Stop gendering children: Urooj Zia

Image by Frank Baron / The Guardian

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.)

9 thoughts on “Stop gendering children: Urooj Zia”

  1. Ma’am, the place where I buy dog biscuits has separate dog food for male dogs and female dogs.Once I overcame the initial disbelief, out of curiosity I tasted them, I can’t tell the difference. I hope Rusty can. (My parents, under whose care three dogs and two children grew up equally well, believe that there shouldn’t be separate biscuits for dogs at all, let alone female and male dogs)

    We have to ask ourselves this- Do we end up liking what is marketed as being tailored for us or do these companies actually try to see what we like and tailor things to our taste? Considering how a lot of consumer products are ‘created necessities’ I think it is the former.

    According to me the toy industry is a particularly notorious offender in this regard. I have no numbers to back it up but if you watch an average toddlers in middle class homes you will find this. The baby will have a large number of toys to play with but its favorite plaything will be a broken piece of thermocol, cardboard box or other innocuous household item. Where then is the justification for the toy?

    1. After I got over the ‘doggone’ analogy, here’s what I came up with: You’re partially right, and this is the point that I was making in my piece. Corporate gender stereotyping a two-way street — existing societal stereotypes are reinforced by advertisements, gendered toys, books, dog biscuits (seriously?), etc. Both need to end together.

      PS: Thank you for the laughter that the first paragraph of your comment provided. :-)

  2. I so agree with you…i have a three year old boy and even if he touches anything pink, people all around stare at him. It’s weird as pink is just any another colour for him. There are lots of people around (educated but unfortunately with no thought process of their own) who ask me to buy a gun for my son. I tell them for heaven’s sake my son is three and he’s not even supposed to know what a gun is. I control what my son watches (no violent cartoons allowed) and therefore I have been labeled as a control freak and somebody who’s not exposing his child enough to face the “bad” world!!! It is frustrating to raise my son in a society where a gender divide is created just to sell more stuff and people giving in to it without a passing thought. And I completely agree that a child is far more fascinated with a broken faucet/card board/stones etc.

    1. I partially agree with this article, gendering children toys and products is wrong. If you look at action figures toys of superman and batman, they are no different than barbie dolls, these action figures are just dolls, infact i remember they were call dolls the term action figure came at later years, so it just corporate given a two different names to a same thing to appeal to gender obsessed people. A boy can like chick flicks and girls can be fan of action films there is nothing wrong with that, its only in people heads, and the people who use weaker sex argument for a women, let them raise their boys the way they raise their girls and viceversa results will be eyeopener for them.

      However I am not against gun based toys there is nothing wrong with them, that argument that it promotes violence is wrong, Me and lot of people play with toy guns, flare guns all my childhood they were my favorite toys and i never even fire or held a real gun in my life and it by choice.

      @Anupriya I agree with your point every color is just color. But regarding you rest of the comment I strongly disagree. If someone asking to buy you son a “toy gun” no harm in it even if you have a daughter buying a toy gun was no big deal, for God sake its a toy gun nobody is asking you to buy a real one if he don’t play with it then don’t buy that every child has his/her own like and dislikes no big deal and yes children are most interested in random things. And you watch what your son watches good , but can you explain me what are violent cartoons, as far as i know cartoon network doesn’t show, blood, gore, violence, strong language in their cartoons, only Japanese anime has these cartoons and they are rated for adults and they will never air on cartoon network or Nickelodeon. It seems to me you are obsessively sheltering your child, I suppose you never let him play outside with other neighbor kids. And you are trying to control his life a parent responsibly is to protect and guide and trust their children will do the right thing not to control. Parents like you are the worst enemy of their children they never let them grow have a good and normal childhood, or experience of the world, children become socially inept difficulty to make friends, and in the end frustrated and parents like you wash your hands with all the responsibility say don’t know what wrong with our child, a child be it boy or girl want to have adventure, new things new friends every thing in the world is new and wonderful to them, they want to explore it and control freaks parents like you destroying it by recklessly sheltering them. Please don’t justify your actions with gender discrimination argument it has got nothing to do with what you are doing to your child, you are just being selfish because its take great pain and worry to parents to let your child do something even little on their own but good parents do it anyway, and to make life easy for yourself you control your child life you don’t have to bear the pain and worry of trusting your child. I know you turn a deaf year to this as people like you always do but you will see the result in 15 – 20 years.

  3. Thanks Urooj, for opening up this the debate on gendering children.
    Did you know that until the middle of the 20th C, in the West, pink was the colour for boys and blue for girls? At that time, pink was seen as close to red, a fiery manly colour, and blue, the peaceful holy colour associated with the Virgin Mary!
    Here are two interesting excerpts from pieces on this:
    “In the 1800s most infants were dressed in white, and gender differences weren’t highlighted until well after the kids were able to walk. Both boys and girls wore dresses or short skirts until age five or six. Differences in clothing were subtle: boys’ dresses buttoned up the front, for example, while girls’ buttoned up the back. Why no attempt to discriminate further? One theory is that distinguishing boys from girls was less important than distinguishing kids from adults…” But when the effort began to differentiate boys and girls, “it took decades to develop a consensus on what those colors were. For years one camp claimed pink was the boys’ color and blue the girls’. A 1905 Times article said so, and Parents magazine was still saying it as late as 1939. Why pink for boys? Some argued that pink was a close relative of red, which was seen as a fiery, manly color. Others traced the association of blue with girls to the frequent depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue…Indications are the two colors were used interchangeably until World War II.”
    (Cecil Adams)

    Time was, not so long ago, when things were the other way around; pink was for boys and blue was for girls. Near the end of World War I, The Ladies Home Journal advised new mothers that “the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” A few years later, in 1927, Time Magazine wrote about the disappointment that Princess Astrid of Belgium was not a Prince, saying her cradle had been “optimistically decorated in pink, the color for boys.” (Lisa Belkin “Boycotting pink toys for girls”)

    I’m sure in non-western societies we have had completely different histories of gendering our children, and that the need to decisively differentiate between boys and girls visually, came in with colonial modernity.

  4. I agree with your article completely.But to add more ,there are many other sources that constantly try to gender amongst many are educated parents themselves!
    once in a mall i saw a small boy about five, begging his mother to buy him a hair-band and a fancy hair-clip which small girls of his age was amusing to see his bewildered mother coaxing him away saying that those were not meant for boys and that only girls wear them.The child on the other hand stubbornly insisted that he liked those and wanted to wear them. It reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir’s words—“one is not born a woman but rather becomes one”, though in this case a man!

  5. The article is bang on the spot. In patriarchal societies like in South Asia, even colors take on gendered tones. We need a de-gender movement to do away with the hierarchical gendered associations taken on by simple things like toys and books.

  6. I could not have agreed more ! The list of gendering children goes on… The most absurd thing I have ever seen in this regard is the Pepsodent toothpaste. There is ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ toothpaste for little girls and boys, as if kids have different system of toothing. This capitalist market uses this marketing logic and even educated people get trapped in it. The toys, stickers, games, accessories, everything is gendered… And what are we talking of kids, i am 25 and I am still ‘taught’ to walk, talk and behave in a more ‘feminine’ way … If only this world could have been more gender sensitive !

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