A question of X or Y
A child's destiny can be determined by as simple a circumstance as whether his or her father contributed an X or Y chromosome. Pink or blue clothes. Guns or dolls. The provider and the homemaker. Female infanticide. The patriarchal system. The purdah system. The premium on virginity. Dashing bachelors and aging spinsters. What are they all about? They all revolve around the issue of gender bias. The fact is that people are treated differently depending on their gender.
Gender bias is so deeply ingrained in the system that the discrimination begins from the time a couple plans a baby. Today, science has advanced so far that it is possible to separate male and female sperm so as to predetermine the sex of a child. In some parts of the world the birth of a baby boy warrants a celebration whereas a baby girl may not be extended the same warm welcome. Despite the fact that India has crossed the billion mark in population, there will still be families with five daughters and the mother trying desperately to give birth to a son.
Reinforcing gender bias
If a boy cries, he is asked if he is a sissy. If a girl plays cricket, she is labeled a tomboy. Dr. Sushma Mehrotra, psychologist, recounts her experience. She says, "I know parents who were very upset because their five-year-old son brought a doll home. The child was just playing with a toy that happened to be a doll. They thought that the boy had a gender problem. The parents actually came for counseling, worried that the boy was showing such feminine interests." In this way, parents ingrain the idea into the minds of their children that behaviour can be gender-appropriate.
Girls will encounter gender bias at almost every stage in their lives. Radha Shankar's father expects her to be home by eight in the evening, while no such restrictions are placed on her brother. Mr. Shankar says,"It's not that I don't trust Radha or that I think she will do anything wrong if I let her out of the house after eight, but the fact is that people will talk if a girl is in the habit of going out for late nights. I don't want anyone to say such things about my daughter. With my son it's different because boys will be boys."
Dr. Mehrotra talked about the plight of educated women who are so frustrated because despite their qualifications, they are ultimately expected to fall into the traditional mould of wife, mother and homemaker. Take the case of Nalini Mansukhani. Her parents sent her to the best schools and she has done her MBA from a prestigious business school, but she is under intense pressure from them to get married. She says,"It doesn't seem to matter to my parents that I'm doing so well in my job and that I have certain career aspirations. Marriage just does not figure in my plan right now. And I just know that they will see no harm in my being expected to give up my career if my prospective husband makes that a condition."
Gender bias and men
According to Dr. Mehrotra, " Femininity is restricted to girls." People tend to have a more indulgent outlook on girls acting like tomboys. However, the opposite is not true for boys. There is a stigma attached to a boy being effeminate. That is the reason why society has a tendency to doubt the masculinity of men who design clothes for women, or male make-up artists, or men who follow any profession that breaks away from the straight and narrow. Somehow, men who don't hold nine to five jobs with a salary cheque that puts food on the table are not deemed manly enough.
While most people believe that gender bias favours men, men have their own cross to bear. Even in these so-called liberated times, men are expected to go out and earn their bread and butter. The option of staying at home and looking after the children while the wife goes out to work is not open to them. They have this option only if they have the strength to withstand the gossip, the ridicule and the general disapproval.
Sujoy Matthew punctured his parent's balloon of expectation when he decided that he was not cut out to be a doctor, engineer, lawyer or an MBA. "I just don't know what I want to do with my life. I'm just trying out different things. I make enough money to cover my expenses so I'm happy. My parents have given up on me. They are embarrassed to tell people that I don't have a job and have even lied on occasion saying that I'm working or doing some course."
Anup Singh moved into his wife's house after marriage. He says, "I haven't heard the end of it even from my friends. It's actually so simple. At this stage, neither my parents nor I can afford to buy a flat. My wife has a house, so I moved in. Women have been moving into their husband's houses for centuries and it's never been an issue. People have to be practical."
Mrs. Khanna is looking for a groom for her daughter. She says,"I want my daughter to marry a man who can give her a secure future. I don't want her to ever worry about money or have to skimp and save." It would never occur to her that her daughter should be able to fend for herself.
Women should be educated so that they can learn skills to support themselves. The choice to work or not to work thereafter should be entirely their own. There are innumerable stories of widows and divorcees who have found that they are clueless about their finances and how to manage them without their husbands. It is not that women are incapable. It is just that they have given up the choice to participate.
Change begins at home
Awareness about gender bias has slowly spread over time. But it will take a long time for this awareness to seep into the grassroots and translate into social change. The world has moved forward. Today, we have women astronauts, women prime ministers, even women wrestlers, but there are still millions of women who face these double standards at every juncture of their lives. Feminists have been shouting themselves hoarse, demanding equality for women. Some people believe that women and men can never be equal, just different. Yes, but different does not necessarily mean inferior or lesser in any way. Women must be provided equal opportunity and this is not a task to be left to the government or any organization or authority.
Social change begins at home. Parents have to learn to adopt an androgynous attitude towards bringing up their children. They shouldn't panic if their son prefers to play with dolls or their daughters decide they don't want to marry till they are thirty. Parents need to give both sons and daughters the chance to live their lives free from the fetters of gender bias.