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Raising a child in a gender-neutral manner is relatively new to India. However, with gender biases extremely prevalent in our society, it’s much needed.
“I was always a hairy girl. In school, I was called names and compared to boys because girls are generally not that hairy. Most nights, I would cry myself to sleep. Neighbours and relatives would ask my parents to take me to a doctor and get checked because girls are never so hairy. Or because it’s abnormal. I don’t want anyone else to go through this,” says Shruthi, when asked if she encountered gender stereotypes in her childhood.
With Elon Musk and Grimes announcing their plan to raise their child X Ӕ A-12 in a gender-neutral way, debates are bound to spring up. There are people both for and against this style of parenting.
I was recently going through the Instagram account of a bakery. That’s when I noticed stark differences between cakes for boys and girls – typically blue or pink themed with either ‘girly’ or ‘boyish’ designs. This, for us, is normal. The concept of raising a child in a gender-neutral manner is relatively new to India. However, with gender biases extremely prevalent in our society, it’s much needed.
Though one does wonder how feasible it would be in India, with its stringent social boundaries and almost no way of transitioning fluidly between them.
The death of Anjana Hareesh – the 21-year-old student from Kerala, who was bisexual – illustrates this. Her case shook the entire LGBTQIA+ community. It also exposed, once again, how Indian society does not accept a non-binary gender identity beyond a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’
I was in Uttarakhand last year to observe the public education system and to see whether every child in a family had access to formal schooling. At first glance, it seemed that they did. It was only after a few more days of interacting with these families that I realised that boys were sent to private schools, while girls went to public schools.
Asha, in Class 7, at a public school in Karnataka, talks of how she and her female friends clean the classrooms while the boys help with mid-day meals. Boys and girls stand in separate queues, don’t play together and are not even allowed to talk to each other.
In India, there have always been clear differences in the way different genders are treated, right from childhood. Schools are the secondary space of socialisation for a child (the primary space being the home) The stereotypes that play out in society also play out in classrooms, educational policies, curriculum, and even in the very manner of teaching itself.
Since gender based discrimination is so prevalent in our society, the best thing to do is to start at home. One can join a growing number of families opting to raise their children beyond gender stereotypes.
Gender-neutral parenting typically begins as early as possible. Right from choosing neutral names and colours to avoiding toys that have a particularly gendered slant, how parents navigate those first few years is important.
Children hit a critical period of conceptualising gender identity around age three. And experts say that gender-neutral parenting is most successful when parents offer a wide range of options to see what they naturally lean towards. Some stricter applications of this parenting style even have parents using the neutral pronoun ‘they’ for the child rather than ‘he’ or ‘she.’
It doesn’t mean that one doesn’t expose the child to gender stereotypes. In fact, one should point out instances of gender stereotyping and make the children aware of it, not letting these stereotypes influence their decisions.
Whether strictly or loosely applied, gender-neutral parenting in any capacity has a common goal. It is to create a culture that doesn’t allow societal expectations to dictate who a child can be, or to isolate a child on a pink or blue path.
“Had I been brought up in a gender-neutral environment, I may have been able to come out to my parents. I don’t think I can ever tell them, because for them, I need to be married to a man by age 24. But I’m sure I will be disowned if I tell them I’m dating a woman,” says Agasthya, who is gay.
Like her, there are many who have to conceal their identity to their own families. All because we as a society cannot accept anything beyond the gendered lens we look through.
This is just one example of why gender-neutral parenting is important in the upbringing of a child and in creating an inclusive society. In the Indian context, discrimination related based on caste, gender, and sexual orientation is common.
Parents in India have to be especially aware that, despite their efforts, society will inevitably try and enforce these stereotypes on their children.
At its core, gender-neutral parenting is about encouraging the traits that make a good human, not a good man or woman. And it’s an approach that all parents can apply at some level.
A version of this was first published here.
Picture credits: Elly Fairytale on Pexels
When she isn't around dogs, Tanisha Venkani is a Master's student at Azim Premji University. read more...
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Darlings makes some excellent points about domestic violence . For such a movie to not follow through with a resolution that won't be problematic, is disappointing.
I watched Darlings last weekend, staying on top of its release on Netflix. It was a long-awaited respite from the recent flicks. I wanted badly to jump into its praise and will praise it, for something has to be said for the powerhouse performances it is packed with. But I will not be able to in a way that I really had wanted to.
I wanted to say that this is a must-watch on domestic violence that I stand behind and a needed and nuanced social portrayal. But unfortunately, I can’t. For I found Darlings to be deeply problematic when it comes to the portrayal of domestic violence and how that should be dealt with.
Before we rush to the ‘you must be having a problem because a man was hit’ or ‘much worse happens to women’ conclusions, that is not what my issue is. I have seen the praises and criticisms, and the criticisms of criticisms. I know, from having had close associations with non-profits and activists who fight domestic violence not just in India but globally, that much worse happens to women. I have written a book with case studies and statistics on that. Neither do I have any moral qualms around violence getting tackled with violence (that will be another post some day).
Gender stereotypes, though a by-product of the patriarchal society that we have always lived in, are now so intricately woven into our conditioning that despite our progressive thinking, we are unable to break free from them.
Repeatedly crossing, while on my morning walk ̶ a sticky, vine-coloured patch on the walkway, painted by jamuns that have fallen from the jamun tree, crushed by the impact of their fall, and perhaps, inadvertently trampled upon by walkers, awakens memories of the mulberry tree that stood in my parents’ house when I was growing up. Right at the entrance of the house, the tree caused a similar red and violet chaos on the floor, which greeted us each time we entered the gate.
Today, as I walked by this red-violet patch, I was reminded of an incident that my mother had narrated to me several times. It had taken place shortly after her marriage and her arrival in this house from her hometown.