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Feminist parenting is the only thing that will save Indian society from remaining entrenched in a morass of rape culture.
For a country that venerates women as goddesses, India still remains hypocritical in its mind-set towards women. Let’s face it; we are a patriarchal, chauvinistic society that is more often than not doused with unhealthy doses of misogyny.
We are a society where girls are subjugated and expected to behave in certain manners that befit the station that they will ‘one day’ occupy in their matrimonial homes. Boys get a freer rein. The attitude prevalent is – ‘Ladka hai, jaane do’ vis-z-vis ‘Ladki hai, itni chuut mat do. Shaadi ke baad takleef hogi’. (‘Boys will be boys’ vs ‘She is a girl. Don’t give her so much freedom otherwise she will be unable to adjust after marriage.’)
Our society encourages boys to be domineering. Profanity and sexist language is not corrected. And, the boys that exhibit a sensitive, feminist side are mocked and jeered at by both peers and the family.
Most Indian homes propagate a culture of gender discrimination.
Boys are told – Boys don’t cry, boys play sports, boys should not play with dolls, boys need to be strong, etc. Girls are told – learn to cook and manage the house, girls should not play rough sports, girls should play with dolls, Good girls do not argue, girls should listen to the men in the family, etc.
Sonal Singh, mom to two teen girls
I grew up in a liberal-minded North Indian family and was raised in a gender neutral atmosphere. As a kid, I hated kitchen responsibilities. My younger brother embraced them. I was never told to pursue things befitting a girl or to sit in a lady-like manner. Similarly, my brother was encouraged to learn to sew and cook. I did not know it then but what my parents did for us was the textbook definition of feminism. They raised their son and daughter to be social, economic, political, personal, etc, equals.
Naturally, I have raised my teenage girls as feminists. They openly discuss topics such as homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and menstruation etc with me and with their friends, including boys. I encourage my girls to one day choose their own life partners and even live-in with the person before they get married.
However, my beliefs have met with staunch opposition from within the family. In the past this has led to protracted debates, flared tempers and bouts of brooding silences. But, I have held onto my views. The result is that slowly, the family has learned to change their attitude. And, I know that I am not alone in my thinking because mothers today are raising empowered feminists.
Sarabjeet Kaur, HR professional, mom to son (aged 17) and daughter (aged 12)
Sarabjeet Kaur*, an HR and training consultant from a joint family in Punjab says – ‘I have raised my son (aged 17) and daughter (aged 12) in a gender neutral atmosphere, even though that was not the practice in the family.’ She feels strongly that as caregivers and nurturers, women need to sensitize their sons to certain things like – household chores are not gender specific, expression of disagreement should be verbal only and never physical, men should be assertive and not aggressive, etc.
Sarabjeet has taught her son to respect his younger sister both as a girl and as an independent thinker. Her daughter has been taught to openly express her viewpoints but always in a respectful manner.
Has it been easy for Sarabjeet to raise her children like this? No, it has not. Her views have met with strong disapproval, derision and even opposition at times when the elders in her house have felt that her attitude restricts her son’s authority as a man. They opine that if the daughter is taught that it is okay to have a divergent view from men then she will never learn to respect men. But, Sarabjeet has persevered and encouraged both her children to challenge societal mindsets.
Her family is not isolated in its thinking. There are many other families hiding behind the cloak of traditional values that inhibit a woman’s freedom to raise feminist children. The sad part is that not all such families have malicious intent. Some of them genuinely believe in their views because according to them – ‘this is how things have always been done.’
Preethi Warrier, Engineering professor, mom to teen son
Preethi Warrier, a professor in an Engineering College in Mumbai who hails from one such traditional-minded South Indian family is a woman challenging such age-old beliefs.
Preethi’s husband is often deputed away from home for his work. So, her son has been raised by her and her mother. Preethi feels that the female influence has helped her son to be sensitive towards feminine viewpoints. She has always encouraged her son to befriend people from both sexes even though her family frowns upon his friendships with girls.
‘I once teased him about having more girl-friends than boy-friends and he very casually replied – They are comfortable around me, I don’t mock them or make fun. They are far better at everything – That for Preethi was a proud moment as a mother.
But, has it been easy for Preeti to break stereotypes? No, it hasn’t been easy because everyone around her including her in-laws, her parents, etc often remind – ‘you son should only mingle only with boys, play boyish games, participate in sports (which for them was only for men) and artistic stuff is for girls only.’
Preethi coins this as ‘total rubbish’. She has always encouraged her son to embrace his artistic side and he has grown up to be a fine young man who enjoys watching but, still hates playing football, cricket or any kind of sports. ‘As he stepped into teenage, I would often talk to him about how it’s absolutely okay for girls his age to wear trendy or short dresses and be respected for their choice by boys.’
Preethi has snatched incidents from life as valuable teaching moments and used them to inculcate feminist values in her son. ‘When the family watches TV together, if someone refers to some actress (never the actor) as ugly, old or too bold, I immediately school my kid, right at that moment, to not to judge or comment about anyone’s looks or character. I don’t try hiding my sanitary pads or periods discomfort from him just because he’s a boy, much to the dismay of my mom and mother-in-law. I believe that if he’s grown up enough to study about menstruation, then he should know that it’s normal and not a taboo.’
Chandrika R Krishnan, a freelance teacher/ trainer and writer, mom to adult kids – son (aged 28), daughter (aged 31)
Chandrika R Krishnan agrees. Chandrika, the youngest of three sisters, married into a family where values such as – women should eat after serving the men, segregation during menstruation, household chores being delegated to the women only, etc – were sacrosanct.
Chandrika may have followed the dictates of her matrimonial home (out of respect for the elders) but she recognized the practices for what they were – archaic and discriminatory. When it came to her children (son aged 28 and daughter aged 31), she raised them as feminists. She ensured that both her children were put to age- appropriate and not gender-specific chores.
‘I strongly believe that a family that eats together and discusses the day’s happening draws closer. So, I enforced eating together as a family although in my matrimonial home women eat last after serving the men and the children.’
Another practice that Chandrika challenged was ‘segregation during menses’. Although she followed it in her in-laws house, after her daughter attained menarche, she broke this trend. ‘I sensitized my son to so-called ‘women’s issues’. The topic was not taboo in my house although it was in my in-laws house. I made sure that when the need arose; my son purchased sanitary pads for his sister and was sensitive towards the discomfort that she was facing – the pain, mood swings and irritability.’
Chandrika believes insisting on children doing gender neutral chores like making their beds, ironing clothes, laying the table, shopping for groceries, or doing some light cooking; will ensure that they grow up to be individuals who practise gender neutrality. But, it is not just the children who need to be educated. The elders in the family, who oppose such gender neutrality, also should be sensitized to changing times.
‘In our society only a girl is taught how to behave or live post marriage. The result is that many men, even post marriage, continue to enjoy the privileges of bachelorhood with the fringe benefits of regular sex and food, strictly in that order! This is because they have never been taught any better.’
Chandrika finds it shocking that even today in many households a girl’s career growth is attributed to her spouse allowing her the freedom to work. The girl’s ability to provide for the family, her education or intellect is not considered determining factors.
‘Indian households focus on how a new bride can be moulded into the perfect specimen of the archetypical ‘bahu’. But, what would really help is to raise our sons as feminists so that they understand the woman’s sacrifice in leaving her parental home to make her matrimonial home her own. If more mothers gave their sons a feminist upbringing, many problems would be solved.’
Chandrika is a woman who has challenged such attitudes. But, societal mindsets that take generations to firm are not easily changed. Chandrika had to face severe opposition from the elders in the family. But, her patience and her husband’s support helped her to fan the winds of attitudinal change in her family.
Sadly, neither are all families as adaptive as hers nor are all husbands as supportive.
Seema Quereshi, working at an MNC, mom to a son (aged 14)
Seema Quereshi* (Hindu married to a Muslim) is mother to a 14 year boy*. She works as an executive assistant in an MNC in Pune.
Seema was shunned by her parental family post marriage. She and her husband initially lived with her in- laws who were extremely conservative in their outlook. Women in the family were expected to observe ‘purdah’, eat in segregation and not speak unless spoken to.
‘It was hard for me, a liberal girl, to adjust to such practices. But, I had no parental support and nowhere else to go. I had no income. What could I do?’
Seema was prohibited from raising her son in the Hindu faith. When her son turned eight and showed an inclination towards cooking, Seema started teaching him to cook. The idea was vehemently opposed by her in-laws – ‘Ladke ko khana banane ki kya zaroorat hai? Yeh sab zananion ke kaam hain.’ (What is the need to teach a boy to cook? This is women’s work!)
When Seema persisted, she was accused of being a woman of ‘loose morals’ and was verbally abused by her father in law on many occasions.
‘Once, I had a headache and my mother-in-law found my son making tea for me in the kitchen. She barged into my room and slapped me hard. That was the last straw. I packed my bags and left with my son. I did not want to raise my son in such an oppressive, narrow-minded atmosphere where his own father was a mute spectator and did nothing to protect his wife’s honour.’
Thankfully, this once, Seema’s parents welcomed her back. But, the road ahead was not easy for her.
‘It was tough initially. But, I picked up the pieces of my life. Today, I am proud of my son. He can whip up meals, bake delicious cakes and is aspiring for a career in Hotel Management. He practices both Islam and Hinduism because he understands that ‘God is one’. None of this would have been possible in my in-laws house. My son’s dreams would have been stifled like my own.’
Considering the above examples, a pertinent question that arises is – Is it possible to change dogmatic societal attitudes towards feminism?
Seema’s case proves that it is not always possible to change beliefs. However, it is possible to ensure that our children recognize the fallacy of age-old, hollow beliefs and practice equality in all aspects of life. Women like Sarabjeet, Preethi, Chandrika, Seema and many others prove that feminism does not mean male-bashing. Rather, it is walking together to change outlooks towards gender specific roles. Feminism is about promoting a culture of gender equality where both sexes understand, value and respect the others’ viewpoints.
Perhaps, not all at once but one step at a time we can bring about a change in societal perceptions. Wouldn’t you agree?
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Sonal is a multiple award winning blogger and writer and the founder of a women-
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