Shh, don’t talk... Are we raising ‘good girls’ or silent invisible ones?

In this Exclusive Conversation with ParentCircle, Deepa Narayan talks about how we do a big disservice to our girls by raising them differently, and what we can all take steps toward gender equality.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Shh, don’t talk... Are we raising ‘good girls’ or silent invisible ones?

Meet Dr. Deepa Narayan, a psychologist and social scientist, and co-author of more than 15 books, including Chup: Breaking The Silence About India's Women. Recently, she delivered a TED talk in which she identified seven deeply entrenched norms that reinforce inequality, and called on men to help usher in change.

ParentCircle brings to you an exclusive podcast with the speaker.

On how we raise our girls differently than our boys…
Dr. Narayan asserts that generation after generation, decade after decade, we are training our young girls not to exist. We want to minimize girls’ existence. Girls should not have a sense of self, girls should not desire power. So, if a girl asks for what she wants we say she is a bad girl or she thinks too much of herself or she doesn’t have any shame etc. This comes down to everyday little behaviours and the way we raise our girls and our boys.

In India, it all starts with silence. Silence about the body. Girls are discouraged to talk about their bodies. We invest in physical sports coaching for boys, but not for girls. Even the most educated modern women don’t use the word ‘vagina’ while talking to their daughters. Most nursery rhymes that talk about body parts don’t talk about genitals. Girls are taught boundaries and to shrink. Boys are not taught any boundaries, but a complete sense of entitlement. This results in girls growing up feeling very uncomfortable about their bodies.

So, what can parents do?
Give children simple everyday choices. Say ‘yes...and’, which means you help them practice make choices and explain the consequences of their choices. For older children, don’t make decisions for them. Don’t automatically say no- have a discussion with your child first and teach them to take responsibility for their choices, rather than shaming them for making those choices.

Parents can also take a stance by insisting that teachers be trained in age-appropriate sex-education. Our textbooks reinforce the same gender stereotypes. So, they need to change. And most of all, we shouldn’t underestimate our power as parents!

On the everyday discounting of girls and women….
This discounting of girls and women shows up everywhere- it shows up in rape and foeticide on the one hand and on the other hand it shows up the number of parliamentarians and CEOs, and in homes where the father’s opinion rules. We don’t see an obvious link between rape and everyday behaviour in middle-class homes but both involve discounting or devaluing of girls.

According to Dr. Narayan, one of the most disturbing findings from her interviews was the lack of trust between daughters and their mothers. Girls don’t have enough trust in their own mothers to disclose to them about being sexually abused. They don’t trust that their mothers will stand by them, will not blame them, will not accuse them of causing this or asking them to shut up. Mothers often dismiss their girls, saying, “Be quiet, don’t make trouble, be silent…chup, don’t rock the boat!” So, the price of inequality and widespread abuse and molestation of girls is being paid by girls. The fake pretence of family peace and family honour is at the cost of little girls. If a woman takes a stand the family will fall apart. But who are we protecting and when will we break the pretence that all is well? So, if we don’t start speaking about it there is no hope for change.

As a society, this is what we can do…
Dr. Narayan says that she is creating Chup circles which will be safe conversation circles for women and men to come together and address the simple issues that we are talking about but in a non-judgmental space. Not to blame each other or pass judgment on each other, but to just share life experiences and in solidarity realize that the way they behave is not personal defect, it doesn’t mean you are a defective character, this is just a part of training and if we can do it together rather than feeling alone and overwhelmed, each one of us can change and then together decide what do we want to change in our external environment.

But in general, we underestimate our power. We can be courageous and stop others from wrong-doing. Don’t crack sexist jokes. Stand up when we seeing something wrong being done. If you’re a man in power, how you behave and what policies you support matters. All your actions will create a ripple effect. Don’t underestimate your power and your role in making gender equality happen.

#TeachThemYoung

Interviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 23 March 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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