Setaweet Parenting

I was recently speaking to a leading Ethiopian feminist activist who has parented two remarkable women and who is now a grandmother to two boys and one girl. She was taken aback when I said that I think that in Ethiopia, becoming a man is as difficult as becoming a woman. Let me explain. The more I learn from parenting my six-year old daughter and my four-year old son, the harder I have come to believe that the path of parenting children of either gender requires a surgeon’s precision and a vast amount of the purest love that you can access.

Agreed, the task of raising a girl who will become a woman in this unequal world is daunting, but I am of the opinion that raising a boy needs as much conscientious effort. The notion that boys will get by because they are naturally tougher has put many many men in vulnerable positions where they feel under-loved and under-nurtured in a society that encourages them to act out in aggressive ways. It is similar to being put on a precipice that requires careful negotiation to descend while the crowds on the ground are encouraging you to Jump.

Raise them the same, but not

I think it’s great when women and men say their parents always treated them the same as their siblings of another gender. If we teach our sons to bake and cook without making it a big deal, we are equipping them to feed themselves, not to ‘help’ their future wives, assuming they will have them. If you encourage your daughter to be physically active and to rely on herself, she will grow up to be a self-assured woman. This I believe is Feminist Parenting 101. But let’s not end there.

Their Sisters’ Keepers

I think that as feminist mothers, we need to teach our girls to be self-confident, for sure, but also to uplift other women. We can tell our daughters to steer clear of men who are threatened by their ambition but also to make sure that they think beyond their own gains. This takes practice but what has worked for me in developing my daughter’s sensibility around gender is to to follow a strict rule of not bad-mouthing other women. I plan to call her out on any
catty remarks she might make about classmates or friends, as unlikely as that scenario seems now. Her current best friend is a boy but she has other close friends who are girls. In her short tenure at kindergarten, we have already had the difficult task of negotiating a case of bullying by another girl which required much feminist hand-wringing on my part. I wanted to use the opportunity to teach her to stand up for herself without falling into the dangerous ‘girls are like that’ trap that has set many women of my generation up for unnecessary angst. At the end, my daughter ended up delivering her much-rehearsed ‘I will not play with you anymore as you have been mean to me several times’ line and that was the end of that. For now.

I am sure there will be more people like that in my children’s lives, and they will be boys and girls. There might even be a time when it is my child in the guilty seat although I certainly hope to not see that day. My feminist take on the unfortunate reality of bullying is to emphasize that it is not the natural domain of femaleness as society and exposure to Ethiopian media would have us believe.

Am I saying that women and girls are not often cruel to each other in quite specific ‘feminine’ ways? I wish I could argue that but we all know better. The women who eye you with aggression the minute you walk into a room and who make nasty judgements before they get to know what you are about. When my male friends observe that women are often not nice to each other, I wish I could honestly say that has not been my experience but I can’t. What I can and do say is that I see through it. I see through the unnecessary competition that is bred from the misguided and patriarchal notion that there is not enough to go around – not enough beauty, not enough male attention, not enough success. I see through this lie and do not participate in it. As a feminist parent, it is my responsibility to ensure that my daughter does not either. Feminist Moms, we need to help our girls brush off, and be above the ‘mean girls’ that they will encounter, because that is, unfortunately, a real syndrome.

Feminist Moms, go further and teach the women of tomorrow to be their sisters’ keepers. When they come home with an award or a promotion, praise them for sure, but also ask them how their gains uplift their friends. Teach them, by example, to amplify the voices of their girl friends or at the very least, to not stand in their ways. Universal sisterhood is a difficult concept and has not always worked, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be strategic allies. We can pull each other up even when we don’t agree on everything.

Expect as much from boys as we do from girls

We need to replace the saying, ‘Boys will be boys’ with ‘Boys will expected to be as polite, as respectful and as considerate as girls.’

Feminist Moms and Dads, we have the unenviable task of educating our daughters about sex, and our sons about sex. In the Ethiopian context in particular, the word ‘sex’ is synonymous with shame. Women in particular are made to feel shameful for having sex, let alone for desiring or pursuing it. Feminist parenting requires us to break that mold. To teach boys and girls to name their body parts matter-of-factly and to recognize that as uncomfortable as it makes us, children are sexual beings who will touch and explore themselves. It’s our job to refrain from messing with the curiosity that nature has given them while teaching them the appropriate where and when of self-love.

Consent is another important consideration that can’t be taught too early. I learnt this the hard way. From the age of three, I taught my daughter that her private parts are her own and that no one except her immediate care takers are allowed to look or touch her there. It didn’t occur to me that my son needs the same affirmations until a certain incident at his school involving the (innocent) explorations of other little boys. We focus so much on the vulnerabilities of little girls that if we are not careful, we leave our sons wide open to not only abuse but the confusions of hormones and seemingly uncontrollable libido.

Speaking of, a highly important lesson we need to teach boys in particular is the myth of men’s uncontrollable desire. We are raising sentient beings who can respect women and who can think beyond sex. Feminist Dads, in particular, call your boys out if they linger too long looking at women’s anatomy. Feminist Moms, you know it is not nice to be looked at like a piece of meat. Share your feelings with your sons, for sure, but do not plead with them to respect women out of deference to you, teach them that it is the only way in which they can respect themselves. Feminist mothers do not make excuses for sons who rape.

Feminist Moms, but particularly Feminist Dads, please, please  drill ‘consent’ into the very fibers of your kids’ sexuality as they grow up. Tell your sons to stop chasing that girl if she no longer enjoys playing with him, and that real men can take ‘no’ for an answer. Tell your daughter that she never ever under in any circumstance owes a man sex. Teach her to look out for herself because there will always be men who won’t hear her response, but also to say what she means. To not be coy and lead men on because of the dangerous idea
that women need to play hard to get. Tell your little girl that it is ok to ask out the guy she likes.

Dating and romance are all good and can be good complements to the love we have for ourselves.  However, our daughters as well as our sons need to know that it is good to be alone and that only really great people are worth the heartbreak they will face one day. I ask my daughter Rekka who her best friend is, and she replies ‘you.’ If I probe harder, it will be her grandmother. But she knows I will keep asking, so she replies, ‘myself.’ A conscious feminist parent aims to raise a child who won’t need even her.

Teach Women of the Future to Love Being Women

Feminist Dads and Moms, if your ethnicity, race or religion are important identifiers that you teach your daughter to hold dear, include in that her gender. It is the category closest to her self, often the only visible identifier and yet usually the one we women hold in least esteem. If women battled for themselves AS WOMEN the way they always have on behalf of their ethnic or religious identity, patriarchy would have fallen long ago.

Own Yourself, Woman.

Feminist Dads, talk to your daughters about the strong women you know. Let them know that you are not ok with sexist comments; make sure that if a man ever harasses or disrespects your daughter, that there is nothing in him that reminds her of you. Because unless you mess up on an exceptional level, you will be the standard male she will hold all future men against.
Don’t accept an apology on her behalf, you don’t own her. Because you love her, teach her she is complete in herself.

Because I am learning both feministing and parenting as I go, I often have the thought that begins, ‘If my dad was still around.’ The endings vary -‘I would have this and not that, I never would have ended in this relationship or I would never feel unloved.’

I know instinctively that my feminist identity should be the antidote to the primordial longing for my father who as a woman, I have been taught is the pillar of my existence, but it is a battle. In an effort to pull myself up, I tell myself, in the words of Toni Morrison from her book, A Mercy, ‘Own yourself, Woman.’ It is easier said than done but it has been a good lesson for me in the meaning of feminist parenting. So Feminist Dads and Moms, because you love your daughters and sons, and because you can’t protect them forever, teach them to own themselves, mind and body. Teach them that they can live without you.