A Woman Like Mum: 4. Why raising a girl child is gender issue?

What does raising a girl have to do with gender? A girl child is born into the world, country, town or family that is gendered; she is conceived and raised in a gendered relationship of her gendered parents. All this will colour the kind of training she receives regarding what being a girl or a woman means. In this way, insight in the way a girl is raised allows us to understand a woman and her position in society by tracing her roots. In short, a girl child, like any other person, is shaped by society. We have an echo here.

Societal thinking in girl child

‘It is society which thinks in me….a person, an individual and unique experience…it is in large part made up of common elements’ [quoted from Karl Marx]. The social institutions that we enter as individuals, from our arrival in our families at birth, through our education, youth culture, and into the worlds of work and leisure, marriage…give us clear messages about how ‘normal’ people behave, according to their gender. We learn the options open to us.[1]

Certainly, plunging into the kind of upbringing a girl child receives helps us already to identify the gender imbalance or discrimination being passed on, albeit in good faith. There we have the opportunity to address the issue in the bud.

Raising girl child, generational conflict

In our discussion, we narrowed this topic to how much a girl should be left free to relate, especially with boys. The question was: Should a girl mix freely with boys? This is a relevant gender question as far as traditional social arrangement and mentality are concerned. Again, this is equally an attempt to address the problem in its early manifestations. There were mixed reactions to the question by the women; some influenced by their own age, others out of need to keep to traditional instructions; and those a bit younger, because of the need to adapt to modern times. Religion too was influential.

Those who said yes argued that a girl is human like any other person who should be left free to relate. She should mix freely and be a friend to any person she wants. Being with a boy in class is profitable –they can exchange ideas and help each other. Some girls said they would prefer to have a boy for a friend, and they would trust him more than a girl.

Those who said “no” dwelt mostly on the negative consequences and their tone was very traditional. For them traditional arrangement that teaches to separate girls from boys is the standard of how things should be. They touched on the issues of AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, especially before marriage. Indeed, these are real problems in Zambia that one cannot just ignore when addressing issues as this one.

Morality of boundary

In general Zambian traditional teaching, drawn from the position of different ethnic groups, discourages any uncontrolled boy/girl relationship which is considered as dangerous. That is why there were demarcations. Although today owing to modern influences a boy and a girl go to the same school, sit at the same desk and work together; however, for many it is still intolerable that a girl has a boy for a friend whom she would visit and go out with as she likes. Even though it actually happens but then that is not taken as any ordinary relationship. The comparisons used when talking of boy/girl relationship show how this is considered as a delicate matter. Boy and girl are likened to fire and flammable material; goat and grass or grain; rat and nuts. In all these cases a girl is the vulnerable one, the prey that needs to be protected. And so the society was structured and organised taking into account all that. For the Bemba, we can speak of Cibwanse, a place for women where girls stayed around mature, married women for apprenticeship in the things of the woman’s world. On the other hand, boys were at Nsaka; there they got the training in man’s world. The crossing of borders of that single sex organisation was simply unimaginable. Yes, these were considered the good olden days but how far can we go with such organization?

Cage approach has no backing

Today such demarcation seems almost impossible. In some cases, the mixing is inevitable through school, church, work, sports, and cinema. Even though one may try to keep within certain limits it is really hard to organise any sense of demarcation in the manner that would function as in the past. What is the way forward then? Certainly, we cannot insist on separation; it is simply not the realistic approach today. The question is no longer how to keep a boy and a girl separate; that we know we are not able to do but rather how to face the interaction that we cannot avoid. The pre-occupation should be to prepare the young girl into this new set up; to help her on how best she can decently, maturely and responsibly mix with boys. In fact, it is the same for boys. There we have the problem. How many parents are ready for this? How many are doing it?

Some parents hold on to the shadows of gone system

Here many parents are stuck, even somewhat lost, and so they have to insist on traditional strategies even though they know it is well nigh impractical. They seek refuge in traditions whose structures have collapsed. Why insist in this way? Most parents know their fear, if not their failure. They are shy to discuss sexuality, for instance, with their children. But the consequence often is regrettable. Obviously forcing their position, don’t mix with boys, does not instruct the daughter nor does their force provide the structure for what they are proposing. It only instils fear. With modern families, in the urban areas especially, there is not only a significant break from an extended to a small nuclear family in mentality but also physical isolation from other family members. There is no aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather to assume the role of instructor as in the past. In the end, the victim is the child and the consequences can be terrible. The child is abandoned to the “non-certified” instruction on the street from peers. Among the many good things that she may benefit from such a situation there are also many undesirable elements. The consequence is that often exactly what parents fear and strive to prevent happens; the girl contracts a disease or there is an unwanted pregnancy. Doesn’t this, then, just confirm that boy/girl interaction is bad and hence to be avoided?

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Face the change with creativity

But we simply cannot avoid such interaction in today’s society.  We need to do our job to prepare a child for the society of today and not of the past. Parents themselves need to be active and take the role of instructing their children even in matters that were in the past left to some members of the extended family. Certainly, it may not be that easy for some parents but they have to do it.

No matter what culture may demand, it is also good to remember that a girl is not merely obliged to respond to cultural definition but also to her nature –she is human. She is a social being. The need to associate must be taken care of. It is not to be stopped but managed. Hence, even in this manner we can have recourse to sociology. The analogy in primary and secondary socialization may be helpful in understanding how this interaction is a tool to growth, indeed to the maturity of a girl. When we are born, the family and all that we experience there is the only world we know. The family is everything; it is the world. And our world-view up to this level depends on the types of exposure we have had. This is primary socialization. It is important yet narrow and very limited. We need to go beyond it. When a child grows older, she discovers friends in the neighbourhood, she goes to church, goes to school; there she discovers the world is actually bigger or wider than the home. And her experience in the family is not the only one there is. This is second socialization.

From negative to positive thinking

We can apply this analogically to the growing boy or girl. To be a girl or a boy is a particular experience that may need the enrichment from the other sex. The gendered education on how to be a girl or a boy may not be all there but it must seen as integral  for the full development of a person bearing in mind especially the kind of training given based on gender bias. The interaction will facilitate to discover another way of being, as well as broadening one’s aspirations and dreams. Life is no longer just about being wife and mother. We can also argue psychologically, this interaction can be a means for human development. Our training has often emphasised exclusively what we know as our sex: boy or girl. Drawing from Carl Jung, in each person there is something of a man and also something of a woman at play. A girl needs a boy to help her develop the man in her (Animus) as much as a boy needs a girl to develop the woman (Anima) in him. That is why this interaction is very much a matter of mutual interdependence for growth.

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The fuss about a girl child, what is it all about?

There is, indeed, one vital pertinent question to the whole issue of gender equality. What is the basis of this delicacy associated with raising a girl; a sign of preciousness? The instructions and the anxiety surrounding a mature girl child can be quite revealing.

Among the Touregs of Mali

In the north of Mali, among the Touregs, especially those who live in camps in the desert, girls are married off while still quite young. In fact, parents would not want to send them to school. And for that they battle with the government ministry of education. I discussed with Madame Irène who works for the Ministry of Education in Mali especially for the promotion of female child education. She works in Kidal among the Touregs. Early marriage is the most prevalent problem she has to combat. Parents are in the hurry to marry off their daughters since girls get “spoiled” easily. If they become pregnant before getting married they bring shame to the family. No wonder even before a girl matures she will have her husband already picked for her. Hence, parents marry daughters off quickly and they are at peace once they manage to dispose of them to some man in marriage according to their custom. Such anxiety shared also in some other cultures and places, especially the Muslim world, goes on even to influence family planning which would no longer be only the question of how many children but also which sex.

Among the Turkana of Kenya

The rituals surrounding childbirth among the Turkana people of northern Kenya are quite illustrative.

…. But a second daughter was a second disappointment, even for the mid wife. She would only get Ks10 for the delivery, instead of the Ks 20 paid after the delivery of a boy even though…it takes the same amount of work.

….if the baby is a boy, the cord may be cut with a spear and four goats slaughtered for the women to have a feast…four days after her delivery, the spear is taken out first and used to kill a bull, which both the woman and her husband eat as sign that he will now have someone to help care for the animals. But if the baby is a girl, a knife is used to cut the cord, only one goat is slaughtered, and there is no feasting.[2]

Hindu perspective

The Hindu culture is never short of similar illustrations. Here is the blessing of the bride at the wedding: May you have a hundred sons. Sons have economic, cultural and religious value. Thousands of women will terminate the pregnancy because the foetus is female. In Mahashtra, Western India, out of 8,000 abortions, 7999 were female –the one exception was that of a Jewish woman who wanted a daughter. “…Daughters are perceived as economic and social burdens and, in addition, the cultural preference for sons is strong for religious as well as economic reasons…. A daughter is seen as a liability, a burden.”[3] Apparently, it is better or cheaper to dispose the foetus than later dispose a girl to some man at an exorbitant price. And an Indian proverb does not go round the matter: “Raising a daughter is like watering a shady tree in someone else’s courtyard.”[4]

Arab perspective

For Arabs, daughters represent their kin and what they do affects the entire family. The sexual conduct of a girl will bring honour or shame to the family. This does not apply to a boy who may go on with his affairs unbothered by anyone. So a girl is to be closely monitored, making the raising of a girl demanding and a sensitive business. Male relatives have such a responsibility. They prove themselves heroes when they go as far as killing the female relative who threatens the family’s reputation. This is called honour killing. Despite the on-going activism in this regard such barbaric murders remain the most prevalent sources of death for girls and women in Arabic-Muslim countries like Palestine, Pakistan, Iraq to name but just a few. In fact, as I am striking the keyboard Israel is bombarding Gaza leaving hundreds of Arabs dead. Yet, that is not the only war. There is another one that we hardly hear about. Today, in a settlement only a few kilometres away from Jerusalem, an Arab boy proved himself hero by killing his sister – a so-called ‘honour killing.’

How is raising a girl child a gender issue?

 

From what we have seen in various different cultures we act, train and pass on discriminatory messages that can easily thwart the aspirations of girls. We learn to be men or women according to the school of our society. This is in fact a point of gender which “is a set of roles which, like costumes or masks in the theatre, communicate to the other people that we are feminine or masculine…”[5] Girl’s ambitions and aspirations are thwarted right there in the home where she is nourished by all what it means to be a woman, often the traditional, discriminative type. There she is often unwittingly indoctrinated, making her grow to believe she is a lowly and only when in her service of society and her man, on whom she should depend, does she make sense of her life.

What’s the way forward?

We need to become much more objective and look at someone as a human person of which gender should never be used as an excuse for discrimination. Any person can be of either sex. Not only is it unjust but also the hallmark of narrow mindedness to allow the fact of gender to be a limiting factor. We achieve nothing by such hard and fast boundaries except stifle the potentiality that a girl may have. Our sexuality is what moves us towards others in the adventure of life; by it we discover more, learn more –and thus develop. We grow. Hence, our sexuality expands us, giving us life. What a pity that we end up turning it into a growth arresting factor that threatens the full blossoming of life itself; smothering it under the shade of cultural definitions that are not only archaic but seemingly without much sense today. Parents should be aware of the many unconscious, but nonetheless gender discriminatory messages, they pass on to their children that, in the long run, have repercussions not only on the self-perception and aspiration of a girl child but goes on to influence as well the entire social structure and organisation of her environment. Therefore, a new way of education will be necessary not only for a female child but also for parents. Parents are to be educated in their role of raising children according to the evolution of the society today.

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[1]Julia Cleves Mosse, Half The World Half a Chance: An Introduction to gender and Development, Oxfam, Oxford 1993, p. 49.

[2] Mosse, p. 1.

[3] Sakuntala Narasimhan, “From Sati to Sex-Determination Tests”, in Davies Miranda ed., Women and Violence, Zed books, London 1994, p. 51.

[4] Mosse, p. 52.

[5] Mosse, p. 2.

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