s distrust of and denigration of exclusive female spaces. And I believe it has all to do with power and control. “If we can’t be in this space, let’s render it and label it puerile one unworthy of respect.” In many communities where I come from, men go straight to their buddies to sit down and talk after they come home from work because just like women, keeping a healthy close knit friendship groups is healthy for men too. And what is often used to tag female conversation as gossip, ie talking about intimate and personal issues, is equally prevalent in these male spaces. He comes home and goes straight to his buddies to talk, but gets angry when he comes home to see his wife and her friends “gossiping”. The only thread I see here is control.
Many women in abusive relationships reveal their men doing a lot to isolate them from their friends so that the woman’s world revolves entirely around the man’s home (himself and his children). That is a recipe for disaster, especially in cases where abuse creeps in. It may actually be a good sign of abuse on its way when your man doesn’t want you talking to your friends and keeping close contact. Even if it may not be a sign of abuse, it is bad for your mental health and you want to resist it 101%.
So to my lady friends, resolve to keep (actually strengthen) your circle of female friends after marriage. I have heard all kinds of admonishment to married women to stay away from friends if they want their marriage to succeed. This is what many women are told when they get married. And many women lose long held, sometimes childhood friendships because of this long held advice given to newly married women. I say, away with these. Hold tightly to these friendships. If you are unlucky enough to get into an abusive situation, these friendships might actually be your lifeline! Even without abuse, (the data shows) you’ll be happier keeping these friendships. And let’s reclaim the word gossip. Gossip away. It’s just another word for women talking. And women talking is a good thing. So on to the next gossip!