"There has to be a gentle and empathetic approach to feminist parenting because children have to have the flexibility to develop their own identities and their own opinions within these parameters."
PRAGYA ON RAISING THREE DAUGHTERS (3, 3, and 21)
Growing up in India
I was born and raised in India in a patriarchal society, so growing up, there were a lot of prejudices against girls. Every family wanted a boy because boys are supposed to be the ones who will take care of the parents when they're older, while girls get married and go away to another family. I was one of three daughters and we didn't have a brother. I grew up listening to people kind of pity our family and sympathize that we didn't have anybody to look after us in the future.
I was quite young, but I still remember this distinct memory that people were surprised that my father was elated and quite celebratory at the birth of his third daughter, as if he should have been feeling really sad or upset about it. So my father was always a bit of a feminist in his own way, although they had quite traditional roles. My mom was a homemaker and my dad went out and worked. My mom always encouraged us to know from a very young age that education was a huge priority for them, and they sacrificed everything to send us to the best schools. She also told us early on that you have to be financially independent. She encouraged us to not rely on any man ever and have our own professional careers.
My mother had some feminist values but she didn't call it feminism. She inspired us to be fully independent women. She wanted us to break barriers and stereotypes. Finding a good husband and marriage wasn’t our goal in life. That message really pushed me in my professional career as well. I have talked about my story in Ep 2 of my new podcast 'Outside the boxes'.
On my own
I married young and into a big family that had specific and traditional roles. I was hearing these messages for the first time because I wasn't brought up in a family like that. It shaped and formed a lot of my thinking at that time. However, I don't think I had the confidence to break from it in a very drastic way. When my daughter was born, I had a complicated pregnancy and had to stay three months in the hospital. The first thing my then mother-in-law said was, ”Oh never mind, next time it will be a boy.” It was really the first time it really hit me that I don't want this kind of life for her. Fortunately, pretty soon I got an opportunity to come to the UK on a British Council fellowship to do a masters and thereafter a Ph.D. I brought my daughter over as a single parent. It was my philosophy from day one that I wanted her to grow up in the most gender neutral way possible.
I rebelled against all the usual gender stereotypes: pink is for girls and blue is for boys, the kind of toys she should play with, the kind of books you should read. I always told her to call out any kind of sexism or gender labels if she was assigned them in school or anybody gave her these messages. I brought her books that encouraged her to interact and engage with the world around her in that way. And still, I wasn't really calling it feminism. I've wouldn't have said that I was a feminist per se, but I was just doing that because it was what I naturally wanted to do.
She rebelled against it for a little while when she was a teenager from all the peer pressure around her. That was really challenging because you don't know how to counter that. All these negative messages that bombard her. Especially when your child’s response is oh, this is just the norm. I kept persisting and I kept telling her messages that she didn’t want to hear, even though I knew that she was resisting it. I suppose that was really important for me to tell her that she doesn’t need to succumb to peer pressure. That she can be whatever she wants to be and she should be comfortable with her identity. And now, she has grown up to be socially responsible, calling herself a strident feminist.
Through all that, I've become more comfortable in my own identity as a feminist parent as well. In the last few years, I’ve realized that I need to be more vocal about my feminist values as it is important to do so.
I’ve become more vocal because I suppose when I was raising my eldest, I was on my own so I didn't really have to justify it to anybody. I was a role model by what I was doing through my career. I was doing it all by myself but now that I share the parenting with my husband, I have to be more vocal about it. I want to make sure he’s in line with all those things and that we are modeling it together. He agrees with this approach and doesn't say things that could give them a conflicting message. Also, our eldest has an influence on her sisters and she has some firm opinions on the kind of ethos we should embody at home. So, I suppose I have done a good job with her! I have distilled all my experience of parenting and my research in gender studies and feminism into a course 'Feminist Parenting in the age of Trump' which is now open for registration. I also run a Raising Feminists group on Facebook.
What I really want for my children is to be unencumbered by their gender, and for them to believe firmly in equality, to stand up against prejudice and discrimination and be comfortable in their own skin and their own identity. Sometimes we can do this so much better by modeling these behaviours at home ourselves, by showing what true feminism and empowerment can look like, and by calling out any gendered messages they receive from people, films, books, television around them.
I believe that the struggle for equality has to start at home.
I think it's really important for us to realize that we can be too rigid about this philosophy and approach. We can impose too much on our children. There has to be a gentle and empathetic approach because children have to have the flexibility to develop their own identities and their own opinions within these parameters. They should be shown what is right and what is wrong. And if they conform to anything, we should be able to call it out. But being feminine doesn't mean that you're not a feminist. You have to let their imagination, their identities come to the forefront as well.
I think it’s a myth that you have to act or behave in a certain way to be taken seriously as a strong, empowered woman, that women leaders have to behave a certain way if they want to be taken seriously in a male-dominated culture, that women have to be more aggressive and dynamic. That doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Similarly, boys can be empathetic and vulnerable and show emotions. They don't have to embody the macho, toxic view of masculinity. Gender stereotypes hurt everyone - both boys and girls- and this is something I talk about in my new podcast 'Outside the boxes'.
Raising a teenage daughter
I've learned a lot from my eldest daughter as well because she has very strong views about things. She’s quite vocal about body positivity, men, dating, etc. She has made me question things about my own views because you don't realize what kind of implicit biases you're carrying as well. My own context, my upbringing, even though I rebelled against a lot of things, they are still quite deeply entrenched sometimes. These come up when I'm telling her about what she should wear or how she should act.
As a parent you want to protect your children, so when she was younger I would comment on her clothes that I thought were too revealing. I would say, “You're going out wearing that?” I suppose I grew up in India where you faced sexual harassment on the streets and in public transport all the time. You learn to shrink yourself. You learn to try and make yourself invisible so that people don't notice you. That's the kind of message that I grew up with. I was still trying to protect her from any kind of unwanted attention.
So when I would comment on her clothes, her response was, “Well, isn't it by body?” She would call me out on it and say, “I thought you believe in feminism? How can you say that if you believe that?” Her rebellion has made me angry at times, but it also made me question my own beliefs as well. I've learned from her as she's grown older and now she is a very grounded person and we talk about most things quite openly. We discuss respect in a relationship and gender roles and race and intersectionality and prejudice and other issues.
She’s taught me we have to expect more from men. I have become more aware of that. Also in terms of the heart, friends, dating, and sex, my daughter’s generation has a very different approach from when we were growing up. I'm learning every day.
Dr. Pragya Pragarwal will be teaching a course on Feminist Parenting In The Age Of Trump.
“This is not a course to tell you what to do. Because every child is different and every context is slightly different. But there are some universal strategies that can work for all of us as we create a fairer, happier and more equal world for our children.”