Gender is in Our Minds, Change is in Our Hands
Can we establish gender equality only with legislations, or do we need to rethink our ideas in the domain of culture, education, media and work? A pedagogue engages with a group of children and explores the possibilities for the creation of a truly sensitive socialization that helps us acknowledge humans as beyond merely men or women
By Ananya Pathak
The women’s movement and its consistent struggle against the patriarchal oppression in the forms of violations against women and denial of life affirming opportunities to them had always captured my imagination. The debates related to issues of gender justice, culturally constructed stereotypes and the degradation of women in society had always fired my sensibilities. These ideas appealed to me, as if speaking directly to my own life trajectory of growing up as a girl somehow placed me at a disadvantage in the world outside, despite my personal household being liberal and egalitarian. It is perhaps this perpetual and sustained engagement with the issues of gender sensitivity that made it possible for me to undertake this pedagogic experiment in a classroom composed of little boys. In the following discussion it is the essence of this unique experiment that I try to bring out for the readers.
Being aware of and sensitive to the question of gender is of critical importance for all those engaged in the field of educational practice, this is because gender stereotypes and concepts of gender identity are placed on children from an early age. From the preference of colors and toys, to the patterns of behavior and conduct all are shaped by the way children are socialized into specific gender roles.
In our very own pedagogic experiment that we had taken up as part of the workshop we engaged in various discussions with the participants on a variety of themes like dowry, a man’s masculinity or the value of his muscular strength over women, why the work that mothers did was considered inferior to the work that fathers did, or why at all crying or dancing were seen to be ‘girly’ whereas being aggressive or fast was seen to be ‘masculine’. The output that came from these discussions was indeed revealing as it helped us understand how deeply engrained gender conditioning becomes from an early age. And of course how young boys see themselves as a naturally superior species to whom girls are inferior and thus deserving of secondary treatment. Although most of them at the end of the sessions said that they now understood how their mothers or sisters felt most of the time yet they found it extremely difficult to answer why they were discriminated against in the first place. Out of the numerous startling moments in this discussion cum activities here I list some of the most alarming remarks that came from among this group of boys:
Why do you think dowry is a prevalent practice in Indian marriages? Would you allow it in your own marriage?
“Dowry is a symbol of respect and honor that the bride’s family has to give to the groom’s, the more the dowry the greater the respect of the man. That is why I will take a big dowry so that people in the society say good things about me.”
Why do you do when you are upset about something and what does your sister do?
“Whenever I am sad I go out and relax, my sister cries like a baby all the time. She is not strong because of being a girl.”
What kind of work does your father do and what kind of work does your mother do?
“My father works very hard and earns money for us, my mother does nothing –she is only a housewife!”
These are some of the perspectives that emerged out of our discussions and asserted before us even more strongly the need to engage with children from an early age and talk openly about issues of gender. The school and the community are after all the pillars of a child’s mental and emotional growth; when these two aspects of their life deny all possibilities for an equitable relationship between man and woman, the child does not see its need either. It is only after rigorous forums for the exchange of ingrained ideas and presupposed conceptions that the pedagogue begins to reach at the depth of the problem. One also realizes that the vulnerable mind of the child is like a fertile ground on which any seed can grow into a tree. Often, without the correct kind of ambience and adult guidance the child internalizes value systems that are undemocratic and even violent. The fact of the matter however is that these ingrained value systems become so strong by the time that the child steps into adult life that it becomes impossible for him to question the status quo or to even contemplate why things are structured in a gendered way. We designed many creative experiments that helped each child to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions, interview people in the community, observe the daily routine of an ordinary housewife, engage in chores that are considered easy or trivial such as washing a heap of clothes, cooking a meal , we also encouraged each child to throw away any thoughts that inhibited them from expressing themselves fully and helped them explore emotional reactions like ‘crying’ or dancing’( acts that they restrained from as they considered these to be ‘feminine’ and thus weak and cowardly!) It did take a lot of time for the initial inhibitions to fade away, but we could see how these little activities helped to lift away a huge emotional baggage that they were all caring at a very subtle level. The process of complete transformation is a gradual one but we were happy we could lay at least the seed. In the larger context of the intention of the workshop and its deeper significance we wish to recall the contributions of two psychological theorists who threw light on the cultivation of the gendered self among children. Kohlberg was the first theorists to assert that gender was indeed a concept that was learned, and internalized through one’s cognitive skills. His thinking was influenced by Piaget, who portrayed children as active learners who use interactions with their environment to construct an understanding of the world around them. Kohlberg believed that children’s cognitive understanding of gender influenced the way that they related to the world around them and understood relationships, actions and work.
Yet another important thinker called Vygotsky showed us how the processes of imitation and instruction are vital components to children’s development. Adults promote this learning by role modeling behavior and attaching cultural meanings to objects and events, all of which contribute to the development of gendered selves. Popular culture is also one such platform that engages in the constant promotion and perpetuation of Gender stereotypes which are pervasive in the media. Consumer products often carry much gendered connotations and messages which are subtle yet immensely powerful in impacting the minds of the children .Not only are these products marketed for specific genders, but they are merchandised in stores by gender, creating segregated pink and blue aisles for shopping. Media portrayals contribute further towards the reinforcement of these stereotypes. There are the silent yet powerful messages that are given through the medium of advertisements that go on to further embed gender stereotypes among young adults .Advertising about computers/gadgets typically shows men and boys as competent users, engaged in active or professional roles, while women and girls are portrayed as passive observers merely looking attractive. This impact of consumer products and media seems to be one of the most widespread and culturally normalized forms of hegemony, a hegemony that does not use brute force to establish domination but seduces one at the psyche with its mesmerizing spectacle and elaborate promises. It is here that we can recall the ideas of Baudrillard when he throws light upon the logic of exchange value in consumption and how it has successfully rendered all activities equal – distinction through goods is impossible because they all essentially signify the same thing. He outlines a theory of consumption based on the acceptance of “formal rationality,” which assures an individual pursues his individual happiness through objects expected to provide the maximum satisfaction. Thus what is interesting to observe within this systematic arrangement is that consumers don’t initiate the production process, producers do – conditioning the needs of the consumers to what they produce. In short, needs are not inherent in either the good or the consumer, needs are produced by the system of production. Thus from childhood individuals are subjected to a market spectacle that makes them so dependent on the possession of material goods that often their idea of the self is shaped, defined and even dismissed because of the possession/ absence of these products. Media generated stereotypes showcase women as fashionable, decorated and glamorous( as if that alone defines her) whereas men are portrayed as necessarily macho or aggressive; to establish one’s ‘womanhood’ or ‘manhood’ these products are seen as indispensible. They not only make one a victim to the market but also reinforce traditional gender biases in a glamorous avatar. Thus the reproduction of stereotypes in media and culture ends up fixating us even more in practices of both brute as well as subtle gender insensitivity far from liberating us from the shackles of a patriarchal society.
Gender is a deeply internalized role that all individuals from childhood are socialized into. By the time one is an adult and steps into the work or family domain, these thought patterns have crystallized so much that any kind of alternative seems difficult to accept or even to acknowledge. It is of outmost concern to all those teachers, parents and educators who are dealing with young minds to be careful and never allow any discriminatory tendencies to arise within the mind of the child, who may not have a second chance to rethink the qualities or standpoints that may be externally imposed. Also it is of prime importance to be able to help children engage in creative activities that help them to explore their inner treasures in a way that does not compare one with the other but allows each to discover the light within. Conceptually ideas of gender equity may be accepted within family or institutions, but what is important is that these ideas are brought into concrete practice and are implemented on an everyday basis. When adults form an environment of mutual respect and dignity, value each other’s individual space and choice only then can a child learn that gender discrimination is ugly and essentially all men and women are equals as humans. However, at this stage the educator must also enable the child to see that being ‘equal’ does by no means imply uniformity or the crushing of diversity rather it is here that my own ideas resonate with those of the ‘difference feminists’ when they argue that the diverse potentials that men and women have are essential in the establishment of any gender sensitive culture. It is only when each one’s creativity, uniqueness and individuality finds space that both men and women can flourish. It is from a young age that children have to grow in conducive environments that allow people to express themselves without having to necessarily copy external symbolisms. Children and most importantly little boys must be socialized in homes and schools where traditional walls between home and world are broken and the myths of household chores being inferior is challenged. Also young boys must be helped to discover their own softer/humane sides and understand that being caring or artistic do not make them inferior or vulnerable. On the other hand, young girls must be encouraged to think of themselves as more than their physicality and see that men too are beyond earning members, and they too are victims of patriarchy! Only when we are able to see these forces that operate all around us can we create an ambience that is based on mutual reverence and collective well being.