So there I was, sitting in a supermarket, having a break from walking around after a two-day family trip away. I was not alone - I was holding my three-month old son. An old lady walked past and said “what a wonderful father”.
A nice thing to hear, sure and clearly the lady meant it with no malice. But then I started to think; all I was doing was sitting and holding a baby. To all intents and purposes, I was resting. Meanwhile, my wife was in the supermarket with our three-year-old daughter, following her around the toy section and reading her books. Would the old lady see that and say “what a wonderful mother” to her? Or to any mother just resting, holding a child like I was?
It got me thinking; are innocent and seemingly innocuous comments actually playing a significant role in reaffirming old social norms, defining separate roles for mums and dads, which do justice to neither?
There are some everyday examples of this sort of silent sexism - with men and women equally culpable. If a woman has to leave work a few minutes early for childcare, eyebrows are raised and her commitment to work is questioned. If a man does the same... Well, he gets called a doting father who goes out of his way to balance work and life.
When I take the kids to the park on weekends, I see some dads there but mostly mums. I was speaking to one recently who lives on our road. I asked her where her husband was (while she was pushing her daughter in the swing). She said as it is the weekend, he wanted to ‘chill out’. I asked “so when do you chill out?” She shrugged her shoulders. A tired mum carries on regardless of how she feels - society deems it ok for men to still go and have their own brain space.
Sure, as that dad I am a beneficiary of these attitudes. But I have a three-year-old daughter who is growing so fast, excelling in a variety of disciplines and many times during the week I hear comments which on the surface are innocent but they are deep rooted in old values thus appear acceptable. She plays football - the reaction is “wow, a girl playing football”. She loves jumping from high points in gymnastics “isn’t she brave for a girl?” When she is playing with a boy her age and his father says “be careful, she is a girl”. All comments made with no bad intention but my concern at all times is these comments holding her (and millions of other girls) back.
As I have previously written, having a daughter opened my eyes to seeing the world is far from the place of equality people assume it is. Having had a son earlier this year, I see my responsibility in having a role to correct this in any small way I can change from not just empowering Lu’Lu, but enlightening Raffi. As he grows up, he needs to know how he benefits just from being born a boy and how that he can be part of the solution.
Someone brought him a t-shirt which said “strong like my daddy”. And yeah, I hope I can inspire him in many ways. But why isn’t there a t-shirt which says “strong like my mummy” for boys and girls? It’s part of society’s acceptance which must be challenged that men are by default braver than women. Recently, I was reading Lu’Lu a book called ‘Topsy & Tim’. In it, Topsy, a girl, asked her brother if women can be fire-fighters. They are told they can “if they are as strong and brave as the men”. Really? We are setting young girls up with a pre-conceived notion that men are both stronger and braver than women? I have seen my wife give birth, twice - I definitely know who is the stronger and braver of us two!
Maybe my friends are right when they say I over think these issues - but I cannot help it. I think of the things I let Lu’lu watch and Disney is not on there. Magical, sure. But most of the stories glorify the idea that women need men. Or that a beautiful woman can fall in love with a beast but where are the stories of men falling in love with a monster? Even more recent stories which intend to show strong independent females portray these characters as petite with big bold eyes. Harmless kids’ shows and movies they may be but in my eyes, they reinforce ideas around what girls should expect and what society expects from women.
And that is the crux of the feeling I had when Raffi was born; expectation. Society just expects less of men. Or, more to the point, it expects more of women. And somehow that is OK because if a woman wants to take a stand on this she is derided either by men or other women. I look at my two kids and think, outside our home, the girl will have to fight and work harder to get what the boy has. That, to my mind, is where society as a whole has a role to play.
I am not saying or suggesting that women and men are the same. They are different; sure. Equity beats equality for me - difference should be embraced. But not by making one appear weaker than the other. Not by making one rely on the other. Not by making only one aspire to being a certain way to be accepted by society.
The small examples throughout this piece, from old ladies commenting, to the park and then onto kids’ classes, kids’ clothes and entertainment each in themselves may not appear meaningful. But put it all together and we see that from all sides, for all ages and all demographics, society is following the path it always has. Being a father to a son didn’t make me think about the challenges he will face - but more how he can help in the fights his sister will face. For me, it is incumbent on all of us to help evolve society; else the beneficiaries will keep the benefit and the struggle for the rest will remain.
Perhaps, the quietest and most unintended forms of sexism are both the hardest to cure and most dangerous. When you see it, you’ll see it everywhere.
*Naveed Khan is based in London and works in the legal profession. He writes regularly on sports and social issues.