Yesterday, my five year old daughter was flicking through my magazines, in much the same way as I used to read copies of my Mum’s weekly magazines when I was little, and came across an article about Afghanistan’s women’s prisons. Of course, being five (and three-quarters) she couldn’t glean much from the article but was certainly able to read the headline ‘The women who are afraid to be free’ and was drawn in by a photograph of a young prisoner holding a baby.
Being the mother of an intelligent, inquisitive child, I often myself treading the fine line between giving truthful answers to her questions whilst trying to shield her young, over-active imagination from thoughts and images that will build into demons in her mind and make her fearful of the world around her. My eldest daughter is a quiet, thoughtful person and I worry about how she processes information that isn’t straightforward enough for a Reception-aged child to really understand.
So she read the headline, saw the photographs and asked me what was happening to these women, why they were afraid to be let out of prison and, crucially, why they were imprisoned in the first place. I fudged the details a little and told her; “These women are in prison because the people who used to run the country said women weren’t allowed to do the same things as men. So when these women did things like walk along the road on their own the Police put them in prison. Aren’t we lucky to live in a place where girls and boys and women and men are treated the same way?” My little scholar was briefly silenced before saying, “but that’s not fair, girls and boys should be allowed to do the same things – will those women be let out of prison soon…I think I am going to have a bad dream now….”
My heart sank; she didn’t really understand what I’d said and was now going to mull the details over in her little/ large mind and draw goodness knows what conclusion. And yet, I truly believe she needs to know as soon as she can understand, that women and men are always equal but there are plenty of instances where we are not treated in the same way, and that should always be challenged. She should be equipped to deal with comments such as “girls shouldn’t climb trees” with a confident “why not?” rather than just accepting what she’s told. And when she’s older, she should apply the same logic to, for example, equal pay in the workplace.
Personally, I don’t think I ever really questioned whether I was equal to boys/ men. I was the first to learn my times tables in my class at primary school – ahead of the smelly boys who said girls couldn’t be any good at maths – and had the good fortune of being educated at all-girls’ secondary schools where, of course, we were never compared to boys, just each other.
I know I was lucky to have parents who instilled in me the confidence to take on anything I wanted, and a father who ensured I was financially independent from a young age so that, in his words, I’d never have to “rely on the husband”. I’m so proud of having such a progressive father when so many other Indians of his generation were of the opinion that girls should learn how to cook, have an arranged marriage and make babies – preferably boys. Where other people referred to the ‘stones’ in his household (two daughters), he and my mother worked hard to ensure we were well-educated, independent, strong women.
In turn, my girls are being raised by parents who equally share the responsibility for childcare – both of us have taken time out of our careers to be at home full time with them, both of us prepare their meals, bathe them, put them to bed, get them dressed, take them to activities and discipline them.
And so I hope that just like me, the girls will grow up knowing and believing they are equal to boys and men. But in the meantime, I believe it is important for them to realise just how lucky they are to be living in a progressive society but, also, just how far we need to come before being ‘like a girl’ is no longer an insult.