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Can boys be taught to be gender sensitive?

Over a two-hour-long conversation with 48-year-old Puja Roy, her 17-year-old son Anubhav Roy Bhattacharya mostly tries to curb their overexcited pup from licking feet and faces. He seems a tad conscious because the conversation is primarily about him — how he was raised, the questions he asked while he was growing up, and the answers that helped him make his own choice.


Puja Roy and her son Anubhav Roy Bhattacharya at their Worli residence. Pic/Bipin Kokate

At some point, the conversation veers towards the brutal gang rape of the 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012. Anubhav excuses himself, ushers the bitch into their bedroom and returns to the living room. Only that, at this moment, he isn’t that conscious anymore.

‘It doesn’t happen overnight’
“I read about how the 17-year-old accused might get off with a lenient sentence because he was juvenile at the time of the gang rape,” says Anubhav. “I doubt that another year will suddenly instill morality or humanity in him. I am 17, and I don’t think these things happen overnight.”

Puja nods gravely. The conversation then veers to the outpour of misogynist comments that came in the wake of the rape, mainly by politicians and straight-faced godmen decked in flowery headgears. “It is ridiculous – not to mention dangerous — that many men subscribe to the notion that rapes happen because of miniskirts and the sheer presence of a woman outside home. What does that make us men — wild bulls? Weak-willed at the sight of a red flag in shape of a miniskirt?”

Open discussion and debate on everything — including gender bias, sexuality, violence and anything else that might make most parents slink away from the room — is the norm in the Roy-Bhattacharya household. Puja and her husband, Prasenjit Bhattacharya, CEO at Great Place To Work Institute, practice what one could call feminist parenting — one which involves making gender sensitivity a conscious part of child rearing.

Puja, who is Programme Officer, Resource and Grants Management, South Asia Women’s Fund, says she and her family have known no other way of bringing up their son. She was born in Malaysia and shifted to Mumbai when she was 15.

‘Make sons aware of privilege; ask daughters to speak up’
Shilpa Phadke, Assistant Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is working on a research project on feminist parenting

Shilpa Phadke

What does ‘feminist parenting’ mean to you?
When I say ‘feminist parenting’ I’m referring to the effort to raise children in way that fosters the quest for gender justice and raises consciousness about the interplay of various hierarchies — patriarchy, class, caste, race, heteronormativity, to name some. And to challenge assumptions about all entitlements, especially their own. And hopefully creating an environment in which they may ask all kinds of questions without the fear of censure.

Tell us about your project on ‘feminist parenting’.
The idea is to look at how feminist mothers speak to their children especially about sexuality. I am interviewing self-identified feminist mothers. The question is how do women who believe in their children’s right to exercise choices and agency in matters of sexuality navigate the reality that often the world outside may be full of all kinds of risks.

Patriarchy is insidious in our society — where does one start with sons and daughters?
Raise sons to be aware of their privilege. At home, they must see that women are individuals with rights. Many feminist mothers said they encourage their daughters to speak up for themselves. We must bring up our daughters with a strong sense of self-worth.

Can boys be taught...
Her father, she adds, may have been traditional in his expectations from girls with respect to certain issues, but had very liberal views when it came to serious issues, such as dowry. “I am a feminist, and so is my husband and his family. So, when we had children, we were privileged that they grew up around people who took gender issues very, very seriously,” she says.

Kalpana Singh Rhodes and Jamie Rhodes with their children in California
Kalpana Singh Rhodes and Jamie Rhodes with their children in California, US. Pic courtesy.Kalpana Singh Rhodes

 

 

Learning by example
Puja, however, says she cannot claim that it has been easy. As Anubhav and his 11-year-old sister Anokhi were growing up, Puja says she started off by bringing gender-neutral toys at home. “I didn’t go to the extent of forcing him to play with toys traditionally considered feminine just to prove a point, because that would go against what we encourage otherwise in terms of freedom of choice. But when Anubhav picked up the tea-set, and Anokhi the trucks, we let them be. They’d later exchange it, and then back again, but that was left up to them.”

Raising a son to be gender-sensitive in a patriarchal society like ours is often seen as ‘emasculation’ of the emotional and social sort, says Puja. She says she is aware that a lot she takes for granted at home isn’t considered ‘normal’ from the majority, patriarchal point of view — like encouraging a boy to cry and vent, encouraging him to choose humanities over science and engineering if he wants to (Anubhav loves literature, humanities and psychology) and not considering women as people who must be ‘protected or watched over for their own good’.

“At home, Anubhav has seen his father give up jobs and change cities for his mother’s career, and his mother do the same. But the real challenge lies in what he sees and experiences with his peers, what he reads or watches on television.” All Puja can now do, she says, is hope that these values help Anubhav make his choices.

To raise a feminist, marry a feminist
For Kalpana Singh Rhodes, a 39-year-old of Indian descent who lives in south California in the US, to raise a feminist is to be a feminist. Even better, she says, if you marry a feminist. “Those underlying assumptions, expectations and interactions between a couple lay the groundwork for the basic identity of a child. Yet, if your child turns out to be wildly conservative, or a misogynist (nonviolent of course) it is ultimately your job as a parent to teach them to be true to themselves and to accept them as they discover and reveal their true selves. They are not mini-me carbons,” she says.

Kalpana and her husband Jamie have three sons, aged between eight and 13, and a four-year-old daughter. As a mother, when parenting involves consciously raising gender sensitive children, it also means learning a lot through them and your spouse. This, admits, Kalpana is something she learnt when her second son wanted to carry a pink fluffy purse to school every day. “My instinct was to ask him not to do it because I feared teasing and bullying. It was then that Jamie stepped in and told me that our son must have the freedom to choose his own pain — the pain of teasing or that of repressing his choices, and that list shouldn’t include the pain caused by his mother’s rejection.” Finally, says Kalpana, he did carry the purse, and she later found that the teasing hadn’t affected him one bit.

You cannot control everything
“I think many women shy away from calling themselves feminists because they think it is synonymous with man-hating, which it isn’t. Others worry they won’t get dates,” smiles Kalpana. It isn’t surprising then, that raising gender-sensitive children involves stumbling through what most parents would call uncomfortable territory. “We live in an affluent neighbourhood with trophy wives. Here, going grey is shocking. You wonder what that does to your kids. For instance, I once decided to wear a shirt to my eldest son’s school which had a slightly low neckline. I had second thoughts, and decided to directly ask him if he felt uncomfortable. He looked at me and simply said, ‘No, Mom. Go ahead. You never dress like those other moms anyway’.”

Kalpana and Jamie have often experienced that it is almost impossible to keep their sons away from guns and violence. “We gave our children all kinds of gender neutral toys, but never guns. Yet, once, when he was young, my second son picked up a doll and aimed it like a gun. You can be most careful, but you can’t beat instinct.”

Worse, she adds, is that you can keep guns, but not a penis away from your son — something which is bound to raise curiosity after a certain age. Kalpana and Jamie often discuss concepts such as sexual abuse and rape being more about dominance than sexuality. All her four children have been assured that they needn’t hug their friends and relatives if they don’t feel comfortable. Sex education in school is often followed up with discussions and questions at home. “And one needn’t be heavy-handed about it. It really works when you tell your son about their options and consequences and ask them to choose what they want to be,” says Kalpana.

Parenting isn’t theoretical
Kalpana and Jamie, she explains, have often had to change their stance on violence, and understand that parenting isn’t theoretical. “After years of telling my sons — no gunplay, no hitting siblings, no violence, my youngest son’s entire school experience was once being shaped by the school bully. He was being physically

attacked slyly. Finally, the bully — a girl — beat him badly and was caught. He wouldn’t hit back because she was a girl. Speaking with her mother and the school failed. I told him, “If she hits you, protect yourself.” But he found an answer we hadn’t thought to employ. He used his wit and intellect to slay the dragon. The accounts from other kids she tormented made him a hero and her belittled by sarcasm. How could I be proud? But how could I not be proud?”

In fact, she adds, feminist parenting
has been more difficult for their daughter Leela. “I am more concerned about her than about my sons.” Kalpana stayed at home for a long period after Leela’s birth, and her decision to join her husband back in their clean energy start-up was influenced by one incident she clearly remembers. “Leela once came to me and asked to babysit her doll. I asked her where the dolls parents where, to which she answered, ‘Dad is in surgery and Mom is just doing Pilates.’ I wondered whether, unknowingly, she was picking up the concept of gender-specific roles. I went to work probably earlier than I otherwise would have, and within six months, we saw a change in her thinking.”

In the end, believes Kalpana, no matter what type of parent you consider yourself to be, the job of parenting is to instill values and then let go.

Dad Speak >>>>
‘Be a hands-on father’
As a father who subscribes to parenting that discourages gender bias, especially among in sons, I think the greatest challenge I face is to demystify rape. We must tell our sons that rape has nothing to do with stigma – yes, it is one of the most brutal assaults possible for a woman.

Prasenjit Bhattacharya

But no way is it the ‘end of the world’ for her, an act she will ‘never be able to survive’. And if you want your son to not be patriarchal, teach him equality on all counts — community, caste, all of it. Respecting women will then come naturally to a boy. It is going to be a long fight here on, because we are all products of patriarchy. Men will not give up their privileged positions so easily.

Be a hands-on father and respect your wife’s choices if you want your son to be gender-sensitive. And I am not speaking of lip service by the intelligentsia. My wife travels widely for work, which sometimes requires me to be at home for my children – I hope they see and learn from that. I am open to my son coming and asking me questions on adolescence, which frees him of doubts and guilt.
— Prasenjit Bhattacharya, 45, CEO, Great Place To Work Institute, and Anubhav’s father

‘I recognise the double standards that my perceptions create’
Teaching our children to be sensitive to gender issues is a core component of teaching them to be effective, productive, and good members of society. Of course, gender raises unique issues as well, which are pervasive and demand some special attention. There will always be differences on gender issues, within a family, community, or society of any scale. This is actually a good thing, though, because it forces us to address and refine our views and responses to these issues on a daily basis.

It, however, isn’t easy. The biggest source of gender bias that I find myself struggling with, stems from my concerns regarding physical safety. Intellectually, I understand that boys are not immune to abuse, including sexual abuse, but my instinct (justified or not) is that girls are more at risk. This difference in concern plays out in a variety of ways. My instinct is to be more restrictive regarding activities that the girls want to engage in and regarding the clothing they wear. I definitely believe that girls and women should be free to wear whatever clothing they like without inviting trouble, but I do worry about our girls attracting the attention of people with bad intentions. While I recognise the double standards that my perceptions create, it is very hard for me to overcome them, as they reflect genuine concerns regarding safety.
— Jamie Rhodes, founder of a clean energy start-up in California and a father

‘Make fathers count’
If feminist parenting and gender sensitisation has to work, schools better take charge of playing their part in raising our boys better, too. As a sociologist, I am constantly in search of ways in which gender bias can be done away with. For instance, 12 years ago, we built common toilets at Podar for children till the age of five. We noticed that it took away the mystery of gender at that age, and boys and girls took to it in a healthy manner.

Swati Popat Vats

Now, I insist on events wherein fathers are required to take over activities which were traditionally considered a mother’s domain — such as cooking. Master Chef With Daddies is an event where the father must learn a recipe and cook with his child in school, so children take the gender out of the act of cooking. In another event, we ask children to pick an activity and make sure that gender bias is removed in the process — for instance, if a child chooses to play football, we insist that the mother accompanies him/her. If the child chooses something primarily done by women here, we insist the father takes over.

We have regular sessions with parents, sometimes even grandparents, because that’s where gender- based roles are insisted upon the most in families. I realise that gender roles are reinforced even by the simple fact that not many men teach younger children at the nursery level.

There is much children can learn from men, too. I’d love to change that, but I cannot say it has been successful because men aren’t forthcoming to fill in the gaps yet.
— Swati Popat Vats, President, Podar Education Network

‘A change in school curriculum helps’
Once, a boy in my school came to me and told me I was biased about gender. When I asked how, he said that girls were allowed to grow their hair but boys were not. I promptly changed the rule and gave them the freedom to experiment.

Lina Ashar

I decided to redesign our curriculum so it incorporates the philosophy of gender equality. Gender differences and equality are topics which are handled tactically and sensitively in the curriculum woven in through literature. While teaching ‘Around The World In Eighty Days’, we discuss the incident of Sati to bring to fore the concept of gender bias as they existed in society. We also teach lessons which show children that talent is not gender specific. A lesson in Hindi deals with a girl becoming a potter while her father believes that traditionally it is the job of a boy.

Students of grade three are taught the concept of good touch and bad touch while teaching the reproductive system. In august 2010, Billabong High International School (BHIS), Malad collaborated with the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) in a national campaign against child sexual abuse. The campaign included demand for passing the ‘Prevention of offences against the Child Bill’. As part of this campaign a memorandum along with a 24-minute educational film ‘Chuppi Todo’ was submitted to Home Minister RR Patil in Mumbai by BHIS students and TISS members.
— Lina Ashar, Founder-Director, Kangaroo Kids Education

‘It starts with the father’
Shireen Gandhy (in the picture with her family), curator, Chemould Prescott Road, says feminist parenting starts with a father. “I believe that raising gender sensitive sons starts with equality between spouses at home.

Shireen Gandhy

My 15-year-old son has many female friends at school. His teachers often tell us girls feel safe with him. We encourage him to take it as a compliment. But it is concerning that sometimes, his ‘masculinity’ is put to test outside home. Fatal spats between teenage boys are common. All I can tell him is to walk away and risk being called a sissy than lose his life.

Time for serious action
Dr Satyapal Singh, Commissioner of Police, Mumbai

Everyday, the media is replete with stories of crimes and atrocities committed against women. Incidents of rape, murder, molestation, kidnapping and domestic violence are on the rise and higher than ever before. Even with increased awareness against such crimes, stricter laws and a higher incidence of reporting crimes against women, criminals are undeterred and unremorseful of their heinous deeds.

Dr Satyapal Singh, Commissioner of Police, Mumbai

As citizens of a nation that supposedly worships its women, we are all ashamed and appalled at the current state of affairs. But by only demanding action and undertaking candle light vigils and demonstrations, we cannot expect this malice to end. We have to be united and must strive to bring about changes in our own mindsets and amongst our society, particularly the youth, to rid our country of this cancer. The Mumbai Police seeks to build a strong public-police partnership to spread awareness against crimes on women and take punitive measures. The Mumbai Police has come up with a series of planned measures for women's safety and to meet their concerns.

1. Specialised reception counters with Women Police Constables (WPCs) have been formed in every police station to deal with crimes against women so that women can be encouraged to approach the police. The department has increased the number of women police personnel across all police stations in the city and promises to act swiftly on the complaints once reported.

2. The Mumbai Police, under the special helpline - '103 Women Helpline', endeavours to open a channel of quick communication between the police and women so incidents of crime and atrocities can be reported in real time. Contact details of all women police officers/constables of a police station have been prominently displayed in the station premises and at beat chowkies.

3. For women with smartphones, a special application named ICE (In Case of Emergency) has also been launched in association with KPMG which will help women in times of distress. This application will help women in sending a SOS distress message simply at the touch of a button and will also provide tips on personal safety and cyber security to them. Through this application, the Mumbai Police also seeks to empower women with easy guidelines for disaster preparedness and management with police and first aid/ambulance phone number accessibility. The application will locate the nearest hospitals and will store all critical information.

4. A special initiative called Mission Mrityunjay, has been launched with the Mumbai Police for better coordination between the youth and the police. Efforts are on to empower the young minds by teaching them the law and rules and regulations necessary in order to make them more prepared to deal with crimes in general and against women. After success in Nagpur and Pune Mission Mrityunjay now hopes to achieve similar success in Mumbai.

5. The city police has recently finished installing about 3.700 complaint boxes at various public places including schools, colleges, places of worship, railway stations and bus stands for the public (especially women) to drop in their complaints anonymously. Anti sexual harassment squads have been formed to man crowded places in plain clothes apart from women vigilance committees in every police station. Measures are also being taken to set up counselling centres for women and various courses are being organised with the help of women's NGOs to expose the force to issues of gender sensitivity. Mohalla committee members are also being trained to deal with crimes and atrocities against women.

As custodians of law and order in the society, we witness that sensibilities have become distorted and emotions have become warped. We must realise that women are the true assets of a society and their position and respect reflects on our real progress. 

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