The writer draws attention to the types of comments/ questions aimed at each gender from an early age.
My son who is about to turn four in a few days loves to cook. He sits on the kitchen counter when my husband or I cook and bombards us with all kinds of hilarious questions: about the names of spices, what happens if you add salt to tea or whether our store-bought eggs will hatch if one of us sat on them. Sometimes we let him sprinkle salt in the daal, or squish a rice grain between his small fingers to check whether it is cooked; he especially enjoys adding and mixing ingredients into various concoctions. Cooking is one of our favourite activities together; not only do we get to bond over the amusing conversation, it is a great opportunity to teach him a very essential life-skill: preparing food. A well-wisher who once witnessed this activity, playfully inquired, “Tomar chele ranna shikhe felle, or bou ashle ki korbe?” (If your son learns how to cook, what will his wife do?). To the great chagrin of this well-wisher, I had a no-nonsense response ready, “If and when that time comes, I pray my son’s wife appreciates his effort and cooking skills.”
A toxic myth
These questions are a very common, Bangladeshi phenomenon. Have you noticed how we casually sprinkle a little bit of “supposed marriage facts” into conversations with little children? I’ve heard people chide stubborn little girls with, “You will not be able to throw tantrums like this when you get married!” or if she creates a mess, she is reproached with the common question “What will your in-laws think if you don’t know how to tidy up?” Our boys are not spared either: for amicable little boys, we have, “Your wife will have you wrapped around her finger!” or for boys doing household chores, we say, “Are you planning to become a house husband while your wife works outside?” This happens because, in our society, marriage is the ultimate goal, which in itself is not a problem. The real problem stems from the truth that even though the structure of the modern Bangladeshi marriage has changed, our internalized dichotomy of gender roles remains the same.
I want to draw your attention to the types of comments/ questions aimed at each gender. The ones directed at young girls often advocate compliance, while those for boys indicate a possible loss of power. We make extra effort to teach girls to keep house and simultaneously uphold core principles that make up the good Bangladeshi wife: adjust, accept, compromise and forgive. Boys on the other hand are taught confidence and assertiveness. We teach them that their lives happen entirely outside the house and a home is just a place for them to lounge around in and be serviced for the price of paying the bills one day. We show them that home is where someone will clean up after them, prepare their food, fold their clothes; that someone being their mothers and later, their wives. This phenomenon is so potent that it has become the fundamental ideology of our family structure, and ironically women are often the perpetrators. The famous feuding mother-in-law/ daughter-in-law troupe that makeup 100% of our television dramas is taken from real life. Mothers and wives feel like primary caregivers for adult men, and therefore often engage in life-long battles to prove who can serve these men better. When a man performs household tasks, everyone within visual range unanimously declares, “Chelera aigula pare na.” or “Men do not know how to do these things.” Do women somehow come out of their mothers’ wombs pre-programmed to perform household chores? Often, men’s incompetence at home is celebrated and considered “cute” for this very reason. For instance, every time a man performs a mundane task like making his own tea, packing his own travel bag, or bathing his own baby, it is celebrated like a big event.
The gruelling consequences
Our concept of gender roles no longer complement the modern family structure: these days, employment opportunities or financial compulsions are encouraging families to move and become nuclear. Often, both spouses work and contribute towards a joint family income, yet only women are burdened with the task of maintaining the house. This is glaringly obvious from the very common (and inappropriate) job interview question every Bangladeshi woman gets asked, “Do you have children? Would you be able to manage work and home together?” As a result, a great number of women who choose to work go to superhuman (and unhealthy) lengths to do just that: manage work and go home to cook, clean and tend to the family with little to no regard for her sanity. We conveniently forget that the 48-hour workweek that is mandated in our offices was designed with the belief that someone else (the women) will be taking care of household chores. Despite both genders stepping up to earn for the family, the responsibilities of the men remain the same as they were in the generations before, while the women’s have doubled. The old rules worked back then because they somehow fit the needs of the times, but they are very much out of sync with today’s world. At the heart of the enforced dependence of Bangladeshi men and subjugation of Bangladeshi women is the theory that Bangladeshi men are the primary breadwinners and therefore superior. This theory no longer stands but here we are.
As a society, we worship men like they are some kind of higher beings, but at the same time refuse to teach them basic life-skills that can make their lives easier. In many brown families, men will not even replace a spoon to its original position as such tasks are considered lesser. In other families, fathers are feared and revered to a level of isolation, separating them from their fatherhoods and other meaningful relationships. This distorted reverence doesn’t benefit men anymore because we are constantly forcing them to fit into outdated ideas of masculinity. While women are expected to meet familial responsibilities and kiss their careers goodbye, men are expected to become emotionless money-making machines who will assume the role of the next patriarch in the family. Many brown men find it difficult to form equal partnerships with their wives because they cannot shrug off that “lord and provider” tag. Men’s emotional needs are scoffed at or ignored; the only emotion we appreciate in them is anger. We laugh at men when they are sexually abused and show them no sympathy; rather we try to invalidate their trauma with the extremely cruel and toxic myth that “men enjoy inappropriate sexual advances”. We shame men to the point of abject distress and humiliation when they display instincts to nurture or try to learn and perform household chores with the aim to share responsibility. I ask you this, what is the benefit of exalting our men when we are severing their humanness?
Need for change
Let’s face the facts: our gender expectations are as exacting on men as they are on women. The old rules are no longer working. Human beings connect through vulnerability and crave emotional intimacy regardless of their gender. In a world where we are becoming more and more aware of mental health and its impact on quality of life, it is shameful to declare men invulnerable. Change has been excruciatingly slow, but it is there, young brown men are trying to break the cycle to be more involved in the household, unknowingly alleviating the lonely burdens brown women have carried for too long. If you look around, you will see young dads making time for their children, you will see sons and husbands trying to shoulder household responsibilities and stepping up for their mothers and wives. Let’s appreciate these men, encourage them and applaud their effort instead of holding them prisoners to outdated toxic myths. And to those who claim that traditional gender roles are appropriate because of the biological differences between men and women: yes men and women are biologically different; but no matter how different, neither gender is any less human.
Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a Mechanical Engineer based in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For rants and book recommendations, you can follow her on Instagram: @booksnher