The media has recently published a large number of articles, on the issue of male attitudes to women. This has been provoked by the recent spate of comments from those in authority on the issue of dress code for women. Gender discrimination is rampant in every aspect of life, be it the home, college, work place. An article in today’s Hindu Sunday supplement, in fact, highlights the role of gender discrimination in the retailing of children’s toys, clothes or whatever and the ” Pinkstinks” campaign.
My daughter has blogged on this issue and highlighted another critical aspect, the need for gender sensitization in the early formative years of children. This needs to be done both in school and the home.
While I am glad to see that most of the new schools are of mixed gender and the archaic system in which is I studied, the single sex school/convent, is now getting outdated, I wonder how well these schools do in gender sensitization. Within schools, unfortunately the teachers are predominantly women and children do not get to observe normal male-female interactions which would have a lasting influence, as teachers are always great role models. However, schools bear a huge responsibility, especially as children go into the higher classes, for inculculating respect between the sexes.
The home front is a different ball game. A large number of children, especially in larger urban spaces, are growing up in unit families and interaction even with other families in the neighborhood is limited. Their adult role models are mainly the parents and in this scenerio, I think the father has a greater role than the mother.
In her blog, my daughter refers to her gender neutral childhood, specifically in terms of her father’s attitude. This made me gaze back on my own evolution in thinking. I grew up in a traditional family, but even back then in the 50’s we were a unit family and living far away from all our relatives in Delhi. Looking back, in my formative years in the 60’s I was a ‘would like to be different’ person hiding inside a conformist exterior. The desire to be different was thanks to my father who was not a great communicator and talked little to us, but was a great liberal at heart. If he did not take any great stand on the role of women, it was because in his scheme of things there was no need for one, women were equal and needed to be given that respect. Of course, there were contradictions in him too!! He was too much a product of his times to be anything but the traditional Indian husband!!
But, his attitude did rub off on me and through my medical studies I realized that I would have to do something radical to break out of the traditional, final-exam-and-marriage-during-internship trap. So, I declared my plans to go abroad for specialization. It was still unusual for single girls to go abroad then, and I am not sure how I hoped to do it. However, without having discussed it with him, I was confident my father would be supportive. But, that year the US stopped holding the Foreign Medical Graduate exam in India. Going to the UK was the other possibility which I started to explore. But during my housemanship year I accepted a proposal for marriage from a wonderful, young doctor a few years my senior, who was as different in background from me as was possible!!. Those were early days of limited freedom in our society and we did not have a real courtship and knew each other mostly at work and at group outings. So, sometimes I have wondered whether my decision to accept his proposal, which actually came through a common friend, was partially influenced by an ‘opportunity’ to escape the boy-views-girl- she – sings- and he rejects/accepts routine which was then the norm. Unfortunately even today, things dont seem to have changed a lot in this regard for many young women. Be that it may, it was a decision that I never regretted for a moment.
I started my post-graduation soon after I got married. At that time, I could probably have selected any specialty. It had always been my intention through internship and housemanship to do a clinical branch. But, there were so many voices, that of parents, teachers and seniors, advising against a clinical specialty and the advantages of pre-clinical branches for women. I must confess, Subhash’s voice was not one of them and he never tried to influence my choice. But, I also need to confess that it was the one decision, the decision to opt for Pathology, that I took as a traditionalist!! Although I have never regretted the decision to do Pathology, I have occasionally regretted my reasons for making the decision.
In subsequent years, Subhash was most supportive of my career choices and activities. He encouraged me to leave my young daughter with my parents for a year to do post-doctoral work in US. He looked after her alone and usually better that I did, whenever opportunities for professional travel came my way. His decision to move from Mumbai, where he was assured of great professional prospects, was greatly influenced by the fact that I was not professionally happy in Mumbai and may have a better outlook at the new Institution in Lucknow. At the time we took that decision, most friends and well wishers were surprised at how he was throwing away the opportunities of the great medical metropolis for the wilderness of Uttar Pradesh – to them my ‘future’ was fairly irrelevant, anyway!!
And as Mukta grew, went through adolescence and then went to the hostel in Delhi, I had my moments of anxiety as every mother does. Subhash not only did not show any anxiety, he could not understand mine – an attitude that often led to arguments between us. And it is this attitude, more than mine, that influenced our daughter. And with that kind of support, I also came out of the ‘closet’ to become openly liberal.
I was most fortunate to have had a father who was an unusual liberal for his time and my daughter was even more fortunate to had a father who was a true ‘women’s activist . So, whatever roles mothers and wives may place in the family, the role of the father is the most significant. How much respect and status he gives to his mother and other senior female members of the family, every action and attitude to his wife (the mother of his children), the every day remarks and most of all his attitude to his children !! It is not easy to treat a boy and a girl equally, especially in the current stage of social upheavals. But, that is the challenge the fathers have to face. It is for the men to decline dowries when they marry and refuse to give it when their daughters get married, to refuse any kind of sexual preferences for their offspring’s, to give equal share in property etc. etc…….
So, am I also not falling into the same trap and giving all the importance to the men? But, I believe that unless more and more men over the next generation play this role, the social transformation that is required to give women an equal status cannot happen. We women will need to realize this and coerce, cajole and support the men in playing this role.
So, I say to all you fathers out there, stand up and get counted. Let our daughters look forward to a future that is different form that of their mothers.