By Anoushka Zaveri
Thus the little minutes,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
~ Excerpt from Julia Carney’s “Little Things”
My dad effectively terms his chartered accountancy as “the worst decision of his life”. He’s 47 years old, satisfactorily rich but professionally unhappy. My eleven-year old brother is a passionate little baker. His favourite part of baking cupcakes is icing them. He’s rarely allowed to enter the kitchen, only bakes for himself and is especially careful not to talk about his culinary interests in front of people. My best friend is a long-hair keeper. He often contemplates shaving his head altogether to look more “manly”. Another friend sports a bright red jhola in which he keeps his things.
Ever so often, somebody will snigger a “why is he carrying a jhola” as he passes by. He can never explain to them why. A video has been circulating on WhatsApp recently, of a teenager jumping out the 6th floor window in a high-rise building. Members of my family group were convinced that the teenager was a female and responded with kind, “support your children, check on them, talk to them” comments. After receiving a confirmation from the source that the teenager was a male, responses changed colour – “parents should teach their kids strength and how to love life the way it is <emoji, emoji, emoji>”. I may be reading too much into my observations but there is something peculiar about them, something sickening, something unfair.
My dad is a poet. He wanted to study literature and become an actor. My brother wants to be a chef as much as he wants to be a scientist. Can my brother have the chances my dad never had? I’m trusting his school more than his family to help him express his unconventional interests. Can other young boys like my friend wear their hair the way they like? I’m trusting schools to inform, if not break stereotypes about how boys are supposed to look. Can teenage boys securely talk about their mental health and the things that disturb them? I’m trusting schools to destigmatize mental health for teenagers of today who deal not only academic but social and familial pressures. In this short piece, I want to address the peculiar nature of my observations and explore the simple ways in which schools can teach young girls and boys to fight the vicious patriarchy.
The first tiny step, in my opinion, is for schools to try to consciously include tiny packets of gender-based learning outcomes in everything that they teach. I say that this is a tiny step because it does not require a policy turnover. All these little things, if implemented by school teachers and curricula planners in already existing teaching activities and programs, will be helpful in making students think and ridding them of patriarchal untruths. I am no expert on education or educational policy but I can say with some confidence that if my teachers tried implementing these humble suggestions, my male classmates would be better equipped to face the challenges that they do today.
1. Career guidance:
At the end of the typical schooling period (10th grade in India), most schools conduct career counselling programs and aptitude tests. These tests, often failing to adopt a gender-neutral approach in testing aptitude and performance, produce results based solely on mathematical, literary and scientific abilities instead of interests and passions. Providing additional and in-depth career guidance after the conducting of these tests is a regular practice in schools. Schools can ensure that these sessions are free of any kind of gender bias and emphasize strongly that all professions are an accessible and viable career option for all genders. They can create an open, comfortable space for boys to talk about what they are most passionate about even if their interests are not inclined towards business, the sciences or sports. If young boys believe in the availability of unconventional career options like the performing arts, literature or the culinary field, they are likely to pursue them. The school’s authority or the fact that “the school is teaching this” may help families appreciate and support their children. My dad can be a poet and the sole bread-earner for my family. My brother can be a professional baker.
2. Leadership training:
Most schools conduct these at some point or the other albeit in different formats. My school, for instance, used to have personal development or P.D sessions regularly that would involve occasional group activities and team-building games. Schools can include activities that teach cooperation and empathy to young boys as well. They must convey that humility and modesty are also important leadership qualities in addition to strength, skill and power. These sessions can also be a chance to introduce the need for equal opportunity and merit-oriented selection processes through role-playing and simulation. For instance, the setting can be a job interview for a managerial position. There are both male and female candidates. They are required to talk about their strengths and visions for the company and are evaluated by a male and female interviewer. The interviewers must choose a leader for the branch/department on the basis of merit. This may also be a great way to inform about gender biases that some students may possess and to show males, in a systematic and fair way that their access to good careers or anything else for that matter, will be judged on the basis of merit, not biology.
3. Mental health awareness:
This one is very important. Students today deal with many, many pressures that are bound to impact their mental health adversely. The World Health Organization estimates one out of every five women and one in every 12 men in India to be suffering from mental health disorders. Although the number of Indian women affected is much higher than the number of men affected, the implications for males cannot be ignored. Psychiatrists also believe that over 50% of mental health cases go unreported due to social stigmas. It is believed that women face a double prejudice if they are suffering from a mental condition but I think that men’s situation is no better. Social norms, rooted in traditional notions of masculinity, impose that men keep shut and suffer in silence. Schools can try to help their male students talk about their mental and emotional difficulties by teaching the importance of mental health care and thereby, normalize the act of talking about the same. If men begin, as young boys, to feel safe in being vocal about their emotions, thoughts and mental health, they may grow up to be more expressive human beings, better equipped to deal with toxic notions of masculinity.
I can talk about films from personal experience. Films have the ability to change attitudes and impact lives in deep and meaningful ways. Everybody, at some point in their lives, had experienced this power of films. This wonderful article by filmmaker Amol Gupte’s son Partho talks about how films should be used to educate. My school would show us films during free periods or even otherwise. If students are made to watch certain films with gender perspective in mind, those films can be a great way to introduce the existence of problematic gender norms to students at a young age. The following films, I have found, can bust gender-related myths for boys, especially. Most of these are child-friendly. The ones that may require discretion are the last two.
- How To Train Your Own Dragon: This film is about a young boy who is ridiculed by his tribe for being frail and skinny. Ultimately, he tames a dragon and wins his father’s heart. This film can be used to teach about body image – how boys need not be muscular to prove their worth.
- Big Hero Six: This adorable film has inflatable robot Baymax as its central character. Baymax is caring, openly emotional, considerate, intuitive and had a conscience. He can be a role model for young boys. What’s more, they’ll take to him instantly because he’s just so cute.
- The King’s Speech: The King of England has an observable flaw – he stutters. The story is about how the king overcomes his stammering and eventually delivers a flawless speech. This film teaches that it’s okay to have imperfections and that they do not have to be a source of anxiety.
- What’s Eating Gilbert Grape: A heart-warming tale of three siblings and an obese mother. The oldest brother has to look after his autistic younger brother and he does it affectionately and with unbelievable resilience while also looking after the household and his immobile, obese mother.
- Scent of a Woman: This film talks about a visually-impaired man who takes help from a young boy for his day-to-day chores. Very simply, this film teaches that it’s okay to take help, whatever be your circumstances.
Again, I am no expert on pedagogy or gender but I genuinely believe that, if men are nurtured at young, impressionable ages in school environments that implement the above suggestions and adopt similar teaching methods, they will grow up to be more self-aware human beings who are kind and considerate to themselves and others.
(About the author: Anoushka Zaveri is an undergraduate student at FLAME University, Pune, majoring in Literary and Culture Studies with a minor in Theatre. Born and brought up in Mumbai, she is curious about the ways in which gender plays a role in and affects the lives of urban populations. She is currently interning with the Education for Peace Initiative at Prajnya.)
Source for Images 1 and 2: https://medium.com/the-nib/what-do-we-mean-when-we-say-toxic-masculinity-8937252ead50
Source for Image 3: https://www.claudiablackcenter.com/blog/item/19-how-trauma-creates-toxic-masculinity