A lot that has already been said about bringing up girls: Ones who refuse to be defined by their gender, that demand equality and to have their voices be heard. Not much is written about the role of parents in bringing up these young ladies, however!
I have heard many parents (fathers especially) claim, “I am not a misogynist, but I do think girls’ roles are very different from boys, and we should accept this as just a fact of life.” As a proud feminist and mother to four girls, statements like these annoy me to no end. Prejudiced attitudes like these sow seeds of misogyny early in children’s minds and lives and are then perpetuated on to future generations.
If you think about it on a larger scale, I do not think anyone can claim not to hold misogynist ideas. Signs of gender bias are everywhere: in our homes, schools, public spaces, movies, literature, advertisements, news, TV shows — it has permeated our entire lives. Inevitably, it is our choice on what to do when we become aware of this fact: We can either continue the cycle, or mindfully opt out and make a conscious change.
One way we can stop the sexist cycle is by becoming more mindful of our language. For instance, just observe the words we use to praise little girls: “nice”, “sweet” and the ever pervasive “good girl”; for boys we use “strong”, “tough”, “brave”. The way we talk to our children become part of their subconscious, and the way we talk about them become their life stories.
Language is also the thread that builds the discourse around identities. If girls are only “gentle” or “nice”, then their identities get restricted, and then they actively seek protection from men who are “tough” and “strong”. Do not mistake it: warped and restrictive dichotomies are set up for children from a very young age!
Misogyny always catches us unawares, whether it is through a sexist joke or a flippant remark. “Are you going to keep trying for another boy?” was one I used to hear all the time. “Your poor husband, living in a house with so much oestrogen”! is an old ‘favourite’. Sexism might come through in the way men in the family talk to the women in the house; what gets to be said by whom, with what authority, and what effects it causes. Like sponges, children absorb this, and internalise for future use.
Gender biases come in our homes in so many ways: dolls for girls and cars for boys, pink for girls and blue for boys, dance for girls and sports for boys. Yes, children ultimately show agency towards their choice, but you cannot deny that their choices are sometimes influenced by societal views on gender norms.
One thing I want my girls to learn is that boys have their own failings and frustrations that they deal with and give them the tools to handle themselves should a boy unleash these on them. In terms of gender politics in relationship, I find that when men feel inadequate, they take it out on women, and when women feel inadequate, they take it out on themselves. I want my girls to not be hard of themselves just because a boy has projected his inadequacies on them.
That brings me to another critical issue: girls and their bodies. It horrifies me to think of the pressure we put on our girls to be of a certain body type and to look a certain way. It kills me to see young girls feel inferior just because they do not fit a cookie-cutter mould of what society thinks they should look like to be found ‘acceptable’. All of us need to have open conversations on how there should not be conformity when it comes to body types and skin colour. Beauty is open ended and should not be defined by outdated and archaic preconceptions.
When we talk about misogyny and gender differences, typically the issue of safety comes up. Parents try to put limits on how girls dress, or where their girls should go and when, whilst boys are giving much more freedom. I understand the concern having lived through unfortunate situations myself, but I also worry that limiting my daughters like this becomes more of a sexist exercise rather than a moralistic one. I can already hear my frustrated younger self screaming, “Everything I do, say, and wear is always up for inspection! Meanwhile my brother can get away with anything just because he is a boy!” How unfair is that?
Rather than just putting the onus on our girls for their safety, what we should be doing having more conversations with boys on what they can do to make this world safer for girls.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem famously said, “The first problem for all of us (men and women) is not to learn, but to unlearn”. I admittedly have much to unlearn, but hopefully by doing so I can help my daughters rise above the toxicity of misogyny and grow up to be “strong”, “tough” and “brave”.