In 2017, researchers from New York University, the University of Illinois, and Princeton University released the results of a study that demonstrated how gender stereotypes take hold early. From the age of six years, they found, girls are less likely (than boys) to associate being “really, really smart” with their own gender and more likely to avoid activities that seem to require higher levels of intellectual ability.
Gender stereotyping, perpetuated across almost all societies for centuries, is one of the main reasons more women do not pursue disciplines requiring significant intellectual rigour. And this, in turn, is why women are still under-represented in many fields. That such stereotyping is already internalised by girls in kindergarten and in relatively less patriarchal Western cultures is gut-wrenching and validates the need for campaigns like International Women’s Day (IWD).
The 2019 IWD theme is #BalanceforBetter. IWD defines this as “(a) gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage…”
Although every year sees a few improvements in India for such gender balance, the country still lags behind most of our neighbours, like China, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Maldives, in the global Gender Development Index.
Real balance comes when people are not limited by social or ideological stereotypes and prejudices in their aspirations, choices, behaviours, and needs simply because of being born a particular gender. It can only be sustained when everyone has equal opportunities in six key areas: education, employment, financial independence, healthcare, political governance, and personal development. (Note: “equal” does not mean “same” in this context.)
For India, the most important of these is education, particularly as a necessary foundation for the other five areas. The 2011 Indian census showed that the effective literacy rate was 82.14% for men and 65.46% for women. While the latter rate was an increase of 11.79 percentage points over 2001, there is still a considerable gender literacy gap.
This increase in women’s literacy was due to the efforts of many people like Urvashi Sahni. She began as a women’s rights activist in late-eighties India and then founded Prerna, a school for poor, vulnerable girls. All the teaching and learning at Prerna is about ensuring that girls can from an early age resist the patriarchal socio-political biases and structures that frame their lives, develop personal agency, and see themselves as autonomous, respectable individuals with equal rights. Sahni’s 2017 book, Reaching for the Sky, is an immersive, absorbing account of Prerna School as told through the voices and stories of six girls, some teachers and parents, and Sahni herself. Plenty of qualitative and quantitative data supports these narratives too.
Many of the hurdles, ideologies, and biases that prevent girls/women from “reaching for the sky” exist because even science has got women wrong. Angela Saini’s 2018 book, Inferior, investigates and challenges myths and stereotypes about gender differences through the lenses of anthropology, evolutionary history, psychology, and neuroscience. There are a couple of similar new books out this year too, but read this first because it also looks across the age spectrum – from birth to death – and at cultures around the world. Saini presents enough research findings to overturn whatever we think we already understood about deeply-entrenched, widely-spread gender-related prejudices. With some new leading-edge scientific studies, she puts forward more fascinating insights to change how we discuss or view gender politics and discrimination overall.
Since such discrimination is internalised very early by girls, there is also a need to provide them with pioneering role models within our own cultures. If she can see one, she can be one. Aparna Jain’s 2018 book Like a Girl does this through the lives of 56 women who had or have carved out their own paths. It would also be useful reading for adults who have any involvement in raising children.
Modelled on Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, the book spotlights women from almost every field – politics, sports, art, writing, music, and more. Though not necessarily all household names, these figures are both historical and contemporary and come from all levels of socio-economic hierarchies. What unites them is their idealism, vision, and courage. Jain has aimed for balanced versus beatified profiles, so that notable flaws and mistakes are mentioned alongside the accomplishments. The illustrations are beautifully inspired too.
Speaking of inspiration, a new novel comes out this March in the US by Mathangi Subramanian: A People’s History of Heaven. Five school-going girls are best friends and live in a 30-year-old Bengaluru slum called Heaven. Their community is up against the city government, which wants to replace the slum with more high-rises. The girls come together to stand up to the bulldozers with defiance even as they deal with sexism and bigotry with ferocity.
From the reviews and excerpts, this promises to be a moving story about how empowered young girls can rise from any level of society, regardless of their personal struggles or circumstances. And, from a storytelling perspective, the style shows how complex and dark socio-political issues can be written about with colour and compassion. Although it sounds like “young adult” fiction, it hasn’t been categorised as such due to certain adult themes.
For the fifth selection, let’s circle back to the beginning: the need to empower girls from an early age. This book is from the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It began as a letter to a friend, became a Facebook post, and then a slim 2017 book: Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Adichie has always maintained that feminism is not about universal rules and must be contextual (or, as is more widely agreed now: intersectional.)
A mother herself, she writes to a new mother about how to raise daughters (and, yes, sons too) but she could well be writing to parents everywhere. It’s a quick read because of its conversational, witty tone but the advice is as sharply urgent as ever – whether she is warning against “feminism lite”, or advising on how language and social norms must be questioned carefully, or clarifying why women should not be defined by their motherhood.
These five books enlighten us with varied ways to achieve gender balance and equality. And they are unified on one crucial point (borrowing from Adichie):
“. . .women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronising undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed’ and ‘revered’ because they are women. It makes me think of chivalry, and the premise of chivalry is female weakness.”