Talking Gender
Parents think topics like gender sensitization are for much older kids but this is a mistake.
Image for representation only

When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.

In the light - or perhaps darkness is a better word - of the Bengaluru mass molestation incident, the conversation has once again turned to the need to talk to young people about consent, especially young boys. While there's the usual section of people who are convinced that sexual assault is always the victim's fault, the voices speaking out against this patriarchal mindset have grown louder. 

As a parent, it's imperative that you start thinking about gender constructs and gender roles seriously. A baby learns to be a boy or a girl as s/he grows up - some part of it is biological but a huge portion of it is sociocultural. We have a set of rules and expectations for the boys and another for girls. 

You may think this is irrelevant to you because you don't consciously practise gender discrimination at home but these ideas are built across a period of time in many subtle and overt ways. It is what ultimately leads to a culture of entitlement where boys and men believe they have the right to dictate how girls and women should behave...and have many girls and women agreeing with them too!

My daughter is five years old. She is growing up in fairly privileged circumstances. Nobody forced me to do a scan to find out what her sex was when I was pregnant. When she was born, the family rejoiced unequivocally. She has an unapologetic feminist for a mother and a father who doesn’t express his politics to the wide world as much as her mother but is a firm believer and practitioner of gender justice. She is growing up among educated, mostly upper class people. It’s easy to assume that she wouldn’t have experienced much gender discrimination, given the circumstances.

True, nobody has denied her food or education but already, she has had experiences of people telling her what she can do and what she cannot. Some of these are well-meaning adults (“Don’t climb trees!” “Don’t play with the boys…they’re too rough!”) and some are children, especially boys.

When we discuss gender, the conversation invariably becomes about violence against women and turns into a lament about how bad things are for the women of this country. However, very often, we speak of these events as if they take place exclusively because of the criminal’s psyche or the victim’s own actions and distance ourselves from what has happened. In other words, we are not willing to analyse how and why we have a culture where such headlines have become routine. 

There are no simple answers. But perhaps we should begin with the playground.  I’ve often noticed that when children play in small groups of twos and threes, their gender is quite irrelevant to how they play. But when the group becomes larger, they tend to stick to children of their own gender – maybe because they find safety and security in a herd.

When this splitting happens, territories get marked and the games become somewhat more aggressive than earlier. They seem more eager to conform to the gender stereotypes that they have grown up observing when this happens – the boys get destructive and snigger over the Barbies that the girls are playing with (and with which they were playing too just a while ago); the girls get defensive and complain to the indulgently watching parents about the behaviour of the boys. It all appears to be innocent fun except, it isn’t.

Rarely do parents intervene in these circumstances and talk to both sets of children about what’s going on and why this is unacceptable behaviour. Why do the boys look down upon what the girls are doing? Why does it automatically become inferior and stupid? Why don’t the girls fight back instead of running for help? Why don’t they stand their ground? Why do they not snigger similarly over the ball games that the boys are playing?

I’ve heard so many mothers of boys tell me that I have it easier because I have a daughter – their sons do dangerous things (like falling into a gorilla cage), they speak rude words, and they have a propensity towards resolving issues with violence. All of this, however, is attributed to the fact that their child is a boy. As in, it’s in his nature to be that way.

And what can we do about nature? You accept the havoc the way you accept volcanoes and tsunamis. Mothers of girls, of course, know that their little ones aren’t angels in frilly frocks. There are plenty of little girls too who do dangerous things, who behave badly and throw tantrums. However, their behaviour is always called to question. Nobody tries to rationalize their poor behaviour with their gender.

What we’re doing right there is creating a culture of entitlement where it’s okay for little boys to behave badly and get away with it because they have a penis. We’re telling them it’s funny to harass the girls. We’re telling the girls that they cannot resolve their problems without some kind of external intervention. And then we act surprised when grown men and women behave in exactly the same way. We’re shocked that our society is such that a man can treat a woman any which way he wants and everyone tolerates it.

The culture of entitlement is all around us. For her nursery school concert, my daughter told us that the teachers had said only a boy could play the drum because this required strength. This is, of course, pure baloney. As all of us sat in the audience that day and watched, a very smart little boy marched down the hall, led the rest of the class to the stage and opened the concert by beating the drum.

None of this was physically impossible for a girl to do and yet, when it comes to positions that are about visibility and leadership, the natural choice is often a male, even if he’s a small child. And even if the person who is in-charge of making that choice is a woman.

Parents think topics like gender sensitization are for much older kids (if at all) and that children so young just won’t get it. This is a mistake because gender constructs are all around us – in the Chhota Bheem who is always strong and the Chutki who always gets tired first when they do something physically intense, in the movies where the hero is always doing and the heroine is just standing around, at the school where boys are encouraged to play sports and take up leadership roles while the girls are pushed into ‘softer’, less visible activities, at home where the father lounges in the couch while the mother makes the meals all the time.

My daughter already knows what gender bias is. I explained it to her in very simple terms: if someone tells you that you cannot do something because you’re a boy or a girl, it’s untrue. You don’t have to believe them because they are wrong. Even if that person is a grown-up. I was surprised to see how quickly she absorbed this and how easily she came up with instances when someone had ‘done a gender bias’. Because she’d already heard this so many times in her very young life.

Recently, my daughter told me about a boy in her class who snatched a book that she was looking at because it was not meant for girls. It was a book on racing cars. She bristled with the injustice of it when she told me about what happened. But she also added, laughingly, that the boy ‘didn’t even know that he was doing a gender bias!’ She actually felt sorry for his ignorance and tried to educate him about it though I doubt that he understood. As for the book, what happened? Let’s just say that my daughter got it back and also gave it to the other girls in her class to look at.

Why? Because it was an awesome book and everybody in the class had a right to discover it. Everybody.

Bengaluru has become the new Delhi. Suddenly, the city seems unsafe just as Delhi got its reputation after the 'Nirbhaya' case. But Delhi, Bengaluru and all other places in India are no more unsafe than they have always been. The seeds for the threat under which the women of this country live are sown in our homes. We should stop calling perpetrators of sexual assault 'animals' because that's an easy way for us to wash our hands off from the responsibility we hold. These are people who are cut from the same cloth that we all help weave. 

Republished with permission from Women's Web where this article was first published. You can read the article here

Also read: The Good Girl's Dress Code: How schools police girls' bodies in the name of modesty