Stereotypes kill creativity and poison the beauty of being different. If this is combined with underlining gender differences, divisions become insuperable for both men and women, but also for boys and girls. This is true where I live and elsewhere as well. After seven years in the Balkans, between Kosovo and Albania, I can tell you – here gender roles are like the Iron Curtain: pink and blue, Hello Kitty versus Spider-Man.
As a childless woman, I felt uncomfortable and I tried to challenge stereotypes (I do not cook! I do not iron! I am a good driver!). As a pregnant woman, many reflections passed through my mind. People were mainly interested in knowing the sex of my baby. What about asking if the baby is healthy? What about asking if I am happy? The simple fact that we did not want to know the sex was incredible. The simple fact that I worked full-time, drove a car off-road and went to the gym during my pregnancy was blasphemy.
As a mom of two girls now, first in Pristina and then in Tirana, I find myself buried in clichés that I badly do not want to follow. Girls should be quiet and for their birthdays they get exclusively girly presents. They go to the playground in white dresses. They are not supposed to climb and jump in the puddles anyway. Boys can be impolite, tear their mothers’ hair in the plane and be aggressive with other kids. Far from wanting to generalize, I experienced this over and over again. I observed all this as far away as possible, to avoid influencing my girls’ development and free thinking.
My eldest, now almost four years old, has always been a very active, energetic and absolutely assertive little girl. She has never cared about her clothes, as long as she could freely cake them with mud. Things changed as she also got absorbed into the surrounding culture by enrolling in kindergarten. The transformation was not immediate, but pretty fast. Out of her only second-hand and pretty full wardrobe, now she begs me to wear skirts or dresses when she goes to school and obsessively investigates her closet for t-shirts that would match her girlfriends’ taste. Trousers are not an option. She wants nail polish and asks at least 3 times per week, how come her hair is not longer and I cannot braid it. She refuses to wear red sporty sandals, preferring purple ones, although her feet had clearly overgrown them. I see her struggling with her character and natural inclination for movement and sport when she wears uncomfortable outfits and shoes.
All of this did upset a lot. I fought against it, I made her cry, shockingly choosing green over pink; I tried to talk her out of these manias. While my husband thought I was being a bit silly, it just made me constantly wonder about the life I chose for my girls and the different opportunities they might have had accessing education back home. I categorically refuse to bring up two princesses who get overexcited about pink and lilac, just because everyone else is.
However, the other side of the coin is: how to explain that different is beautiful, right, legitimate to a small kid, when stereotyping is the guiding principle? How can I believe that my almost 4-year old bad-tempered girl will lead a cultural revolution in Albania and elsewhere? How could I fight this back myself and teach her that it’s cool to be uncool? I truly believe that the pink and frilly phase is normal. Nevertheless, I want my girls to choose the women they want to become, despite living in a society which is even less gender-sensitive than where I come from. I want to educate them on having respect for what they really like and not for what they are told to like. I want to make sure that these “natural” evolutions are not permanently stereotyped gender ideas. How could I do this in general? And how, specifically, in this context? Here are my techniques in regards to fighting gender stereotypes.
1) First rule for myself: be cool about it, everything will be all right;
2) We challenge what they hear and report: “No, also boys can wear pink!”, “Yes, also dad can wear lilac!”;
3) We help them thinking: dad can cook and wash up the dishes better than mom, mom drives the car better than dad;
4) Our small one wears also brown, black, orange, green, blue, grey. When asked if she is a boy, I smile and ask why should she be?;
5) Of the many noisy Albanian weddings, we tell them that a woman and man, a man and another man or a woman and another woman are getting together forever;
6) When people brag about how beautiful my girls are, we also tell them that most of all they are smart, fast and agile;
7) At the playground, almost spooking Albanian families, we let them dare and take reasonable risks to have fun;
8) As much as we can around here, we show them the very few striking cases where a woman drives a taxi or wears a police uniform;
9) I tell them stories about what I did at their age, all the adventures, when I got hurt climbing too high and falling back, when I broke a window. I tell them (because it is true) that I always played soccer with boys, got home bruised;
10) When they show interest in toy typically labelled for the other sex, we encourage them in the game;
Last but not least, I am so excited about the day when they will understand and I will be able to tell them that my midwife was a wonderful and unforgettable young man.
Have you run into such issues as a mom? How are you fighting gender stereotypes?
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