In a few sentences Modi has effectively given us a deep message: women can progress only as fast as men can change. You can give women better protection, but real protection lies in how we bring up our sons. Effectively, he has emphasised the importance of parenting sons better â€“ and which is where we are failing as a nation.
It was a trademark Narendra Modi address, but to me the most important message he gave us in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort was the one on sons and good parenting.
Speaking in the context of rapes and violence against women, Modi implied that while the concern for girl children was understandable, parents must focus on what their sons are upto. “Even when they are only 12, young girls are always being asked so many questions by their parents, like 'Where are you off to?', ‘Who are you meeting’. But do these parents ask their sons where they are going?"
He added: “The law will take its own course but as a society every parent has a responsibility to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong. Those who commit rape are also someone's sons. You should stop them before they take the wrong path.”
In a few sentences Modi has effectively given us a deep message: women can progress only as fast as men can change. You can give women better protection, but real protection lies in how we bring up our sons. Effectively, he has emphasised the importance of parenting sons better – and which is where we are failing as a nation.
Given India’s cultural obsession with sons, there is a presumption that sons anyway get the best deals, and hence don’t need effective supervision or parenting. So “boys will be boys” and anything goes. Even when we as parents realise that sons may be straying, there is a sense of helplessness on how we should be dealing with them as they grow up and start behaving differently.
Society’s attention is focused on improving the conditions for healthy development of girls, but not so much for boys. There is a presumption that boys need less care, love, parenting or mentoring because they are, well, boys.
In India, we have a lot of atrocity literature on crimes against girls and women, but very little understanding on how bringing up boys wrongly, or leaving them to their own devices, is making violent and aggressive to the detriment of society.
This is a pity, for a detailed understanding of boys’ physical and psychological needs is vital to bringing them up better.
Studies on boys tell us that there are roughly three stages between the time they are babies and when they become adult males (18-plus). In the first six years, baby boys need their mothers more than fathers (though fathers can help too) and need the same love and affection and talking to as girl babies get. But the fact is boys are weaned off maternal love earlier than girls, are talked to much less, are cuddled and kissed less and are usually less gently handled than girls, says Steve Biddulph in his book Raising Boys.
For the same naughtiness or bad behaviour, boys are often hit harder than girls, both by mothers and fathers, and this may be even truer in India than in the west, which has learnt to at least move away for physical punishments.
From six to 12-14 (roughly till puberty), boys become different. They start thinking of themselves as different from their sisters and mothers, and look to their fathers for clues on how to become men. This is the stage when boys need their fathers the most, but often, this is when fathers are most involved in their careers and missing from home for long periods. Even if the mother is a homemaker, the boy does not get what he requires. Moreover, many mothers do not have the same confidence in bringing up boys than they have with daughters. Not surprising, for we tend to believe that since I was a girl (or a boy) I can understand what my daughter (or my son) needs by being of the same gender as her (him).
After puberty, says Biddulph, boys needs change again. Suddenly, they start becoming part of the wider society, and become conscious of their physical and other impulses, join groups of other adolescents (equally clueless about their needs), and become vulnerable to peer pressure. This means they need adult mentoring that goes beyond their dads and moms at this stage – but don’t get it. Post-puberty boys need outside mentors and men they can look up to in order to grow up right. Mom and dad alone are not enough.
At each of the three stages, the changes are accompanied by increases in boys’ testosterone levels – which create their own surges of physicality and aggression.
The point, as I have made even earlier, is simple: the short-term answer to women’s security may be better policing, or fast-track courts, or stricter punishment for rape, but the only real solution to women’s emancipation is male emancipation and better parenting, as Modi said. And this means a focus on boys.
Let’s look at the world from a boy’s-eye-view to understand where I am coming from. Despite all the cultural preferences for a boy, the real-life images boys and men see of themselves are largely negative from a healthy developmental perspective.
How the father treats the mother is one important reference point. But even if this primary relationship is based on equality and respect, the school provides another reality check on skewed gender power equations. Given our Bollywood-oriented lives, how women are represented in films is also a major influence on boys. If a hero is shown behaving boorishly with the heroine, and it is still okay since he is the hero, what is the message being given to boys: that some forms of behaviour are acceptable?
How is it right for a Bollywood hero to whistle at or harass women when the rules are not the same for the trouble-makers we see in public places? Is it any surprise that even policemen don’t take women’s concerns seriously?
If you are a boy from one of the underprivileged sections, the mixed message problems get worse. Not only are you angry about your financial and livelihood shortcomings, but every girl coming into your view is a challenge to your manhood and lowly status.
The real answer thus is to focus on our boys’ growth needs. We owe it to our girls to make our boys better. And this means society - each one of us - must pay extraordinary attention to how boys need to be brought up, how they must be disciplined and encouraged, and what they need to know about how to treat the other half of humanity they have to grow up with.
What should we do? I don’t have all the answers, but some directional suggestions.
One, change must begin at home, with relationships within the family. Parents have to treat each other with respect. Where spousal relationships are weak, and fathers treat mothers without love and respect (and possibly vice-versa) and where mothers end up doting on their sons in an oedipal reflex action, we are playing with fire. Boys grow up more dependent on their mothers than daughters on their fathers – which complicates all the future relationships of men with women. If parents learn to respect one another, our boys and girls will learn that automatically.
Two, gender sensitisation must begin at home and continue in school. In most Indian families, gender sensitisation only seems to mean protecting girls from rough boys or favouring them. But gender sensitisation means much more: it means letting both genders know that they are equal, that both can aspire for the same things or different things, and that roles determined by gender are not fixed in life. In school, the same messages need to be re-emphasised.
Unfortunately, when most school teachers are women, what we mis-learn at home (that men and women have to expect different things in life) is continued in school. Schools need to change the gender balance of teachers, too. (I realise that there are more women teachers because of low pay and discrimination elsewhere in the job market, but the right balance is key to sending the message that roles for men and women are not preordained.)
Then, of course, there is proper sex education and knowledge.
Three, boys need different treatment. I am not an expert in assessing what exactly boys need to become sensible and sensitive men, but I am sure psychologists, social activists, parents and counsellors will know what is the right mix of activities and learning programmes for them when they grow up. This is something worth spending several seminars and symposiums on.
I don’t have all the answers. Probably no one does. But literature on bringing up boys is improving in the west. Maybe we need to borrow a leaf or two from them and adapt them to our culture. But one thing is clear: we have to focus on our boys for a better world. Not that girls should get any less attention. But we know what they need. With boys we don’t quite know.
Modi did well to focus attention on how to bring up boys. The rest we have to do ourselves.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group