Four years ago, my mother started a non-profit whose mission really resonated with me: to grow the pool of global women leaders in organizations around the world. I attended their New Delhi conference in March 2016, and feeling inspired, brought the learnings back to my classroom in Mumbai. Using personal stories, global statistics, and a documentary titled “Girl Rising”, we discussed the benefits of girls’ education, lack of access, and potential solutions. We found manifestations of gender inequity within our own community: many girls realized they lacked female role models with strong careers.
One student calculated his parents spend five more for his education than for his sister’s schooling. He vowed never to make such a distinction for his own children.
In the end, all students concluded that gender equity mattered to them. They realized they could become change agents even at their age. I emphasized the criticality of boys championing equal rights together with girls. A few days later, one of the most timid boys in the class slipped a story into my hand about a boy lobbying his father to allow his sister to pursue her dreams; it was titled “Girl Rising.”
Education can change the conversation about gender equality and empowerment. But by not bringing along half the population, we’re stifling the same thing we’re trying to strengthen. Women need both male and female advocates in the workplace. Girls need boys who appreciate their strength – the same way boys need girls who value their vulnerability.
And, even though inequality is deep-rooted, it’s against our natural instincts. No baby boy believes only girls should cry; we teach them that as they grow up. No baby girl thinks she shouldn’t learn to count; we tell them math isn’t a subject for them later on. You think I’m stereotyping, harking back to an outdated notion? I studied Applied Math at Brown University, and yet one of my mother’s cousins (who herself is a doctor) had the gall to ask me, “Why are you doing math? That’s so hard. Leave that to the boys.” (It took years of self-control to not let that family gathering become a complete disaster.)
A friend told me a story that challenged my own notions. One of her young male students borrowed her dupatta (scarf) to pull over his head and protect it from the heat. A couple of the other students laughed and teased him, calling him a girl.
This young boy stood his ground and defiantly replied, “If girls can wear jeans like boys, why can’t I wear a scarf?”
Feminism, in its purest form, benefits all of society. It frees us from the shackles of constructed notions of gender its constraining expectations. It allows us to believe we are all equal – equally sensitive, equally strong, equally determined, equally allowed to wear scarves.
Education, for its part, can facilitate conversations that are truly open. We can ask the questions that force children to open their eyes and observe the world around them. We can make them aware of their reality and its inherent injustice, in a way that makes them want to change it. It can help timid boys like Aditya find their voice for their sisters, make strong, intelligent girls like Chinmayee vow to become a role-models for all the younger girls, and all students come to a conclusion that feels natural, that feels right, but most of all, that feels like it’s their own.
When society tries to change these expectations, students can remember back to what they believe – and why they believe it. The views they espouse will not be memorized lines from a storybook or TV show, but rather what they concluded from critically thought-out class discussions. Teachers have the obligation to make students think, examine, critique, and arrive upon their own conclusions. I have full confidence that with the honest participation of both genders, at an age when societal beliefs haven’t caught up yet, we can instill lifelong values.
So we need to amplify our voices, together. Include all in the conversation. We need to live and demonstrate our beliefs, every single day. Have uniformly high expectations of both male and female students. We need to let boys cry and call our girls “smart” instead of “pretty”. We need to do a million little things. And if we all do a million little things, these millions of little children will become adults who can’t remember a time when girls weren’t CEOs and boys didn’t talk about their feelings. I, too, have a dream.
(My apologies if this blog sounds more choppy and off-the-cuff; I felt strongly about these topics and let the writing be a more Joyce-esque stream of consciousness rather than a refined editorial.)