As I went through my morning routine of plaiting my daughter’s hair, she shared with me some amusing incidents from her school. I relished our conversation and laughed heartily. However, I could not help but notice that, like most teenagers hoping for a gender-neutral society, she sometimes engaged in debates with her male friends. While she was usually courteous when disagreeing, she was adamant about presenting her fact and evidence-based arguments. So, I gently suggested that she try being friendly with the boys and prioritise building relationships over winning arguments. To my surprise, my daughter responded, “Mamma, you don’t know some of these guys; they are very egoistic. Thau ko thau aaukat dekhaidine ho (You need to show their status on the spot).”
Her response left me shocked, and I began to wonder where she learned such a thing. At home, we want to nurture a gender-neutral society and hence are mindful of the books she reads, the events she attends, and the language she uses, so I could not fathom how such biases could have crept into her mind. It is a simple illustration of how gender stereotypes persist in our society and how deeply ingrained they are, even in our younger generations.
As I sat there listening to my daughter, I was struck by her words. They revealed a deeper truth about the gender dynamics that our young people are navigating. Her statement that some boys are egoistic and assert their dominance over girls with their loud voices was a stark reminder that gender inequality is still pervasive in our society. As we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is a reminder that we must continue to work towards building a gender-neutral society where girls and women are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve. More importantly, it should begin from an early age at every home and school.
Fighting back stereotypes
During our conversation, my daughter shared with me incidents of family members showing egoistic behaviour and how some boys often dominate discussions with their loud voices, making it difficult for them to admit their mistakes and recognise the efforts of girls. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the prevailing mindset among youth today.
Despite the progress made in ending various forms of discrimination, there is still a long way to go. In many parts of Nepal, young girls are deprived of their fundamental right to education. Even in urban centres, girls are subjected to ridicule and mockery for their vocal expressions, clothing choices, and friend circles. We often impose nighttime curfews on our daughters but give young boys a free pass to do as they please. These are clear examples of how gender-based discrimination continues to exist in our society and how a gender-neutral society is a distant dream.
During a recent meeting with a professor at my university to seek advice on relevant educational delivery, he shared an incident about a school that had sent a dress code for an event, specifying cultural wear for girls and daura suruwal for boys. However, his daughter wanted to wear daura suruwal, but the school was specific about the attire. This incident made me reflect on how practices for a gender-neutral society should begin as early as kindergarten. Children should be allowed to wear what makes them feel comfortable and confident, regardless of their gender.
Setting an example
I am grateful to my parents and family for not imposing gender-based stereotypes on me while preparing me for a gender-neutral society. Despite being in a joint family with six brothers, I was given the freedom to wear whatever I wanted. My parents would always show concern for my safety even if I returned home late at night and would ask me to inform them in a timely manner. I was allowed to choose my friends, explore new places, and pursue opportunities in terms of my studies and career.
Instead of being discriminated against, I was always loved, praised, and made to feel proud, just because I was a girl. My parents and grandfather often express their happiness about my birth and consider me their lucky charm. Even as an adult, I feel elated when they touch my feet every morning, treating me with the utmost respect and reverence.
However, my experiences changed once I stepped into the outside world. I was unaware that people preferred men to occupy top positions due to reasons such as men not being pregnant or falling ill as often. It seemed that people needed to see male figures in charge. Despite my qualifications and degree, my physical appearance, such as my height, seemed to matter more. Moreover, my age and appearance played a significant role in how seriously I was taken. There was not a gender-neutral society fully functioning yet.
It took me years to be vigilant about what I wore, whom I spoke to, and how late I stayed out. However, I never gave up and slowly but surely learned how gender-based discrimination operates in society.
Beginning with a single step
To strive towards a gender-neutral society, it is imperative that we start in our homes, schools, and universities.
At home, parents can start by raising their children to be respectful of all genders and challenging gender-based stereotypes. They can encourage their children to pursue their interests, regardless of societal expectations based on gender. Fathers can take an active role in household work, showing their children that domestic responsibilities are not limited to a specific gender. It is also important to address issues such as gender-based violence and educate children on the importance of consent and respect in a gender-neutral society.
Schools and universities can play an important role by incorporating gender-neutral policies and education into their curricula. This includes gender-neutral dress codes and educating students about gender diversity and inclusivity. In addition, teachers and professors can be trained to recognise and address gender-based discrimination in their classrooms.
Creating a gender-neutral society requires collective work from individuals, families, educational institutions, and policymakers. We should start the conversation and work toward breaking down the barriers that limit the potential of individuals, irrespective of their gender. By creating a gender-neutral society that is inclusive and equitable, we can pave the way for a better future for everyone here.