Carrying a sword made by his father out of two branches from their garden, six-year-old Saivhes Kugantharan chats easily about his toys, his dogs and the small vegetable patch he is “helping” his parents cultivate in their backyard.
“My house is just next door but I come here for music lessons. Do you want to come to my house and see my dogs?” he asks, prodding the soil with his sword.
Saivhes hasn’t grown up in a conventional family. His parents, Kugantharan Vasanthakumar, 36, and Zeeneeshri Ramdass, 34, enjoy an equal marriage where they both share parenting duties as well as the household chores.
Kugan, a web specialist and music teacher, works from home. He and his wife run Young Foundry, a creative centre for children and teens. He also homeschools his son and the two often go on “field trips” together on the train to Batu Caves, the National Library and the shipyards in Port Klang. He cooks, cleans and builds toys for his son.
Zeeneeshri, known as Zeenee, is a former journalist and was a stay-home mum until she went back to work as the communications Manager of the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre when her son was about four. She has left that job to start Young Foundry.
She cooks, cleans, washes her own car and often fixes things at home.
Despite growing up with parents who don’t subscribe to stereotypical gender roles, Saivhes surprised them when he declared one day that “only boys can play football”.
Taken aback by his statement, Zeenee showed him an online video of the United States female national soccer team.
“It was his first time seeing women play football. He was interested but he also wanted to know if the ‘girls’ trained with the boys. So now he knows that girls play football but he still thinks that girls and boys can’t play together,” she recounts, more amused than aghast at her son’s assumptions.
Zeenee and Kugan speculate that their boy has picked up these stereotypical notions about gender roles from cartoons, television programmes as well as from what he observes around him.
While they have no control over the messages Saivhes gets outside their home, Kugan and Zeenee make sure they check him when he makes gender-biased comments or observations.
“One time, we were playing with some Thundercats action figures and Zeenee wanted to join us but he flat out refused because according to him, girls can’t play with action figures.
“When this happens we address it immediately. We don’t scold him but we ask him why he thinks or reacts in that way and then tell him why it’s ok for girls to play with action toys or anything else for that matter,” Kugan shares.
Just as it is important to teach girls to be strong, brave and free to achieve their goals, boys need to be taught to be kind, considerate, gentle. And to regard girls as their equals.
“It’s all about playing fair,” says Zeenee. “More than anything, I would like Saivhes to understand that anyone is capable of greatness if they set their mind to it. And that discrimination is the work of a weak, insecure mind.”
Like Saivhes, children learn the codes that define “masculine” and “feminine” from an early age, whether it is at school from their friends and teachers, the media or even their family.
Boys are told not to cry, not to fear, to fight back and to be strong and brave, while girls are urged not to be demanding, to be forgiving, accommodating and to be “ladylike”.
Girls are given dolls or cooking sets to play with while their brothers in blue get building sets, remote-control cars and rockets.
While these stereotypes may seem harmless, gender socialisation propagates children to have sexist attitudes and behaviours which they carry with them through their lives.
In their gender sensitisation programmes for school children, the Women Centre for Change in Penang finds that children want to address the stereotypes they encounter in life but often don’t have the opportunities to.
“Assigning gender roles and reinforcing gender stereotypes affects not only how children may view themselves but also impacts how they view and behave towards others.
“For instance, if a boy is brought up to believe that only men can be leaders and decision makers in a family then he will not allow his decisions to be challenged by women when he has a family.
“If girls are brought up to believe the same stereotype, they too will have similar ideas. Such stereotypes generally lead to the disrespecting of women and in worst case scenarios, can lead to violence against women,” says WCC project officer Hana Husni. Parents must talk to their children about these issues and treat their children as equals. Parents should themselves be good role models for their children and show each other respect, treat each other as equals and share responsibilities, as children learn from their parents’ actions, she says.
Gender violence has its roots in the inequality that is perpetuated by gender stereotypes. In extreme cases it shows itself in men who are perpetrators of gender-based violence. Because women are “expected” to be silent and submissive, many don’t have the confidence or courage to speak up when they need help.
Stereotypes have become part of the fabric of society – how many times have we opted for a pink birthday cake for our daughters and a blue one for our sons? A doll for our girls and a tank for our boys? Boys and girls are different but not all boys and all girls are alike either. Everyone deserves the same opportunities.
The change, however, has to start at home. Multiple studies show that children start picking up gender codes when they are about six years old.
Parents have to not only tackle these difficult issues with their children but also set good examples.
Jennifer Ang relates how her seven-year-old son, Ian, came home crying after school one day because his friends laughed at him for looking through a cookbook.
“He told me he didn’t want to cook with me anymore and that his friends called him a sissy and a girl because he told them he liked cooking. I tried to coax him but he was stubborn … until his father told him that they’d go grocery shopping and cook together for the family on weekends,” she relates, adding that her husband has become more conscious about the type of role model he is to his son.
Engineer Ayu Abdullah had her first encounter with gender bias when she volunteered as a teacher in Somaliland, East Africa, some years ago.
“Teaching in Somaliland was a challenge. The boys refused to be taught by me because they didn’t think a woman could teach them Science or Maths. They were used to female teachers for language, but not Maths and Science. They couldn’t believe a woman could be as good as a man at these subjects. And when it came to resources, like textbooks, it always went to the boys first,” she shares, adding that such gender discrimination was accepted by the girls as some sort of unspoken rule.
It was an eye-opener for Ayu who grew up in a household of four girls in Penang and was free to pursue her interests, feminine or not. She went on to study engineering and work in a largely male-dominated field where she met her husband Kyle Weber, also an engineer.
The couple didn’t think they’d have to deal with such bias here in Kuala Lumpur where they are now based. But when their five-year-old son Dash Hamza Weber told them that he couldn’t wear pink anymore because his teacher said “pink was for girls”, they knew it was an issue that they had to address. “He also asked me if girls can do anything boys can and told me that I couldn’t use the word ‘lovely’ on him as it was a word to describe girls. I was shocked.
“I told him that yes, girls can do anything boys can as long as it is physically possible, pointing out that girls can’t pee standing up, for example because they don’t have penises,” says Ayu, 35.
She also assured him that he could wear any colour he liked and that even though his teacher may not like to use the world “lovely”, it is perfectly fine to describe both boys and girls as being lovely.
The Webers know that they will not be always there to answer Dash’s questions but they want him to have the tools to cope with such biases.
“We tell him that everyone is equal and has equal opportunities. We tell him that it’s ok to be wrong and to learn from mistakes. We tell him that if he sees something that isn’t right or if he sees someone not being treated kindly, he has to speak up and say something. Once he came home and told us that his friends didn’t want to play with a girl and so he went to play with her. That is good … we want him to know that there are many people who do many things in different ways. That there is not just one way to do things,” says Ayu, as Dash grabs his guitar and serenades us with a song.