Growing up the only girl among 4 boys in a somewhat traditional family, I found myself always caught up in the struggle to liberate myself from the social confines. One of the first labels I was aware of was that of my gender. “Sit properly you are a girl”! “Go to the kitchen, you are a woman”! “Go to church, good women go to church”, etc.
At this point, I do not accept labels of any kind. Not of gender- which are social constructs about what we can or cannot do- or of occupation, or of ability, or of intellect. I realise that we can only find meaning when we are stripped of all these things and must face ourselves. I have also personally witnessed the powerful change that can come when these structures are intentionally deconstructed. So, I have written 3 major steps I would take to achieve the same mental shift in boys, with a view to creating a more egalitarian society.
Teach the boy that the difference between men and women are their reproductive organs and not what society says they can or should do.
There is a meal eaten in Nigeria called poundedyam. As the name implies itconsists of (boiled) yams repeatedly beaten in a wide mortar, into a sort of dough. Expectedly, this process is an arduous task, and one which I refused to undertake growing up as the only girl in a family of 6. My elder brother therefore usually had to take on the pounding duty and I recall our tenant/ neighbour would sometimes come by the kitchen and tease him calling him ‘kitchen boy’. This infuriated my mother who could not understand why it was an issue that her son was helping her in the kitchen. But in a curious change of character she would ‘go off’ on me when I came into the kitchen to receive my share of the food. Her grouse was that I had no shame and could still eat when it was a boy that had assisted in preparing the meal.
The entrenchment of gender roles in the subconscious of a child is conscious, deliberate and overt. It is never subtle because it is backed by years of bias handed down from generation to generation and endorsed by institutions. However, many people do not even know why they insist that the different genders act in specific ways other than the fact that that is how it has always been done. Boys should be taught to question these roles and other patriarchal dictates of society. Why can I not cry? Why is it shameful if I help my mother in the kitchen? Or cook for my girlfriend? Cooking and cleaning are life skills, they are not what women were born to do. Like every skill they can be learned by everyone.
We must also teach boys to query the more subtle nuances of this conditioning for gender roles. The voices that dictate that a girl of the same age in the same class as them can only be an assistant prefect to a boy. Or cannot play a certain sport or must not excel in certain subjects.
A few years ago, I worked in an experiential marketing agency as the Head of Creatives. One day while I was busy at my desk a colleague came into our open plan office and announced to three other ladies and I that the boss wanted to see us. I asked her why and she said he wanted to purchase some fabrics, either as gifts for clients or for use at an event, and he wanted the ladies to make a choice for him. To put it mildly, I was irritated at this and I expressed this irritation to the messenger. Surely everyone had eyes and, to varying degrees, taste?Why would I have to leave my heavy workload and go to select fabric because I was a lady? But she did not understand why I was angry, and nor did the people around. Most likely to them I was a woman and so I automatically was skilled in home décor, fashion or design; the soft skills that were apparently supplied with a vagina.
Teach him that sex is not another sport at which he must win, and every woman’s body is not the turf to be conquered.
A group of female final year secondary school (high school) students were attacked by male students from the nearby school. The boys, wielding scissors, ripped through the girls’ uniforms and underwear, and proceeded to take turns mounting them amidst cheers from friends. In broad daylight. Luckily the girls wore reinforced underwear including cycling shorts and gym tights and this held off their assailants for a while. The boys were then stopped by some adults who formed security groups and escorted the dishevelled girls home. Reports showed that this sexual violence was the regular end-of-year practice of boys in that school who had completed their final year exams; a bizarre graduation ritual. The next day, in a press conference, the police spokesman said the incident could not be described as sexual violence or (attempted) rape as penetration did not occur. Instead he described it as conflict due to tension between rival schools.
The sexual assault is not the most distressing part of this story, but the apparent institutionalised notion that rape or sexual violence on women /girls was an acceptable method to express grievance. After all, girls have bodies for men anyway, so what is the fuss? Right?
Teach him that girls matter.
Not that they ‘matter too’, or they matter ‘as well’, but that girls are equally significant and their lives as valid. The basic foundation of a culture of patriarchy and gender inequality is constructed when we teach boys that girls, their aspirations, and their needs do not matter except they fit it into a particular box.
This lesson is one that encompasses all the others because it borders on many things. Many times, we teach our men to only respect and value women if they can appreciate their beauty, relate with them on familial terms (like a sister or a mother), or on the basis of their (supposed) fragility or delicacy. Any woman who does not consistently fit into any of these stereotypical boxes can be disrespected, oppressed, maligned or insulted. As a result any woman with which they have a disagreement is an ‘ashawo’ ( slang for prostitute), a visibly upset woman is frustrated and disgruntled, and an ambitious woman is misguided.
Our sons need to learn from home, that people are people - men and women. In this aspect, I believe the onus falls heavily on women, the mother-figures to show that they have lives outside of home and motherhood. That they are well-rounded. In addition, it is also important that they are seen to accord other women respect, irrespective of status or education.
I remember a story told by a teacher I had when I was a teenager. He, as a teenager,had impregnated a girl,and, as is the usual practice, absconded. Unfortunately, the girl’s mother traced his family and came over (with the girl) in a rage- understandably. His father, a polygamous man, calmly asked what the problem was and when he was told he immediately flew into a rage asking if that was why they were disturbing his peace. She was pregnant, and she would have the baby and one of his wives would look after it. The wives snickered and the aggrieved family went home dejected. My teacher pointed that moment out as the point when he realised that there was nothing to a woman. His words burned a hole in my heart and mind.
The culture of patriarchy and toxic masculinity is deliberate and consistently laid from birth; raising a generation of boys who counter this culture therefore, also involves consistency, but of another type. We must encourage and educate them to consistently interrogate social norms and constructs. Only in this way can they abjure gender inequality and join in building a successful society.