I listen in abject horror as my three-year-old comes back from school one day and proclaims that his playtime with his afternoon neighbourhood playmates will now consist of “the boys on one side and girls on the other”. My carefully constructed gender-equality declarations and almost repeated bad gerings over the past few years on his swiftly developing brain seems to have collapsed in one session of rough and tumble with more of his kind. Mortified, I immediately pointed out that I, his mother, was a “girl” but he never felt the need for segregation when his father and I both played with him. That controlled the damage temporarily, but I was left to ponder where I went wrong in my “Feminist child” mission.
Raising a feminist son is relatively uncharted territory for us mothers of boys, and especially first-time mothers of boys. Thousands of articles, books and researches have been published to show how to raise your child and instil values of love, discipline and respect. How to teach them to say sorry, be polite or stop picking their noses in public (am I the only one who frequently Googles the last one?). General awareness about raising boys, who are conscious about not only ways to respect women but also identifying gender stereotypes and rising above them, is still a relatively unexplored subject. Added to that is our, the parents', apprehension regarding the feminism ethos and the topic becomes more uncharted than Mars. Feminism is starting to emerge as more than just a trendy word in our developing society, so it is crucial that those of us in the dark have some rules written down in the endeavour to raise men who will not be the reason hash tags such as #MeToo and #YesAllWomen continue to proliferate.
Like a proper 21st century mother, instead of researching when children learn to read or write, I dig for information on when gender identification will start. By the age of four, they learn to identify and differentiate stereotypical roles that boys or girls play. Kindergarteners more strongly try to fit into the normative behaviour ascribed to them as it helps them assimilate quicker in their new school environment. You will be surprised to find your hari-patil playing son come home one day and suddenly declare that he needs a gun for boom boom and that flowers are for girls, because testosterone. Do let your tiny He-Man explore all his gender-certified activities by all means, but it is much more important to make sure that he develops empathy for both genders and learns to respect all forms of play, be it sword fighting or playing with a kitchen set. My son is now a race car driver by day and primary caregiver to his “baby”—a teddy bear—by night. He kisses it and pats it to sleep while I pat my own self proudly on at least one stronghold conquered.
Those of you who have toddlers and small children know that you have to physically restrain them in order to communicate one sentence or idea to them (or, again, is that just my problem?). Trying to lecture them about the values of understanding gender neutrality will fall on deaf ears. Think back to how much of these “talks” you ever paid attention to from your parents. Instead, from that small age, try to incorporate feminism in your activities and daily conversations.
Be sure to correct him immediately as soon as he says something sexist or disrespectful towards women. In our society, it is so much simpler to show your child gender neutrality with mothers going to work, doing the heavy lifting at home, driving motorbikes and cars and fathers doing their generous share of housework. Fathers too are bigger role-models now with their hands-on parenting, be it with diaper changing or waking up for the late-night feeds. This paradigm shift of the burden of household chores moving from the females of the family to the males is an important contributor to shaping the way our boys perceive women in society.
Instead of waiting for mothers to not only do the chores but also shout instructions regarding them, fathers should take the initiative even if it violates the ingrained and almost hereditary norms of entitlement that boys/men have grown up with.
With older children, extend these lessons to point out the misrepresentation of women in society, be it in songs like Chikni Chameli or in video games with well-endowed women in skimpy clothes with no particular role whatsoever. Instead, introduce them to movies, books or any media that portrays strong female roles.
Raising a boy to be a feminist in a society like ours, where women's honour is tied to the presence of her orna, is no easy task. Peers, media and even teachers can intentionally or even unknowingly plant seeds of misogyny that will disappoint you at times, but it is important to keep the balance of feminism heavy on your side of the spectrum so that his budding brain is saturated with the correct knowledge of what it means to be a proper man in the true sense of the word.
If you feel that your own knowledge of feminism falls short, educate yourself first.
Farasha Sayeed is a student of MSc in Early Childhood Development at BRAC University