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March 17, 2020 Tuesday 10:57:04 AM IST


3rd Eye

We are raising our children in a world riddled by myriad forms and frontiers of gender inequalities. Ironically, the more we progress, the more acute this problem gets. Just consider. Half a century ago, the parent of a little girl did not have to feel scared about her going out alone into the neighbourhood to play. Today she is worried to entertain the prospect. They can’t be blamed; given the sort of ‘neighbourhood’ that we have progressed into. It is like losing sight of one’s daughter in a jungle.

Parents rarely know what is happening to their daughters. That is because they are unaware of the extent to which attitudes, assumptions and norms of gender discrimination have been internalized by them. In this, mothers often prove no better than fathers. The net result is that home becomes the primary site of infection for gender discrimination. The epidemic starts from the day a girl child is born. It aggravates if and when the next child, her sibling, turns out to be a boy.

Male-female equality and complementarity are -if you don’t mind- the God-ordained norm. The Bible says God created human beings as ‘male and female’. That is to say, gender discriminations are man-made and arbitrarily inflicted. Essentially, every human being is, must be, ‘male-and-female’. To be male, that is, is also to be female.Also, the male stands in need of self-completion through the female; and vice versa. It is power-driven culture, with its hallmark of war-making and property-rights that polarized the male and the female and invented myths of gender-based inferiority and superiority. This was, over centuries, consolidated through the ascription of roles. Roles carrying authority, power and privilege were appropriated by men. Those of lesser privilege and prestige were assigned to women. The same was then used as the basis for assuming them to be inferior! It is like allowing a caste to do only menial jobs and then, using that as the basis, insisting that they are good only for menial tasks, given their inherent intellectual inferiority.

Consider this. A woman is said to be in ‘labour’ in giving birth to a baby. Now, ‘labour’, as Karl Marx said, pertains to activities supposedly of inferior worth. We call, for instance, unskilled workers‘labourers’. Skilled hands are‘workers’. Factories employ workers, not labourers. Farm hands, on the other hand, are labourers.  Labourers are inferior to workers in every society.  So, the wife even of a king is said to be in ‘labour’ when her hour is upon her.  I cite this to illustrate the extent to which a mind-set of gender-based bias seeps into the genius of a language.

Religion furthers this prejudice. It hosts myths, customs and practices that legitimize the inferiority of women. Women are often portrayed as tempters, the principal cause of man’s confusion and disarray. There were philosophers in the past who believed that women had no soul. Now consider a familiar church practice. A woman, after childbirth, has to be ritualistically purified by the priest. No man ever is, though he had something, pardon me, to do with her becoming so impure. In Hinduism, it will not suffice if a daughter lights the funeral pyre of her father. It has to be by a son. Oh, the power of being sons! It reaches the recesses even of hell. Surely, such assumptions and rituals are meantmore to buttress the superiority of the male than to state any aspect of truth.

Let us return home.  That is where the battle is lost or won. We can’t reform society. At least we should be able to be just, fair and humane at home. But we fail to, largely because we lack awareness. As Jesus said from the Cross of Calvary, “They know not what they do.” This is poignantly true of parenting vis-a-vis gender injustice.

Consider the commonplace. Your little son toddles around freely at home in his birthday suit. This is ‘natural’. But the same is not natural for a girl of the corresponding age. We don’t reflect over this; for deem it natural. But it doesn’t seem so to the little girl child. She begins to be puzzled. She can come only to one conclusion:  there is something wrong with being a girl. “If only I were a boy!” The seed of despising the self, burdened by gender identity, is sown without parents being aware of it. It sprouts, grows and spreads its branches over the society. As a rule, culture-based norms operate below the level of full consciousness.

The root of such discrimination lies in the worship of power and wealth. Historically, the superiority of the male over the female established itself through war. This was institutionalized via property rights centred on the male. Religion sanctified it. Politics legitimized legalised it. The popularity of macho politics –politics of aggression- is only increasing. This is equated with strength; as if it is right and honourable for the male to hurt and to brutalize.  But, this is a perverse and pernicious idea of ‘strength’; strength that has no beneficial relevance to the human predicament. Women too have their strength: the awesome strength to be bearers of life, the strength to nurture and sustain life, if need be, sacrificially. It is assumed to be natural for a woman to sacrifice her needs, even as it is natural for the man to enjoy the privileges stemming from her sacrifices.

A host of instances scream at us that such superiority is inimical to life and to the health of a society. Life comprises a triangle of relationships: love, work and society. The canard of inherent male superiority undermines all three. It makes relationships based on love impossible to attain; for love demands equality. Work is vitiated by a wrong idea of the division of labour, allotting the menial to the female and the prestigious to the male, even when the woman concerned is better qualified and professionally more advanced.  Most Indian males even today deem it below their dignity to share domestic chores with their wives. Ironically, women feel even greater unease about it.

So, what are parents to do, if they want to nurture societal health through parenting? Well, they have could do better with a little more awareness. But, to be aware, they need a point of contrast. That is where the scriptural ideal helps; the reason I referred to the Bible at the outset. But there is a problem with scriptures in general. They are overlaid with centuries of androcentric interpretations. Going by the biblical norm, as stated in the first chapter of Genesis, we can arrive at only one conclusion: every norm and notion of gender-based inferiority or superiority is an aberration. We cannot build normality with building blocks of aberration.

Here are a few practical steps that could help young parents-

1. Buildrelationships of love and mutual respect between the spouses.In respect, the onus is more on fathers. Boys imbibe the early suggestions of male superiority from the privileges they see their fathers enjoy at home. In conventional homes, men have all privileges and women all duties. Except in respect of functions that Nature meant to be exclusive to one gender or the other –child-bearing being a case in point- share responsibilities and design family life on partnerships of equality and fairness. This includes also the partnership between parents and children. Children, male and female, must be trained to share domestic work. It does no child any good to be raised as a parasite on parents. 

2. Be sensitive to the feelings of your daughters, for the reason that they tend to hide much; not by choice but by subtle compulsion. Children infer much from what they see and experience. This works usually to the disadvantage of girls in the crucial, early years of their life. The principle of affirmative action is relevant here.

3. Nurture a culture of personal growth, rather than of privileges and power-play. Fixation on dominance and privileges hinders growth by stifling mutual stimulation. Power is a mutually alienating principle. Growth-oriented stimulation presupposes natural justice. It happens when both parties, inspired by mutual love, endeavour to do justice to each other in a creative way. Justice of this kind arises out of a keenness to attain life in its fullness, as Jesus Christ said. Where this is not the shaping goal, it is inevitable that cultural aberrations of arbitrarily ascribed inferiority and superiority intervene and sour the felicity of life.

4. This entails that husband-wife the relationship should be nourished in love and kept free from the tussle for domination. It is regretful if and when children are drawn into these simmering domestic wars. The toll takes on young minds is horrendous. They could be crippled for life.

5. Be deliberately less ‘protective’ of daughters. Where you need to be, for compelling practical reasons, more overtly protective of daughters, make sure you help them to understand the logic of your ways. For want of this, your protectiveness could be felt as constriction. (It is not infrequently that parental paranoia masquerades itself as over-protectiveness.) Often parents adopt measures and stances based on grounds unintelligible to their children.

6. Train your sons to be respectful towards women, beginning at home. Fathers must be particularly mindful of this. Yet, this is not a task exclusively to them. Mothers need to be mindful of their duty to win not only the affection but also the respect of their children. There are many ways in which women denigrate themselves in the eyes of their children.

7. Allow your children to express themselves freely and openly. Make them feel secure in doing so. Refrain from causing them embarrassment even covertly for what they say, lest they feel inhibited. Children grow up listening to elders. It is necessary that we too listen. It is especially necessary to let girls express themselves freely at home, even if what they say could be, on occasions, embarrassing. 

It is a truism to say that a healthy society is an aggregate of healthy homes. The battle for gender justice needs to be fought and won in homes. Parents are the frontline soldiers of this holy war. All other wars are unholy in comparison. 

Dr. Valson Thampu

Former Principal of St. Stephen's College, New Delhi

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