It’s been more than a year since I have been with Layla, my daughter. Her early years were mostly spent with her naani while I was away pulling myself out of a career slump after motherhood with a prestigious college degree. I can finally say that I am raising her. She is a talkative, demanding girl of four, with bright eyes and a certain ferocity that makes her pick fights, embrace more than she can accommodate, and trust heartily. All of these are terrific virtues in my dictionary, and I staunchly stick to them in a world hell-bent on telling girls what counts as “great”. But these are also qualities I am afraid of.
Recently, on a sunny afternoon in the society park, I suddenly noticed the sexism I have so scoffed at, in the playground. I saw it when my girl leapt to the other side where all the boys were. They were in bright sweatshirts and shiny shoes, same as her, and their game was what had drawn Layla. They drew a line on the grass with their shoes and each of them kept jumping till the distance had been raised up to six feet. That’s when all of them would fall and start the game afresh.
It was all about leaping as wide and as far as possible. Layla said she could do that too. They laughed, but she was insistent. That’s when I stepped in. I volunteered to be the referee of the match. They accepted Layla into the game and she did as much as she could. With each jump, she beamed and confidently declared: “I can easily do this.” I felt like I was a child again, fighting my own battles with the boys on the cricket field, who would want me to clear off because boys needed to play first. I fought back tears, like a proud mother.
But something unpleasant happened, in spite of Layla’s competitively capable sprints. Layla wasn’t raising a fight; she was just playing a game and at best, competing with boys a few years older than her. They laughed and told her that only boys play such games. I told them it wasn’t true. They continued to play but the ridicule remained. We didn’t leave; we stayed put. Layla kept playing, and that was important. But why did the boys think girls played only certain kinds of games?
About a month ago, a boy from her class suddenly stopped playing with her. She was heartbroken. “Ma, why won’t he play with me?” I decided to watch him. He would come to the park with his father, who encouraged him to play with the boys. They would run around and Layla would also run. One day, I saw the boy stop Layla. “Don’t come after me,” he told her. Layla still followed, confused. “I told you, don’t follow me. I don’t play with girls,” he reprimanded her. My heart broke a little that day, but I had to be strong. I couldn’t for a second believe this was happening. All this bias starts so early?
Layla stood in the park alone, lost. I walked up to her and she simply said: “Ma, he is no more friends with me.” I said firmly: “He doesn’t deserve you. You’ll find better friends.”But where? She goes to a great school but often, I hear her talking about gender roles — “Papa is a boy, so he won’t do this; papa is a boy so he won’t be this and that…” Where do all these stereotypes come from? I always tell her there is nothing she can’t do just because she is a girl.
But all the liberated talk at home won’t be enough. What about the boys in the park and her friends in the class? Who told her pink is not for the boys when her dad wears pink? Who told her girls look great in long hair when her mother sports a blunt cut?When she grows up, I know she will be my daughter, every bit my daughter. She will be free, brave, and equal. But to be that and more, must she suffer sexism that we have for long fought? When I look at the classrooms and the playgrounds, I see that the war hasn’t been won, and that breaks my heart.
Pallavi Singh is a Delhi-based marketer.