It was an average Saturday afternoon and I was sat on the sofa scrolling through a news website on my laptop, when I came across a report from the recent Women's March in London. On the back of the #MeToo movement, this was an important march for womankind -and as a self-proclaimed feminist, part of me stirred with jealously that I hadn't been there amongst the crowds.
As I flicked through photos, my five-year-old watched over my shoulder.
Suddenly he piped up.
"What does that sign the lady is holding say, Mummy?"
He paused, as the words played in his mind. "It says "Who rules the world? GIRLS!" doesn't it?"
I didn't know how to reply.
"Yes, ummm, I think so darling," I replied, stuttering my words. How did I explain this to a five-year-old? How did I explain that the girl holding the sign was trying to empower her gender, without making him feel that, in the process, she was crushing his own?
Before long, he got bored and moved away, more interested in throwing cushions at his brother's head than discussing a wider issue of gender equality. But as I sat there on the sofa, scrolling through the remainder of those photos, a sense of uneasiness was starting to stir in the pit of my stomach.
How exactly do I raise my boys in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp?
How do I explain that they are just as important, and just as loved, and just as free to do whatever they want in life as their sister - but that they absolutely have to be accountable for their actions too?
It's not an issue that crossed my mind back in 2012, when the sonographer at American Hospital announced we were going to have a boy at our 20-week scan. Nor in 2014 when I was told our second baby was going to provide a second dose of baby blue. Visions of rugby shirts, grubby knees, and wrestling matches on the living room floor certainly did cross my mind, though - and then life, in turn, smashed those stereotypes when my eldest told me he hated rugby and asked me to book him into weekly dance classes instead.
I've learnt a lot about raising little boys these past six and a half years - and most of it has surprised me. Their sensitivities, their vulnerabilities, their endless reserves of energy, and the realisation that two boys raised under the same roof can be so very different both in terms of what motivates them and in terms of personality.
"It breaks my heart to think that these two boys - my babies - are already being judged on account of their gender, but the feminist in me knows that I need to suck it up and work out how I'm going to handle it."
It breaks my heart to think that these two boys - my babies - are already being judged on account of their gender, but the feminist in me knows that I need to suck it up and work out how I'm going to handle it. Hiding away and hoping they will grow up to become respectful and courteous isn't enough. I have to make it happen. I have to make sure that they are part of a generation that won't objectify women, who will take 'no' to mean 'no', and who will be just as outraged if a woman is harassed or attacked as myself or their sister would be.
Statistics suggest that for parents like me, there's still a long way to go. In a report released last year by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, for example, 3,000 young adults were surveyed between the ages of 18-25. One of the conclusions was that misogyny and harassment appear to be pervasive among young people and specific forms of gender-based degradation may be increasing. The report went on to reveal that despite all this, a significant majority of parents still aren't talking to young people about it.
And according to Harris Stratyner, a top New-York based psychologist, we have to start while they are still young: "It starts from the playground. You hear people saying things like, 'You can't play basketball because you play like a girl'. We should never hear that in homes any more. While fathers play a great role in modelling behaviour when it comes to the way women are talked about and treated at home, mothers have a special advantage because of their gender. They should show through their actions that they expect to be treated with respect. Words are fine but actions speak louder than words. If mothers point out these things, the boys make the connection earlier. It's a powerful message coming from the mother."
I know that I need to start talking to them - and soon. But isn't it important that things start to shift in society too and that my boys see more ever more women in positions of authority?
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In the UAE, this is starting to happen. While men are traditionally the head of the family, the government is making great strides in promoting equality in the workplace. In 2015, the UAE Gender Balance Council was announced, which was created to promote new strategies for female empowerment. And when it comes to government positions, there are currently nine female ministers in the UAE's cabinet in 2018, making up 30% of the numbers. Globally, there are currently 20 women holding the highest representative position of their countries, and while that's still only 6.3% of the total worldwide, the number is rising every year.
Parenting boys in the midst of #MeToo isn't going to come without its challenges - but if I look beyond the provocative banners and heartbreaking questions from a five-year-old, I do feel privileged to raise my boys in a generation that will hopefully be changed unequivocally because of it.
I think - and hope - things are changing for the better.
And as a mum of boys, I know that I am intrinsic to making sure that happens.
Dr Sarah Rasmi, founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre, shares her thoughts:
"Psychologists differentiate between two types of sexism: hostile and benevolent sexism. Where hostile sexism reflects overtly negative stereotypes about a gender (e.g. that women are inferior to men), benevolent sexism represents evaluations of gender that may seem positive, but reinforce unhelpful stereotypes (e.g. that women are weak and need to be protected). As parents, my advice would be to try and do away with gender stereotypes in our language and everyday practices. We need to be aware of our own unconscious biases and try to shatter unhelpful gender stereotypes in both our parenting messages and our role-modelling. It's about teaching children they don't have to perfectly fit the preconceived moulds we have about what a boy and a girl is."
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