Gender stereotypes are everywhere. From books, media and toys to off-hand innocent comments that people can make, these are imposed upon and ingrained in our children as they traverse the world around them.
It’s a minefield that we have to navigate through if we want to raise our girls, and boys, to be feminists.
This gender bias starts as soon as a child is born; pink is for girls and blue is for boys. Girls are pretty and beautiful; boys are clever and smart. Boys are supposed to be leaders and be dynamic, while girls are not supposed to be bossy. Little boys are being brought up to conform to some notion of toxic masculinity where they can be little ‘tear-aways’ while girls have to be polite and patient, well-behaved and elegant.
As a mum of three girls, I am very conscious of it. Growing up in India as one of three daughters, in a culture that did not value women, I saw first-hand what it is to be considered as the ‘second sex’. I grew up learning to fight my corner noticing biases and prejudices all around me. As one of only seven women in a cohort of 40 studying architecture, I was told by fellow male students that the women were just taking up a space from a man who needed it more, because we will just get married and leave the profession. It hurt too much because I had studied and worked as hard as anyone else to be there. Men were culturally conditioned to believe that their opinions mattered more.
So, I became a gender-rebel. I decorated my girls’ nursery in yellow rather than pink or blue, buying them clothes from the boys’ section, dressing them in neutral colours and dungarees rather than in pink dresses. I bought them trucks, blocks and football, books about dinosaurs, planets and birds. I have also surrounded them with microscopes and abacus’, keen to instil a love for science and maths, as much as for arts and crafts. I have told them stories of rebel girls and ensured that they saw their dad did as much, if not more, of the housework and it wasn’t a male or a female job to look after them. I run gender and sexism workshops in schools to encourage children to think and debate about gender bias and stereotypes.
So how do I feel when suddenly my girls want to wear that one pink T-shirt with glitter and unicorns that they received as a birthday present, carry a handbag around that they have somehow acquired, and play ‘putting their teddy bears to bed’? How do I feel when my daughters are obsessed with pink and purple, with tutus and crowns?
I cringe, I despair and I feel guilty that perhaps I have somehow given them a subliminal message of how to be a girl. I reassess and revaluate my own actions and that perhaps I am not doing enough to raise feminist girls.
This is where we have to be careful that in trying to educate our children to break gender boundaries and social norms, we are not in some way imposing our own unconscious biases, choices and ideas upon them so rigidly that it does not allow them any freedom to explore their own feelings and wishes.
It is important that we educate our children, both girls and boys, to think beyond the gender biases. It is equally crucial that we allow them the freedom to explore their own choices beyond these narrow parameters and boxes. As children grow older, they will be told what is right and what is wrong, how to think and how to feel. Our role as a parent is to help them be confident with their own instincts, and trust their own judgement. As long as we can discuss with them the pros and cons of wanting to be a princess, of why colours do not represent a certain gender, of how they can express themselves without feeling the need to conform to what their peers say, we will instil resilience and strength that will help them stand up for what they believe in.
It is important for girls to know that being a feminist is about demanding and expecting equality. Being a feminist does not mean being ‘non-feminine’. Leaders can be pretty. Leaders can also be dressed in pink and tutus if they wish. Girls can choose to be princesses as long as they know that they can conquer worlds, take control of their destiny and do not have to wait to be rescued.
Raising a feminist is about giving them choices. It is about giving them the freedom to be themselves. As long as our children see role models in front of them, and we are actively discussing with them any instances of gender stereotyping, they are allowed to be princesses or pirates.
I am learning to trust myself and my children.