The wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings. The wounded child inside many females is a girl who was taught from early childhood that she must become something other than herself, deny her true feelings, in order to attract and please others.”
– bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions
We live in a world that socialises boys and girls to conform to gender roles in a way that perpetuates the unequal power relations between men and women. I’ve always believed this but it was only when I had my own children that the issue landed right on my doorstep.
I have a daughter who is now four years old, a creative, adventurous child who loves colours, shapes, numbers and “inventions”. She has always collected all sorts of junk to build rockets, aeroplanes and anything she can dream up. Then came the when she was busy building a “telescope” outside and someone looking for her granny came around and asked her why she wasn’t playing with dolls instead.
It was just the first time we’ve had to deal with this gender bias from people who believe they know what is right for my children.
I’ve begun to notice the gendered ways that people address my kids when meeting them for the first time – my daughter is often told how beautiful she is, while my son is asked what he wants to be when he grows up. What’s particularly baffling about this, is that my son is only two years; he has no idea what he wants to be when he grows up and doesn’t even really understand the question.
When my daughter was learning her colours, every time she knew a new one, it automatically became her “favourite colour”. But whenever she liked a colour that was not pink, red or orange, her teacher would tell her that those are “boy’s colours”.
There are many other examples I can give – the type of clothing available for little girls at most shops, how toys and educational material have become gendered (pink and princesses for girls, blue and pirates for boys).
Try buying kids books at the big retail stores and you will find story books “for boys” and story books “for girls”. Lately even the colouring books come in boy and girl versions. Most of these seem to be aimed at further socialising kids to conform to patriarchal gender roles – the princess and pirates dichotomy, good girls and bad boys.
This gender socialisation entrenches the ideas that women are only capable of certain things, and that certain behaviours are only acceptable in women. The idea of a boy pushing a doll in a toy pram would likely shock the same aunty that criticised my daughter for building a telescope.
It is this same gendered socialisation that carried out in discreet daily sexism; creating a breeding ground for rape culture and violence against women.
I want my daughter to be affirmed for more than her looks and have no restrictions on what she can do and be because she’s a girl. I would also like my son to be who he is, without having unhealthy “masculine” traits imposed on him together with the idea that these qualities are superior to the “feminine” traits imposed on my daughter.
I don’t want my children to be used as a means of upholding traditional gender roles, which are socially constructed to ensure that women are seen and treated as inferior to men.
I want this, not only because it is good for my daughter, but because it is also good for my son. To paraphrase bell hooks, I don’t want his self-definition to rely on submission to patriarchal rules.
Koketso Moeti is a campaigner, blogger and part of the Activate! Change Drivers network. She writes for the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader, for Safe World for Women and for NGO Pulse. Follow her on Twitter or read her personal blog.