As we pray to Maa Durga, the symbol of power and wisdom for our health, prosperity and happiness, maybe we should take a few minutes to also think about the women in our lives? After all, they fill our lives with health and happiness and deserve our love, respect and adoration.
However, does our society give them the respect and opportunity to prosper as much as a man or try to clip their wings, sometimes unintentionally? I am not speaking of the crimes and atrocities committed against them here but rather about their right to prosper to their full potential and live life as they choose.
Our society tries to mould them into a well-defined path of expectations and behaviour, right from birth. When a girl is born, most parents start planning her life. In the western world, they dress her in pink clothes and fill her room with princess toys and wallpaper, instead of giving her the chance to choose or reflect her tastes.
Have you seen a girl baby dressed in jeans or trousers? No, it has to be tiny skirts and dresses, to reflect the accepted norms of society. Does a baby really care about the colour or length of her dress or does she want to be just warm and secure? I have seen a grownup man refusing to wear a light pink shirt, worried that he may come out as feminine. This reflects the depth of this colour divide etched in our mind, that it makes adults feel insecure about their own masculinity due to the colour of a shirt.
Next, come the toys and books. Even the basic rattle has a girl and boy version, so while the girls get pink diamonds and tiara the boys get animals and vehicle shapes. The boys’ rooms are decorated with stars and planets, superheroes or other imaginative ideas whereas the girls are decorated with princess themes.
The storybooks reflect these ideas too. From the onset, we are teaching the boys to reach for the stars and be astronauts or go on adventure trips. Meanwhile, we are teaching our girls that they are weak, helpless, trapped and need a man to rescue them or worse they need to be beautiful, wear cool clothes and look good for a prince to fall in love, marry them and make them happy. The success of the Disney princess movies and associated goods franchise is testimony to this culture.
We even describe the traits of beauty in these books and films, making little girls feel insecure from an early age. If you tell a malleable child this is reality how many of them will actually have the courage to defy social norms, peer pressure and go against every unwritten rule to develop their own personality and fulfil their dreams?
This theme continues well into later life. Both boys and girls have a well-defined idea of what their roles are in society and what is expected of them. As teens and then as adults, no wonder they continue building on these ideas and then when we expect them to adopt gender equality, they have a hard time accepting and reflecting this change.
A few years back there was an uproar when a father posted a picture of the covers of teen magazines Girl’s Life and Boy’s Life side by side, to bring this issue into focus. The Girl’s Life was filled with tips about hair and fashion while the Boy’s Life cover was highlighting about “Explore Your Future: Astronaut? Artist? Firefighter? Chef?”. It was very sexist and begged the question: what message are we sending to the kids?
Some may argue that the magazine just reflected demand. Do you think that girls will refuse to read about other girl’s achievements? Will they not be inspired to try their hand at different things if they know it is acceptable and being done by other girls? It is all about normalizing things and changing social perceptions for both boys and girls and the media contributes to it in a big way.
It’s not just the girls who are affected by it too. A boy reading that magazine cover will assume that girls are only interested in fashion and when they actually see a girl in their class or even later as colleagues, they will subconsciously typecast her, dismiss her achievements or not take her seriously.
This behaviour also feeds from the environment at home. Do we give the women in our house equal opportunity as the men? Do both husband and wife take joint decisions or does the wife/ mother have a say in anything other than food or fashion choices? If not, then why expect the men in the family to respect and be inclusive to women outside the house? If a child grows up seeing his/her father taking all important decisions, with no input from the mother or any women, then the chances of them involving women later on in life, be it at home, office or elsewhere will be very rare.
If women always sacrifice their career for a man’s, at home, then is it any wonder that men think it is acceptable to get priority over a woman at the office, just by virtue of being a male? If we do not have female equality at home, why expect it at work or in society?
If you want the women in your life to be treated right outside, please be mindful of how you treat them yourself, for that is what will drive her expectations of herself, of people and their behaviour towards her.
Prejudice begins at home; from the day they are born. The patriarchal society we live in has a very defined role for men and women and it is reflected in all aspects. If we want to empower women and bring in true equality, to let women develop into the best they can be, we need to begin relooking at our mindset right from the start. Our small actions, of trying to typecast our sons and daughters, as early as babies, can sow the seeds for an unequal society.
The path towards women’s empowerment and equality begins early. The single decision of buying a ball instead of a doll for a girl or a cooking set instead of a bat for a boy may have a big repercussion on them. Who knows the girl may grow up to play cricket and the boy may grow into a top chef?
So, the next time you want to buy something for a baby, please think about the message you want to convey to them and choose carefully. Give them the gift of choice and open up their world to equal opportunity, the society will follow.