I grew up in awe of feminist writers like Ismat Chughtai, who wrote of lesbian passion in 1942, and Mahasweta Devi, who wrote of women under colonisation and caste oppression. I came into adulthood in a time of the courage of Bhanwari Devi, the rural grassroots activist of a scheduled caste, who tried to stop an upper-caste family from marrying off their infant daughter. As punishment, she was gang-raped by upper-caste men.
Bhanwari Devi and her husband had the gall to go to the police. She was ostracised by her people, abused by the police, and brutally rebuked by the justice system. But her case finally won a victory when the Supreme Court of India recognised that she was targeted for her work as an activist, which then led to changes to sexual harassment laws in India. When asked in an interview how she overcame the shame of rape, Bhanwari Devi said: “What wrong did I do? It’s their shame, not mine.”
Both heartbroken and heartened by such feminist stories in my homeland, I now live in America, working – alongside white feminists and feminists of colour, trans feminists and cisgender feminists, straight and queer feminists – to tailor a beautiful, sleek, custom-made, expandable, steeped-in-history and yet timeless feminism for my child. Which is where you come in.
If you are reading this book, you have a boy in your life whom you want to raise as a feminist. I hold you in happy solidarity. And I tell you we are not alone.
We can snuff out toxic masculinity – a cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, dominance, and violence, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to boys’ own mental health. We can build a gentle and vital masculinity from the ground up. We can raise our children without gender stereotypes, perhaps even without gender binaries, so that they are free to experience and express the whole spectrum of human emotion. And we can be people of any gender building all sorts of family as we do it.
Most of my rearing of Gibran was done as a single mother. Perhaps that made my job of raising him a feminist easier, perhaps it made it harder. I have witnessed the strengths and weaknesses of the feminist enterprise in all kinds of families. In 1996, when my boy was a year old, researcher Phyllis A Katz published an article titled “Raising Feminists”, in which she pointed to one significant contributor that determined whether or not a child would grow up to be a feminist: parental behaviour.
For one, Katz pointed out, many children rely less on gender-role stereotypes if their mothers have been employed outside the home. I do not believe that my stay-at-home-mom friends will fail to raise feminists, but I have come to see that mothers who seek and find fulfilment of any kind outside a homemaker role are more likely to phone home and ask their sons to fold the laundry. I made it a point at least once a week to call my teenage boy and ask him, “What’s for dinner?”
Katz and her fellow researchers found that at three years old, a child was less into gender stereotypes if the parents displayed “a more positive parenting style – they granted their children more independence and they were less demanding, less authoritarian, and warmer than parents of more sex-typed children”. The report from my friend Julie and her husband, Ragan, is that they are doing well in raising their son (and their daughter) to be feminists.
For one, they are modelling for their children a different gender-role equation. Julie has a PhD and is a professor. Ragan is a musician who works odd construction jobs. Julie is putting Ragan through college to be an engineer so he can bring those skills to his music production career. They also redistribute the chores at home, bring in gender-neutral books, and praise gentleness and respect in both kids, especially in their son. In the battle to straitjacket boys’ masculinity, feminists like Julie and Ragan are seeking an armistice. No, actually, they’re going a step further and seeking an ally in their boy.
Fourth-wave feminism, researchers tell us, is going to bring boys and men along. Moms on Twitter are saying Yes, please. All over the globe, parents, teachers, activists, and boys are building a league of male feminists and allies that will, very soon, laugh in the face of misogyny.
Take students Matt Chen and Matias Benitez, who answered actress Emma Watson’s call for male feminist allies and started a HeForShe club at their all-boys Regis High School in Manhattan. When the boys heard that some girls had felt uncomfortable and had been touched inappropriately at some of the Regis High School dances in previous years, the HeForShe club collaborated with the nearby all-girls Catholic Marymount School to host a conversation about how to shut that kind of thing down at the school’s dances going forward.
Take Urvashi Sahni, an educator who developed a special curriculum for teachers of working-class boys at Prerna Boys School, a K–12 school in Lucknow, India. Her teachers go through rigorous training so they can teach boys how to demonstrate “responsive care” to one another. Boys caring for other boys is a first step towards teaching them self-awareness and social-emotional awareness, so they can examine masculinity, violence against women, gender, and marriage.
The teachers ask the boys to look around in their community and notice how gender injustice crushes their own dreams and feed their own fears and those of the girls and women in their lives. Take the men across the world leading the “Man Box” study, which, in 2017, showed that young men ages eighteen to thirty feel pressure to “act tough”, which then causes harm to those around them and to themselves.
The study went deeper to find that these behaviours led to a cost of $20.9 billion that could be saved by the US, UK, and Mexican economies if there were no “Man Box”. What were these behaviours and what did they lead to? Sexual violence, bullying and assault, suicide, traffic accidents, binge-drinking, and depression.
A private boys’ school in Croydon, England, drew a link between male learned behaviour and the fact that suicide is the most common cause of death among men in the UK under forty-five. They brought in volunteers for a charity called the Great Men campaign where trained men follow lesson plans to teach boys about gender issues.
Take Fatma Özdemir Uluç, who led a British Council–supported study of gender equality in Turkish schools. One of her social-science teachers gave the students homework to observe their family for a week and report back on who was getting the most tired. A sixth-grade boy reported that his older sister and mother were the most tired because they were doing all the chores in the house. His older sister was preparing for her university exams and was still expected to bring him his tea.
Once the boys woke up to this gendered injustice around them, the teachers brought in the families and talked about how they could treat boys and girls equally. One of the schools put on a play about Cinderella, casting a boy in the lead role to find out how this changed the story. Take an initiative in which thirty-six Kenyan preschool teachers participated in a study to see if they held gender-stereotyped views and if they communicated these views to children during selection and use of play materials.
In short, the world is conspiring to raise feminist boys. You and I and the whole wide world.
The part of me that wants to raise a feminist son is the same part of me that wanted to make sure his Hercules blanket was tucked in well enough around him so he wouldn’t be cold as a three-year-old. It’s the same part of me that made sure I put an egg on his plate for breakfast every day before school because research said that kids who ate protein for breakfast stayed alert in class longer.
It’s the same part of me that tells him to call me if he and his friends have been drinking and need a ride; I’ll be there, no questions asked. I wanted my baby warm, I wanted my boy well-fed, I want my young man alive. I want to send a good man out into the world and I want for my grown son a good life, with mutually supportive relationships and a fulfilled and happy partner. I want him to be loving and I want him to be loved.
Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, said: “When we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.” In a world where relationships are jaded, fraught, and short-lived, I want great love for my son. I want him to be fully shaped so that when love arrives, the human couple can find its true form.
It hasn’t been easy to raise a feminist boy, and it isn’t over yet.
Excerpted with permission from How To Raise A Feminist Son: A Memoir and Manifesto, Sonora Jha, Penguin Books.