One of the biggest threats to universal, equal human rights is the propagation of gender inequality throughout the world. Women have stood together for decades, in a long, drawn out struggle for the most fundamental of human rights. Dwelling upon this can get rather depressing – but even as I was in the throes of frustration and anger during one such rumination, I was struck with the realisation that I was extremely lucky to be spared from this injustice during my childhood.
I did not realise it as a child, but the fact is that I was raised in a truly gender-neutral home (or at least, the closest to a gender-neutral existence that I have ever experienced). Here were some of the characteristics of my upbringing that are incredibly rare in the adult world I currently live in:
Gender roles did not exist
My younger brother and I were never expected to tailor our behaviour or interests to play to gender stereotypes (in fact, I don’t recall my parents ever buying me a Barbie doll – they bought me other types of dolls, stuffed animals, Hot Wheels cars, and more such varieties of toys). We never heard phrases like ‘boys like blue and girls like pink’, or ‘boys should do this and girls should do that’.
All household chores were divided equally between us. My brother was never spared from doing chores because he was male, and I was never confined to ‘domestic’ chores such as cooking or laundry because I was female. My parents would typically list out all the chores that had to be done and my brother and I would divide them between us (each of us fighting for the chores that required minimum effort, of course).
Most importantly, there were never conversations or instructional sessions dedicated towards my becoming a ‘good wife’. All the skills that I was taught were directed at helping me become a self-sufficient, independent adult (I must confess I completely failed on the cooking front).
I never felt limited when it came to following my extra-curricular interests at school. Both my brother and I were given the same start (piano and violin lessons, with routine sports training from my father) and allowed to decide what we wanted to spend more time on as we got older. I was never stopped from participating in school activities or going on class trips because of my gender.
There was no ‘head of the house’
Both of my parents are doctors, and both went to work every day. Both parents played an equal role in making family decisions. The idea of a woman’s voice being second to her husband’s was completely alien to me. My parents showed me what a truly equal relationship looked like, which means that I don’t have to hold onto hypothetical, seemingly idealistic standards of equality. They set a standard that allowed me to immediately pick up on inequality and address it, rather than letting it slide from understanding it to be common, accepted practice.
Gendered language was never used
The only source of gendered language in my childhood came from my schoolteachers and my peers. At home, ‘like a girl’ was never an insult, and neither of my parents made any special allowances for me on account of my gender.
As women, accepting these seemingly well-meaning allowances – having men help you when you don’t really need help but it’s just easier to get them to do it, using your gender to get out of situations you’d rather not be in, etc. – might seem convenient in the short term, but causes immense long term damage because it cements us as the ‘weaker sex’.
Every unnecessary helping hand from a man, such as pulling out your chair for you at a table, is actually sexism disguised as kindness (even if the men doing it have genuinely kind intentions). As a thought experiment for my women readers, try reversing the scenario. Would a grown, adult man take it kindly if you made them feel like they couldn’t even pull out their own chair or open a door by themselves? How would they feel if you constantly treated them like emotionally unstable children that had to be ‘taken care of’ as opposed to respected as equals? Now imagine this kind of treatment being the norm for multiple decades, so that even self-sufficient, independent, men had to accept being subjected to this treatment whether they like it or not, making it twice as hard for them to be respected.
It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? So why is it normal for us as adult, intelligent, strong women to be treated like that?
By treating you differently, the patriarchy can then justify that women are not as capable as men – you need a man to help you out of a vehicle, you need a man to give you his jacket on a cold day, you need a man to take care of you, etc. – and therefore women cannot be treated as equals to men
Here, accepting special treatment is actually setting women backwards – how can we expect to be respected as equals if we do not behave as equals?
But I digress – coming back to my childhood, gendered standards were never applied either (‘Be a man!’, for example).
The most wonderful aspect about being raised in an environment like this was that I never even thought about gender dynamics, because in our home they did not exist. The fact that I could take this for granted is why I consider myself lucky.
For that is what we are fighting for today – a world in which we do not need to have conversations about women’s rights because our rights finally fall into the universal category of human rights. The dream is that we don’t ever feel the need to talk about gender – it becomes an insignificant detail in the larger, human narrative.
Sadly, this world is far from becoming a reality. However, I consider myself truly blessed to have at least had a glimpse of what a gender-neutral world would look like, a world in which a human isn’t made to feel ashamed or handicapped because they were born female.