Last week, I took my 18-month-old nephew to a play area. A six-year-old unwittingly pushed him on the floor and he began to cry. Before I could pick him up, an attendant cooed, “Hush baby, ladke nahin rote.”
I was startled. Was this the tripe that was still being taught to kids?
All over the world, we are enabling women to fight patriarchy and prejudices. We’re teaching our women what is right for them and what is not, and rightly so. But what are we teaching our men?
It’s a conversation we need to have.
Boys are taught very early in life what it means to be men. Their primary caregivers, caretakers and peers shape this attitude. If a boy wears pink, or plays with dolls, or wants to become a ballet dancer, we tell him that it’s wrong. We do a great disservice to boys if we develop their notions of what it means to be a man inside homes, in classrooms and playgrounds in such a narrow way. As Nigerian novelist Adichie says, “Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
We tell boys they have to be strong and macho. That they have to beat up other boys. That they have to pay when they go out with a girl, even if she has more money. That they cannot be vulnerable, or fearful or– god forbid –sensitive.
At the same time, we are teaching our girls they can feel anything they want. They can wear whatever they want. They can be whoever they want to be.
Why are we not teaching our boys that?
We have to pay careful attention to how we are defining gender roles and what we are raising children – both boys and girls – to believe about themselves. As Gloria Steinem said, “It’s not about biology but consciousness.”
But why is it important to pay attention to gender roles being prescribed to boys, as we are to girls?
Thanks to the feminist movement, many girls are growing up to be far more assertive, driven and aware of what counts as equality. They’re pushing back on the socio-cultural boundaries ascribed by tradition. That’s a great thing. The problem is, it’s not the same for boys. We are removing inequalities for girls, but we are forgetting to do the same for boys. Boys are being left out of the feminist movement. This is leading to reverse gender role disparity, where boys will soon be unable to match up to girls.
Why does this matter?
Since eons, women and men have had their roles defined in a way that enables what is perceived as a smooth functioning of society and family. I know my place. You know your place. As an increasing numbers of women become financially self-reliant, this is translating into greater overall independence for them. Men who feel threatened by these newly emancipated women are countering the power shift with an aggressive dominance, the most execrable manifestation of this being the rapes we’re seeing. This could be one of the reasons we are seeing more violence against women. Concerted campaigns that shift the emphasis to address male behaviour as much as female behaviour are crucial; gender violence is the most compelling argument to raise men who understand women are different, and therefore would never take advantage of this difference.