The other day, my three-year-old daughter told me that I cannot drive a car because I am a girl. I gasped, because I couldn’t think of where she would pick up such an idea from, especially because everyone around her, ie close family members and others she spends time with, has special instructions to not inculcate her with such generalisations and gender stereotypes.
I asked her where she had learned this from, and, when met with absolute silence, I went on to explain how driving a car was mostly dependent on learning how to drive and, consequently, holding a driving license, rather than the gender of a person.
She refused to believe me.
So, I began to wonder: Where from does a child as young as her pick up such obviously socially-created gender attributes of what a man/woman can/cannot do?
Agreed, most drivers in Bangladesh are men, but she has been driven around by women, and also, she is, I would imagine, still too young to make a claim as big as “women don’t drive,” unless there is an external force steering her towards this belief.
I began to think of other constants she is exposed to regularly -- other than, of course, people -- from where she could derive such conclusions. The one thing that instantly came to my mind were songs and rhymes, especially the ones which she is very fond of.
Enough has been said about the Britneys and the Beyonces, and of course, Bollywood item numbers. And, like most 21st century “educated and aware” mothers, I make it a point to keep her at bay from being exposed to them, at least as far as possible. But what about Bengali songs?
No, I am not talking about your “Dhallywood numbers,” not even contemporary music. I am talking about Bengali rhymes that we grew up listening to from time immemorial, and that we hope, against all odds, our kids enjoy hearing: These Bengali rhymes, I noticed recently, are not as harmless as they appear to be.
Let’s start with “Dol dol doloni, ranga mathay chiruni … bor ashbe ekhoni, niye jabe tokhoni.”
As I hear this now, as an adult, I feel like the entire message of this nursery rhyme is that the girl will be swept off her feet by her prince charming, her “bor” in other words.
Yes, the sole purpose of her life is to be in a conjugal relationship with a significant other, who will take care of her, for whom she will make a home, while looking her very best.
That is the ultimate dream come true and goal for all of womankind, for sure.
Is it a wonder, why a favourite game amongst many young girls is to be dressed up in wedding attire, and to sit quietly while doing so? Forgive me, but I simply don’t understand how this is a plausible game for kids
Another famous one is, “Aata gache tota pakhi dalim gache mou, eto daki tobu kotha kouna keno bou?”
This one is interesting because it states explicitly how the “bou” never speaking or being allowed to speak is natural, even when insisted upon.
Firstly, I don’t see what the connection is between “tota pakhis” and “bous,” and I simply don’t understand why all dolls have to be dressed up as bous all the time.
Is it any wonder why a favourite game amongst many young girls is to be dressed up in wedding attire, and to sit quietly while doing so? Forgive me, but I simply don’t understand how this is a plausible game for kids.
Here’s my personal favourite: “Tai tai tai, mama bari jai, mami eno lathi niye, palai palai.” Now this is a nursery rhyme we have all sung to at different points in our lives, but if broken down, it only becomes apparent how the mami is the ultimate villain in the song, the equivalent of the she-devil, and how it has resulted in becoming a cultural typecast: Mami equals villain.
Let’s not even get into the discourse of how this nursery rhyme justifies beating up kids.
I can go on and on about how the chheles are always dushtu, and how the chand is always mama, and never khala or something.
I know there are many who will feel that this is unnecessary criticism of simple and harmless nursery rhymes, but let me be clear, I am in no way implying that these songs are directly correlated to a child’s mindset.
But, undoubtedly, newer times call for new dimensions of existing narratives.
Perhaps, one day, there will be gender-neutral Bengali nursery rhymes. I can assure you that there is demand for it, if only to add variety in prevailing perspectives.
Syeda Samara Mortada is an activist and a freelance writer.