Last week, a parent shared on Twitter that her daughter’s school -which remains unnamed- is shoehorning its students into choosing mandatory gender-based co-curricular activities. “I am the mother of the child who was told to sign up for cooking, tailoring and hair making while her male counterparts engage in cycling, musical instruments, arts, drama, fishery and more. Apparently, she is being groomed to be a housekeeper in 2021.” She posted the flyer from the school, which proudly opens up with “activities to choose from for boys and girls.” The activities for girls are listed in red (baking and reading for Year 7; cooking, tailoring, hair making for Year 8), while the options for boys , listed in blue ( surprise, surprise) are gaming, cycling, reading for Year 7, and gaming, art and orchestra for Year 8. This is a supposedly progressive, international school and if it is the school my amateur sleuthing leads me to believe that it is, they charge in excess of N3 million per year. And ironically, their website touts them as providers of a well-rounded education. That is not the place one expects to encourage the intensification of gender socialisation.
This parent and her daughter were not having it and so the mother wrote a strongly worded, eloquent letter expressing her disappointment. She pointed out that, over $10.9 trillion of unpaid work was performed by women and girls around the world. Girls are already inundated with baking and cooking and sewing at home, their schools shouldn’t be adding to their wahala. However, the school came back with a weak excuse that barely addressed her issues. Something along the lines of the fact that the activities rotated every term. Like a Twitter user wrote, “If that’s the case, why can’t they allow some female and male hostels to participate in the same club and interchange with the next set next semester?”
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All children deserve to pursue their dreams and healthy hobbies regardless of gender. No one should be denied the opportunity to hone whatever skills they choose to.
Besides, promoting inequitable gender norms is deleterious to all children: both boys and girls. It teaches girls to shrink themselves into the domestic sphere, aiming to fulfill roles as mothers, wives, homemakers and little else. I have known young women who were encouraged to give up their university education once a husband turned up on the scene. One of the most painful was one who got an academic scholarship to a school in Europe to study medicine but whose family browbeat into marrying a wealthy man who showed an interest in her because “di bu ugwu nwanyi.” The dignity of a woman is her husband. No matter the level of her education, no matter whatever else she achieved, nothing would come close to snagging a husband. And he was a good man. And he wasn’t prepared to wait for her to get a medical degree, not even if she wanted to do it in Nigeria. She would never work, anyway. He would look after her.
On the other hand, these harmful norms teach boys that the world and everything in it is theirs (including girls, in some cases. We know that sexual assault is always about power). It also immunizes boys against emotional honesty. They are told not to cry no matter how much it hurts, for example. To earn their ‘Man Card,’ they have to act tough, talk tough, appear tough, bear their suffering like ‘men,’ and this takes its toll. Ask any psychiatrist. Apparently, more men than women die by suicide globally. So, what this international school is doing, encouraging sexist norms and stereotypes, in a space that should be helping fight it, has ramifications beyond the school. And sometimes, these consequences are deadly.
Society also loses out when boys and girls are taught that there are skills they shouldn’t acquire and professions they shouldn’t pursue. Many of us know at least one person whose sight has been saved by them having cataract surgery. The inventor of the laserphaco probe device, which paved the way, years later, for more advanced technology was a woman who was encouraged to follow her passion for ophthalmology. Our own Dr. Stella Adedevoh curbed the spread of Ebola in Naija (sacrificing her life) and our Temie Giwa- Tubosun’s LifeBank is saving lives by delivering essential medical supplies to hospitals in Nigeria. Imagine if they’d been told to face domestic work only?
In 2021, bikonu, when our women are doing fantastic things and individuals like Uchenna Onwuamaegbu are using their organisations to encourage girls in STEM, a fancy, private school is intent on dragging our children back to the dark ages when women could not even imagine a life outside the kitchen while men went out and conquered the world. The mind boggles. Thank God for parents like Blessing Adesiyan who won’t stand for that type of nonsense. And for her daughter who is being raised not to accept sexism as normal. This is how change happens. One person at a time calling out harmful ridiculousness and doing something about it.
What can you do? Be that person. Speak up. That comedian making a sexist joke? Call it out. Do what is within your power to do. Challenge gender stereotypes where you find them. Get into good trouble. Ruffle feathers, refuse to take it sitting down. Shatter whatever gender norms you can. Pursue your own dreams. Be a role model. Speak at (your) children’s schools. Lean into your emotions if you are a man. Our children deserve a world in which they know that their dreams are possible.