Recently an uncle visiting from overseas stayed with us for a few days. He was a pleasant and amiable man, keen to take in the sights and always up for a good yarn. On one such occasion, as he sat with me chatting over tea, he impressed me with his nonchalant comments about how his life had changed since the passing of his wife. He mentioned how she was his friend and sounding board and how lonely he felt after her death. I liked how he spoke of his feelings for his wife and what an impact she had on his life and that of his children. It came as a surprise then, when he ended this conversation with, “I hope you don’t mind an old man saying, I know your parents probably wish this too, as you are all sisters — I hope you have a boy soon and make everyone happy.”
I was shocked. While I appreciated the good wishes and prayers he was sending my way, how could he who had just spoken about the impact a woman can have on a life — end with a clear gender bias for the future? I know some men (and even women) have a restricted view on what a woman can accomplish based on cultural and social politics that have been paraded into our consciousness under the guise of religious guideline. I understand that even though we have come so far as a race, men are still seen as the future breadwinners and caregivers, while women seen as “troublesome” and “a headache.” What I didn’t understand was how a man so well-read and so well-traveled, who had empowered daughters and daughter-in-laws and saw my blessed life, could wish, nay — insult me, with such a gender biased “good wish.”
I felt injured on behalf of every woman who has ever been subjected to the seemingly innocent and yet profoundly ignorant “well-meaning prayer” for a baby boy. It is not just in developing nations where culture suffers from this. I know many women in such a developed nation as ours, who have had lifelong struggles with their families for failing to produce male offspring and have men who see girls as “a burden.” Our world over-emphasizes the importance of male virility and achievement and in doing so undervalues the nurturing encouragement women provide in conjunction with their own achievements.
We live in a time where the television, radio, phone, alarm clock, calendar and music player all fit into the palm of our hands and yet we still inherently believe that one half of the population is superior to the other. We live in the age of self-driving cars and yet we believe that a female child born into a family will not bring the security and affluence of a male child.
He added, “I know your parents feel the same way.” My parents raised four daughters with the rigor and love meted out only by those who firmly believe in raising decent children irrespective of gender. My father never saw me as a girl, but as someone in whom he could instill good morals and values. My mother’s fears for my tomboy-ish nature were not because she didn’t want me to be a girl in a man’s world, but because she had lived her life as one. I know people had things to say about my mother bearing four daughters but I also know my father is proud as punch of it. His confidence, his love and his pride in all of us ensure my mother never feels “guilty.” And why should she? Why should she feel guilty for raising four girls who provide the same love, security and respect a son may have?
This needs to change. Along with our long-held cultural biases, religion is used as flimsy facade behind which misogynists hide. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “Whoever has three daughters and is patient with them and gives them to drink and clothes them, they will be a protection for him against the Fire.” It is not religion that builds our deep-seated prejudice against women and the female child. It is us and our long-standing history of violence towards women. Our mistreatment of our mothers, our abuse of our wives, our trading of our daughters and our burying alive of the girl child. It is we who perpetuate the linguistics of misogyny, be it through well-meaning stereotypes such as “the gentler sex” or the more overt, violent labels we give women who do not conform to the male view of how a woman should act.
What if we don’t teach our children to be gender biased? Instead we instill the values and morals that will make them an upstanding humane member of society. Let’s educate them to be the kind of person that will take care of their families and their societies.
Written by Shafeen Mustaq. Shafeen is a Bengali living in Canberra, Australia who regularly writes for local papers in Canberra. You can read more of her work on her blog www.shifs.wordpress.com.
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