Guest post by UROOJ ZIA
A couple of months ago, I was given two books which I was asked to review. Published in India, both were compilations of abridged versions of popular children’s fairy tales and fables. One book, however, had a pink cover; the other was bound in blue. The former said clearly, on the cover, that it was meant for ‘little girls’, the latter was for ‘little boys’.
Having grown up surrounded by books, I wondered, when I saw these two copies, as to how one could tell which stories were meant for girls and which were meant for boys. As a child, I never saw the difference. Lo and behold, the tables of content in both books gave me my answer (and destroyed my peace of mind): the volume with the pink cover was full of stories about lost princesses and damsels in distress seeking saviours; the one with the blue cover had stories such as ‘the boy who cried wolf’.
Almost as bad was an experience I had more recently while looking for colouring books in Karachi. “Do you want one for a boy or a girl,” the salesperson asked with a smile. “Oh dear god, no,” I thought. Out loud, I asked him what he meant – and regretted my question almost immediately. Say hello to colouring books for girls: covered in pink, and full of pictures of Barbie and Disney princesses. Colouring books for boys? Bound in blue or green, and filled with robots, monsters and, you guessed it, weapons.
After years of arguing with salespeople at toyshops, I’ve come to expect – though not accept – gendered products from makers of toys and such. Salespeople insist on asking if one wants to buy a toy for a girl or a boy. The popular version of their question is: ‘Baby k liye chahiye ya Baba k liye?’ For ‘Baby’, they bring out dolls, dollhouses, tiny tea sets and sewing machines – everything that, one expects, is supposed to prepare a little girl for her eventual place in the world. For ‘Baba’, they have robots, construction sets, trains, and horror of horrors: toy guns. That weapons and other instruments of violence should not be considered suitable playthings for any child, regardless of sex or gender, is a concept that seems to be completely lost on most people.
An attempt at gendering reading (or colouring) material for children, however, is beyond vile. Children are born either male or female (or the third sex); they are not born masculine or feminine. As such, they are meant to be androgynous – sans ‘gender’. The latter is what social conditioning forcibly instils in them, often to extremely detrimental effect. In patriarchal societies such as most places in Southasia, girls are generally brought up to believe that their sole purpose in life is to get married and worsen the population problem by producing more human beings. They are taught that regardless of personal dreams, ambitions or job descriptions, household chores and child-rearing are solely their responsibility. Boys, on the other hand, are brought up with a false sense of machismo and entitlement, being led to believe that it is their birthright to lord over lesser beings, such as the women in their lives, including, oftentimes, their own mothers. After a dozen or so years or such negative programming, not only do we produce entire societies that are incredibly detrimental – even fatal – for women, we also end up with communities that are unable to achieve their complete potential because they marginalise an entire section of the population as ‘weaker beings’.
Instead of teaching children that there’s nothing, physically, that stops either sex from achieving its goals (except, of course, the fact that men can’t give birth), we seek to shackle them physically, mentally, and psychologically, with scientifically-disproved ideas of gender, which, through toys and now books, are peddled as the ‘norm’. Such ideas not only otherise those who do not, or cannot, conform to these rules, they also reinforce violence – covert and overt – against not just women, but girls of all ages.
An important case in point is the issue of gender-based elimination of foetuses, which is now a major, recorded problem in communities in India and China. That the phenomenon exists in Pakistan can neither be proved nor disproved, because abortions, unless opted for to save the life of the mother, are still illegal and conducted behind closed doors, and leave no paper trail. Female infanticide, however, is easily proven to be on the rise in Pakistan. According to an AFP report from January, which quoted figures given out by the Edhi Foundation, 1,210 dead infants – most of them girls – were found in Karachi alone last year; “up from 999 in 2009, and 890 in 2008”. One major reason for this rise in the number of baby girls who were abandoned or killed by their families is, of course, the fear that girls grow up to be ‘burdens’ on already-struggling households – an idea that is reinforced by gender roles ascribed to girls, which stop them from becoming productive members of the urban workforce.
As such, seeking to genderise children not only discourages them from questioning existing social relationships and breaking falsely-ascribed shackles, it also reinforces popular (and often harmful) notions of masculinity and feminity. Gendering toys was bad enough; meting the same treatment to reading and art material should be absolutely and unequivocally unacceptable.
(Urooj Zia is a journalist in Karachi.)