Your cart is empty.
Girl Child (Birth to Menses) Part 4: Mother's Carry the Culture of Womanhood

Chapter 1, Part 4 Mothers Carry the Culture of Womanhood

This article is part of a weekly series adapted from our latest book, "The 9 Lives of Women," by our founder, Christine Marie Mason. 

Dr. Deepa Narayan, an international poverty, gender and development advisor, wrote a groundbreaking book called Chup: Breaking the Silence About India’s Women. The book is about raising a new generation of empowered girls and women. Narayan believes that no matter what we do on the outside to support girls (such as universal education), the internalized cultural systems embedded in our consciousness will negate the effectiveness of these programs. Based on 1800 hours of in-depth interviews, she has chronicled cultural habits that keep repressive and violent systems in place- systems in which women are trained to minimize themselves.

She argues that if girls are taught that they are as valuable as boys, we have a good chance of transforming the culture. "We've been rearranging the rooms and curtains, but haven't changed the foundation." In this work, she discusses how instrumental mothers are to this process.

“Basically, mothers have to contain their own fears,” she asserts. “We have become fear transference mechanisms. And so we can stop, interrupt that mechanism. I mean, I have a PhD, I work at the World Bank, and I'm still afraid to say what I really want!”, says Narayan. 
“Just seeing this pattern,” Narayan continues, “and not collapsing into guilt and shame and blame, helps me not give it to my daughter. Otherwise, It's just being passed on from generation to generation—and education and empowerment and income is not changing this.” To accomplish this, Narayan recommends addressing one behavior at a time.

She tells a story of when her daughter [Priya] was nine, she went to pick her up from a hair salon. When she arrived, she discovered that her daughter’s haircut had been completed. The hairdresser asked her what she thought of it. "I don't like it," Priya said. Narayan then opened her mouth to say, ‘It's okay. Let it be.’, afraid that the woman would be upset, and get angry.  But somehow she managed to “zip her mouth” as Priya told the stylist, ‘I don't like this. Can you make this a bit shorter? Can you cut a little bit here?.’ And the woman just said okay, and did it.

Letting your daughter speak her mind about what she likes or doesn’t like is one small example, but Narayan’s point is that once you shift what you’ve learned and act in a different way with your child, then other learned behaviors start to change. “This has nothing to do with education or literacy,” says Narayan. “If you want your daughter not to live the life that you've lived, in fear, that's the incentive for us to change.”

Some years ago, traveling through Mali in Africa, we were confronted with the fact of female genital mutilation, and stunned to find out that it was actually the grandmothers and the mothers who were imposing this on the girls— the men actually had very little to do with the whole process.

This shows how deeply ingrained some of these fears and beliefs can be. And it's the same everywhere: Women become the carriers of the culture, the culture of inequality. Because they're often without overt power, women sometimes “grab power wherever they can. So they become even more severe, and in that way become militaristic defenders of patriarchy,” says Narayan. “People who are oppressed often become the strongest defenders of oppression, because they hope to get some benefit or protection out of that— without which they feel totally vulnerable and fearful.”

This behavior is closely tied to the fear of patriarchy. In many places on Earth, if you upset men, you will get killed off. It's very real in women, she says. “It sounds crazy to talk about it, but it's very real—and it's through these hundreds of incidents, right from early childhood, that you're not even aware of, that you realize very early where the power lies.”

Please stay tuned for the next installment next Wednesday.