How to raise feminist children.
I was at the office water cooler one day, just filling my bottle when I overheard some men talk about how women rush from office at 5 pm. So what they come early the men said. These women always have to leave early, they said. If they can’t spend time at work then why can’t they just be stay-at-home moms or homemakers, they said. Now, I like minding my business most of the time but right then I wanted to say something but I stopped. I saw there was just one woman in their midst and the look on her face told me to let her do the talking. She asked those men if the lunch they bring to work is prepared and packed by them in the morning to which they all answered no. Who prepares lunch then? Some said, cooks, while most said their wives. She then asked if they need to go back home and pick up their kids from the daycare. To that few of the men who had kids said their wives took care of picking and dropping kids. So, they need to leave from work as per the daycare schedules, don’t they, she asked again. The men nodded, this time a little uncomfortable. The woman then looked at them and asked if they still wanted her to explain why women rush to and from office daily. It made me think, really think. How oblivious men are, in fact, even many women are, to how much women actually do. How oblivious we are as a society to the lack of equality and therefore the repercussions of it that women face both inside and outside their homes.
Now I am a woman, a female. My anatomy makes me a female and that for some reason has led me to be on the receiving end of a lot of bias at work, even comments such as those made by the men by the water cooler. I’m one of the lucky ones but still, I feel somewhere my gender has led to lost opportunities and compromises. There is a particular mould I’m supposed to fit in to and there are perceptions I need to quash to achieve what I want to, to survive. I have come to realise that I always need to fight for a lot of things in life on account of being a woman, things which are a given for men. I have realised that I have to behave a certain way to ward off untoward incidents or have to make peace with unfair decisions because it’s not a fight I can win alone. And I’m not the only one.
A casual look at history or even at the events of today will tell you about the raw deal that has been served to females. Some numbers for you. The Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha specifically, has a total of 543 members of which roughly 10 to 11 % are women at the moment. Among the CEOs who lead the companies which made up the 2018 Fortune 500 list, just 24 are women. So, just 4.8 %, not even 5! Is it because women are not capable? Of course not. It is the systemic apathy which has become a way of living and the reinforcement of stereotypes. Women have to fight and prove themselves to occupy a position which is often given to men just on the basis of their perceived skills. While more and more women join the workforce or different spheres of the economy to make a name for themselves, a vast majority of them drop out voluntarily or are made to because they don’t have the luxury to just focus on their careers. Honestly, it’s a skewed world out there and equality a distance reality, if at all. Just look at how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman to serve in Congress in the history of the United States, is being treated by the media and her opponents. One of the lines of attack being she is too young to know what she is doing while a man in her place would have been touted as a prolific genius. Just think about it, we need to fight for laws to be brought in place for women to be paid as much as men for the same skill set, for the same job. Something somewhere is terribly wrong and it can’t be denied. On the other hand, the homemakers are not even considered relevant which makes no sense because they form the vast percentage of unpaid work done in our economy. Imagine what would happen to our GDP if they were paid for the work they did. Or, imagine how each household would function if they stopped doing what they do. They help the households run and we don’t even stop to acknowledge them. So, as I said, we have been dealt with a very bad set of cards and now have to make the most of it. But I say, we stop playing at this disadvantage and ask for the cards to be dealt again. This time, fairly.
Women across the world are subjected to prejudice, abuse because of their anatomy, because of their sex. In fact, we have been conditioned to be ashamed of it. Remember how the biology teacher skipped the chapter on reproduction or how we are made to feel humiliated about menstruation? A woman’s genitalia supposedly makes her weak though I don’t need to remind people how it is this ‘weak genitalia’ which propagates life. So, how do we fight this? How do we change this outlook where a woman is treated as the second class citizen at home and at work? How do we change this mindset which has become so deep seeded in our collective psyche as a society that it doesn’t even seem abnormal anymore?
I think while it still might be too late to imbibe this sense of equality of sexes in my generation, there still might be a way in which we can ensure that we play our roles to affect future change, sooner rather than later. The question is how? How do we make this world more inclusive for women and finally get our due? I think the solution lies in the problem itself.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says,
“…It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries, been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human. For centuries, the world divided human beings into two groups and then proceeded to exclude and oppress one group. It is only fair that the solution to the problem acknowledge that.”
So, what is the solution? The solution is acknowledging the lack of equality and therefore working towards bridging the gap. The solution being in the all-encompassing movement of feminism which is defined as “a range of political movements, ideologies, and social movements that share a common goal: to define, establish and achieve political, economic, personal, and social equality of sexes. This includes seeking to establish educational and professional opportunities for women that are equal to those for men.” The solution is a movement in instilling a mindset of equality to ensure equal opportunities to all; not more, not less for any gender. But by the time one becomes an adult, it’s too late to change one’s line of thinking or ideology, isn’t it?
I have thought about this a lot. I have thought about what I can do as an ordinary woman to work towards equality of sexes, to make sure there is a slight shift in the way even a single woman is treated in this society, at home or at work. And every single time, I reach the same conclusion. Feminism.
One of the things that I pride in calling myself is a feminist. It has been so for as long as I can remember and it has helped me to stand my ground while navigating the world. When I look around, I realise that being a feminist is the way to eradicate so many of the evils that plague us as a society, as a country. My belief in feminism has given me the courage to say no to doing things that were expected of me just because I am a female. My belief in equality has always helped me speak out against bias at my workplace with respect to gender. Granted, I haven’t been able to change perspectives but at least I’m not treated like a doormat not if they are ready for a rebuke. I have also seen how women around me have found their voices to hit back at prejudice either at home or work because of the discussions I have had with them. It’s a very, very small change, not even visible but change nonetheless. So, that’s why I very much stand firm in my belief in feminism as the answer. It is a movement that is relevant to both women and men alike. It is a movement of equality and that is what we are fighting for after all, aren’t we? That is the solution. Hence, if there is one thing we need to get started on is to try and raise the next generation as feminists, both boys and girls. Like I said, by the time one is an adult, it’s too late to make that paradigm shift. The seeds need to be sown early to reap the benefits as a society a decade or two down the line.
A careful look around you will tell you what I mean when I talk about this raw deal to women and why we need to start teaching this concept of equality as early as possible to our kids while squashing stereotypes. I have met women who are not allowed to wear leggings or sleeveless tops because their husbands don’t approve of it. I have met women who suffer emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands and in-laws because isn’t that what women are supposed to do, make life easier for the men in their lives? I have seen women being ill-treated during pregnancy for not cooking for the in-laws because pregnant or not, tired or not, sick or not, the kitchen is her stage, isn’t it? At every step, there are pitfalls that we have become used to. The women I speak about are real women whom I have met over the course of my life. Each one of them has never considered themselves equal and even if they have, their partners have failed to do the same. While a woman might believe in equality, her fight might not yield favourable results if her partner doesn’t believe in the same. That’s why both the sexes need to be conditioned on equality and hence feminism. That’s why it’s so important to teach this seemingly simple but conveniently forgotten concept to the next generations.
Growing up, I was never once told that I’m less than a boy my age. My education was of prime importance to my parents and not my introduction to the kitchen. I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do within the confines of relevant parental controls, of course. So, today, it’s easier for me to see the difference between what is and what must be. It is also one of the reasons I have the freedom to be me which I think everyone is entitled to. But I also know that not everyone is as lucky. That’s where feminism becomes all the more essential.
This belief or this need to propagate feminism as a mass movement became even more apparent when I held my daughter in my arms for the very first time. The sign outside our room provided by the hospital said ‘it’s a girl’ in pink while some rooms had ‘it’s a boy’ written in blue. Stereotypes upon stereotypes. That’s what made me realise how very important it is for me to raise my daughter in the right way so that she is not restricted in her mind by society’s perception of gender. But for a movement to become big and have an impact, it needs to start small. To enable my daughter to deal with this society and its deep-set biases, I need to start at home to show her by example that she is not a lesser human being, that she is just as entitled to the good things in life as the boy next door. I need to give her what was given to me by my parents, a fair chance at life, a chance at equality starting in my mind. Just as they say that charity begins at home, an education on feminism or equality which feminism is in many ways must begin at home. And it starts with the parents.
But it cannot stop there. It’s just not enough to teach my daughter that she is equal when compared to her friend who is a boy. The latter needs to be taught too that he is not superior to the girls in his class or at home. And the only solution that I see is to raise them as feminists too, to teach them about equality of sexes and opportunities.
As parents, we need to teach our children that gender is just anatomy, it doesn’t automatically assign privilege or put you at a disadvantage. It’s just a question of chromosomes and not what kind of life you are destined to lead. This can be done when as parents we implement the same at home because children pick up on things faster when they can see it being enforced or enacted around them. It can be something as simple as sharing the load of the household chores or something as big as deciding which parent stays back to care for the children, we need to be very careful of not instilling or reinforcing stereotypes in their young impressionable minds.
Whether it’s telling them there are no sex-appropriate colours or telling them that being a female is no pre-requisite for doing dishes, it’s little things like these that need to be taught in the subtlest of ways possible.
We need to teach our girls that they should never consider themselves lesser than boys on account of their sex. They need to be made to understand that their lives are for themselves, to begin with. They are not born to be only wives and mothers. They need to be told that they deserve every bit of the privileges which boys have until now considered their own by default. They need to be given the confidence to demand and take what is rightfully theirs.
But teaching just our girls isn’t enough, is it? That would just be a job half done. We need to include boys too in this education of feminism, of equality. Often when men behave badly as grownups, we forget that this is what they have been taught, either at home or conditioned by society. No matter how ridiculous it sounds, they actually believe what they are doing is right. They need to be shown the right path when they are just boys. So, the roadmap is not only educating our girls in feminism but our boys too because society consists of both.
It’s not very complex if you think about it. We can start by not forcing boys to put on a brave face when they might just be feeling as low or scared as the person next to them. For example, the thing we do when we ask boys not to cry because they are boys, well, we need to stop doing that. We can also, and most importantly, stop showing them by our actions that they are more special or important than their sisters. We need to stop associating gender with adjectives like brave, weak or strong. Boys and girls need to be taught and told that they just need to be human, feel every human emotion in the spectrum irrespective of their gender.
If you carefully analyse how this intricate fibre of our society works, you’ll realise that we sometimes create this divide between sexes unknowingly. Something as harmless as saying, ‘you are a boy, you need to be strong’ when your boy cries can be reworded to not imply that being a boy means you need to be strong or that crying implies you are not strong. Or, sometimes when a boy makes a display of emotions we go on to say that ‘Don’t behave like a girl’. What this does is instils in the boy’s mind that if you show emotion you are being a girl and that’s a bad thing, that that makes you lesser human somehow. When a girl is told that ‘she is just as responsible as a boy would have been in her place’ by her parents, it further propagates the belief that a girl is a lesser human being and anything strong or responsible in her is a trait inherent in a boy. So, in order to educate our children on equality and therefore feminism, we need to make sure that these stereotypes don’t find a voice to their impressionable minds.
It all boils down to not creating a negative image for a trait or an emotion while associating it with gender and at the same time making sure to imply by our actions that boys and girls are equal. We need to treat our children as individuals instead of placing them in boxes marked for different sexes. They need to see themselves for who they are and not different combinations of chromosomes which limits their reach in different aspects of life. If we can be successful in instilling just a fraction of this thought process, we can be sure that the next generation will have it much better than us.