Dottie came back from school all grim and thoughtful yesterday. She read a lesson in her brand new fourth grade English textbook about a girl Meera, and her younger brother Raju, called “Dividing a Mango”.
The lesson is about Meera facing gender discrimination in her family. She is given less food (and share of a mango) than her brother and made to work more. Why? She asks. Don’t you know boys should be given more food? It has always been this way. Boys need more food, because they go out and work. Her granny answers.
Only after she swaps her work routine with her brother for a day, the family realizes that Meera’s work in fact is much harder to do, and that she needs equal nourishment to work and to grow.
Dottie gave the book to me earnestly and insisted that I read it. The story had visibly disturbed her. She did not like the unfair treatment meted out to the girl by her own family. Reading through the lesson, I was impressed with the educators who included this lesson in the national CBSE school syllabus. Good work, people. Catch them young, educate them, and we have hope of raising a whole new generation of thinking men and women who are aware and sensitized towards the traditional cultural gender bias.
I realized that both my children were until now unaware of the existence of gender discrimination. They were oblivious to the fact that things are different for boys and girls, and if we tell them the reasons, they do not make sense to their simple, yet logical way of thinking.
Nowadays, boys and girls are largely treated the same in most urban affluent families. And I am not talking about girls getting more pink stuff and boys getting blue. I am also not talking about preferences in toys and play, like girls playing house and boys playing cars. I am talking about the ‘girls help in the kitchen, while boys go out and play’ difference. Or ‘girls learn to cook and get married, and study on the side’ – and ‘boys study, and study, and must earn a living’ difference.
I think my generation grew up on the cusp of a change. There was a new found importance and focus on education in the growing urban middle class. More and more traditional families slowly started encouraging the girls in the house to pursue a career and become self reliant, than before. Although the seeds were sown in the earlier generation, the concept was more widely accepted and practiced as we grew up. The economic liberalization of 1991, also, opened more opportunities and that too in part brought good days to the women in our country.
But nevertheless, when we grew up, women from the earlier generation, whether working or not (!), still cooked, did housework, served (the best portions) to the men folk, ate leftovers after everyone was finished, and cleaned up thereafter while the rest took off for their afternoon nap.
An eternal servitude, endurance and sacrifice were “virtues in a woman” that were approved, glorified, expected and also taken for granted in cultured families. One seldom witnessed a grown man in the family cook (gasp!), or pick up a domestic chore, like folding his own clothes, finding his own socks, making his own breakfast and washing his own cup after drinking tea. Any simple household task was considered below dignity and “unmanly” (and I still can’t comprehend what that means).
When it came to contributing to the mundane chores, it was the girls who mothers called out to, when they needed assistance of any kind. Like chopping vegetables, boiling milk, setting and clearing the table. She must learn how to manage the house. Otherwise it will be difficult when she gets married and has to do that in her new home. Ironically, boys never got any similar kind of training which prepared them for a life of matrimony. This was normal. This is still largely considered normal.
As my generation went global to pursue opportunities, changing lifestyles and influence of other countries and cultures caused a significant shift in this rigid family hierarchy. Imagine the delight (in some rare cases, horror) of many mothers and aunties who visited their children in the US and discovered a new breed of sons and son-in-laws. These Indian men, to their pleasant surprise would not sit around reading news paper or flipping TV channels while their women slogged in the kitchen, or did housework. They were doing their share, washing dishes, chopping vegetables, changing diapers and vacuuming the house, and that too without much ado! They were picking up housework as a normal way of life, as a responsibility “shoulder to shoulder” with the woman. I remember an aunt, visiting us in the US, appreciating this phenomenon fondly while I and my hubby worked in the kitchen. “We must send all our men to live in the US for some time at least!” She said. I have heard stories from friends when the visiting older generation was either mortified or horrified to see the son-in-law (in former case) or son (in latter) doing the dishes!
In this new age, we always talk about the need to make girls self sufficient and independent. But wait. What about the boys? Are they self reliant too? If there is a whole generation of independent, free thinking, aware and self reliant girls growing up, are our boys growing to be equally independent to complement that? I think the need of the hour is to make our boys self reliant too. As smart, healthy, thinking adults, they should not need to rely on their women to cook and feed them, take care of them and to find their socks.
At a family gathering, we fondly joked about how my then 6 year old son cannot have a meal without a poli (term for roti in Marathi). What will you do if your wife doesn’t make a poli? Someone teased. He promptly replied, why? I will make my poli! The best part is he did not “get” the joke, and his reaction was genuine, puzzled and devoid of any pretenses.
Now, I see a whole generation of boys and girls growing up much more aware than what we were, in general. They do not hesitate to question a regressive custom, and will usually not take “because that’s how it’s always been” as an answer. They need better reasoning than that. The women of future generation will not only demand but also expect equal partnership in a family setup from their spouses. Men will highly benefit from this shift too. They will not have to bear the pressure of being the sole breadwinner. They will have the freedom to choose to do things that they like, without worrying about putting a financially dependent family’s future at stake. If housework is shared, they will be able to spend much more quality time with their spouses. They will enjoy a more fulfilling relationship with their partner, largely based on mutual respect and love, free from the stress of day to day tasks.
So change is coming. It is almost here. It is inevitable; it may take time to trickle down to all strata of society. Those still holding on to the old ways and concepts of rigid gender roles need to let go of their insistence and accept this change. Yes, your son will want to work in the kitchen with his wife. Yes, he would want to eat with her, chatting about life or politics. No, your daughter-in-law may refuse serve at the table, standing, watching the plates, filling them without people having to ask for more. And yes, she will take offense if you selectively ask only the men for a second serving of that special dish.
Here is to happy, equal relationships of the future.
P.S: Meanwhile, Dottie, with her new found enlightenment related to gender bias, is watchful as I serve her Mango Ras in a bowl. She and her brother carefully compare volumes of the bowls, filled to the brim, with precision, ensure that it is exactly equal, and smile! 🙂
P.P.S: I pause and think of a few men who I have had the good fortune of knowing, and interacting with, who have defied these “manly” stereotypes, and embraced fairness and reason, way ahead of their times. And I smile.