As I do every evening, I was reading a book to my son Raffi who is 4 years old. This one was called ‘Mr. Strong’. He asked, “Is Mr Strong the strongest in the world?”
In keeping with the book script, I should have said yes. But instead I said, “No, mummy is.”
It is instinctive now; after spending a few years doing my best to ensure I didn’t use gender stereotyping language in our home, it has become a habit. ‘Can boys wear dresses?’ Yes, if they want to. ‘What is Abbu’s favourite colour?’ Pink. ‘Can boys play with dolls and girls with cars?’ Yes.
The reason? I believe it is the small gestures, words and messages we need to deliver to our children to make sure they grow up without the socially engineered views generations before them have and blindly accepted. And it is the role of fathers, sons and brothers to reinforce these messages just as much as mothers, daughters and sisters – the time of feminism being just for women to deliver is in the past.
I asked in a previous article for You! magazine, ‘How can the father of a daughter not be a feminist’? Since then, having been blessed with Raffi, the question evolved – How can the brother of a sister not be a feminist? How can the son of a mother not be a feminist? How can anyone be against very basic equality?
There have been slogans, such as ‘Girl Power’ towards the end of the last century and movements such as #metoo more recently and each has delivered a meaningful message and highlighted issues. But the emphasis, as ever, has been on women. Society dictates that women need to show their power, women need to confront misogyny and women need to call out and expose the sexual misconduct of men. Where is the role of the men in all of this? That is where Raffi and his generation come into play, by understanding that their role is as big as any women who raises the issues.
Men are the reason we need slogans and movements in the first place and men absolutely need to play a strong role in these. As ever, force of words will meet a majority of resistance. That is why the role of education in the home is so important; I need my seven-year-old daughter Lu’Lu to be aware that it is not right that some things will be made harder for her because of her gender and I need Raffi to know that he needs to use his male privilege in a way to be an ally to women. They are in this together.
This is not a stick to beat men down with. Not all men are misogynistic. Clearly not all men abuse women. But all men can help in the various fights; they can champion women, in the workplace they can give women the space to grow and express themselves, they can make women feel safer on the streets by reflecting on and adapting their own behaviour. And crucially, when they see other men not doing those things, they can call it out. Silence is being complicit.
That will be part of the awareness I want Raffi to have. He is part of his sister’s fight for equality. But it does not have to be confrontational. It is a battle won through actions; if you see an injustice, call it out. If you work with women who you see need some space to grow, create the environment for them to grow. Standing in solidarity; their fight is everyone’s fight.
Powerful voices in any movement need to come from people who do not stand to directly benefit from change. When the Black Lives Matter movement was sweeping across the West in 2020, the white voices were important in supporting the black ones. The same applies to gender; I really do see it as my role in the home and where I can at work to demonstrate that being on the side of women takes nothing away from me and the results of that support only go to enhance life, be it in the home or the office.
When I see images of Aurat March in Pakistan, I feel a real sense of pride in the movement. That it ruffles a few feathers is a good thing, a movement is nothing without ripples on the way. A lot of the reaction to Aurat March shows that the narrative around equality needs to change. For too long the perception has lingered that giving rights to some takes away from others. That giving women more freedom will cause a breakdown of social function. It doesn’t; when you see how empowering women benefits all of society, be it at home or at work, there is nothing which should resist this battle.
The women on that march and people supporting it are not there to take any rights away from anyone. They are highlighting a plight and a need to society to allow women to level up – socially, economically, in the workplace and indeed have ownership of themselves and their bodies.
This all plays into the education piece; Aurat March is not there be in itself an action. It is there to bring to front and centre that women do not have the rights, respect and freedom which they should have. And while Aurat March highlights the overt oppression women face in Asia, in the West the battle is about subconscious and circumstantial discrimination. Both require highlighting, both require education and both require men to join the cause.
Each and every one of us has a role to play to evolve society. Thinking about our words and actions is something we can all do. Thinking of where we can support others, choosing to elevate those around us rather than pushing down to keep ourselves on top.
When I think about my kids growing up, I do not want Raffi to have the light bulb moment in his 20s when he sees these issues. I do not want Lu’Lu having to battle harder than her male counterparts for every gain in life. Why should her life have more obstacles just because of chromosomes? I want their world to be one where they have true equity – respect of a woman’s choice having the same respect that of a man’s, starting points being adjacent and male privilege being a thing of the past. But we will not get there without empowering kids from a young age through awareness and we will not get there without men taking as much responsibility for change as women.
Every female empowerment movement has been met with derision from vocal groups and silence from the majority. It is time for that silence to change – a shift from either ambivalence or inward approval to true allyship. This can start with three simple words; ‘we support you’. I recently asked Lu’Lu what she wanted to be when she grows up. She replied ‘archaeologist’ (she has since changed her mind!), and in the background Raffi said, “I want to be like Lu’Lu.” Education works!
Naveed Khan is a lawyer based in London. He writes regularly on social and gender issues.