[OPINION] The gender challenge: Equal but different

I won’t claim to be a feminist. I am full of contradictions around gender. However, I firmly and fully believe in equality. I was raised in a traditional South African family where the dad worked (hard), the mom stayed home (and also worked hard) and as children we were childlike.

In spite of the stereotypical roles of our parents back then, as the eldest of four sisters I felt we were all treated as equals. The only time we were unequal was when someone had to be responsible, then it was up to the eldest. This was a big burden we then passed onto our eldest son, before we knew better. If asked who our parents’ favourite was, my sister and I would both say, “I was!!” to the loud laughter of the other two. This was a good thing to feel at home and to learn.

My message to our three sons and our daughter is that they are all equal, not special. While genders may have different machinery, generally we all have opportunities to be great if we are nurtured through equality.
I see and object to the vast problem of sexism is in our world and as parents, our responsibility to our children is to enrol them to a different thinking and acceptance.

My schooling started at a co-educational government school in Athlone in 1974. My grade one teacher was memorable in her kindness and my first friend Ellen was a godsend when she passed me her pink handkerchief to wipe what I thought were invisible tears. We were probably only friends for three days. That is how long it took for me to find and be found by more classmates.

I soon had an armful of great friends, who were all girls though, and I learned how to be shy and coy around boys. As the eldest of four girls, at home I was the eldest sister; at school I was friendly, sweet and a little intimidated by the boys. In our home it was accepted and preferred by our mom and ourselves that our dad was the boss of the house, the provider, protector and go-to-for-everything person. It worked for us.

At school this dominant male role was reinforced by our modelled behaviour. As school friends and a generation, that was what most of us knew. Girls and boys had different roles. Some boys just had to show up to be perceived as sporty, competitive, academic achievers who were confident and strong.

My favourite illustration of the role some boys took on was when Ibrahim, courageously offered to take two knuckle-slashing cuts with the side of a metal ruler on my behalf. He was being kind and chivalrous. At nine years old, I appreciated it hugely; it gave me a sense of protection. In those days, corporal punishment was effective in some areas to enforce discipline and boundaries. In other areas, like our grade 4 class, it was abusive. Our young teacher drew blood as we queued and she struck our knuckles if we didn’t get 100%. That meant that the day Ibrahim asked to take my cuts, I had the highest mark I had ever had and was being punished for it. 18 out of 20 was spectacular for hygiene education and for me. I had to take my two cuts. Again he displayed bravery when he asked the teacher if I could leave the classroom after she hit me. She agreed and he waited outside the cloakroom to walk me back. It was sweet. It is also a symptom of a society where sexism is practised and normalised. He would not have had to help Francisco or James but he felt I needed his help. I was pleasantly surprised and for him it was the right thing to do.

In Grade 6 we moved to an all girls’ school. The change was tangible. Here I had different experiences. It was one of the first schools during apartheid to integrate, so now I was a coloured girl amid a sea of friendly white faces. I settled in quickly and well. The school was welcoming and my father told us we were there on a quota, we were at a multiracial school, not a non-racial school. To prepare us he said, ”If you make friends, fantastic! If you don’t, remember we want you to have the best education on offer. You are there as equals, even if we are all different”. these were words of wisdom and for me.

Even back then, it levelled the playing fields for my sisters and I. In an all-girl environment we were equals. We could be doctors or nurses, engineers or pilots, own businesses, run corporations, take risks, be aspirant parents, teachers, caregivers or inventors. The whole menu of options was there to be selected. The gender stereotypes eliminated for eight hours a day. With hindsight, it provided some of my friends and I with a security in who we were and that we were enough as we were.

Last week our daughter started grade 8 at my old school. She has three brothers and has spent seven years at a co-ed school. She got great value from always having interaction with boys as her brothers’ friends spent time at our home. She didn’t shy away from friendships with boys at pre and primary school. Back to school in 2017, my observations are satisfying; my opinion affirmed in that all-girl environment.

An air of acceptance, a ditsy, and childlike happy, an opportunity to learn great life skills and authentically get to know who you are among peers. Being among other young women can be a safe place to spend your adolescence. You don’t even have to be sure of yourself; you just have to know where to stand. You can show up. The hormonal changes, life challenges and opportunities for growth will be particularly obvious in this competitive world. Most people want acknowledgement, love and acceptance. But many don’t know a positive way to access that, so the bitchiness, bullying, pull-her-down syndrome will be available. When young people know that we teach people how to treat us, we can start at school. The world out there is not readying itself for you, you have to buckle up and find your way.

After my daughter had a perfect day one at school, her second-day anxieties and doubts included, ”Everyone is nice, but am I going to find my kind of friends, when will I see my other friends?” The reality for me was walking through the quad hearing the rambling and raucous laughter of groups of girls in a safe space with no auditioning through fluttered eyelids, dropped eyes, or over-confident appearances for attention from boys. We learn late that young teenage boys are usually much less aware of girls than girls are of them. That also changes and then some boys become ditsy and attention seeking.

I am so excited to be able to look back and to trust going forward. My opinion is that single-sex schools for girls bring a value that is measurable not by academic performance, but the lessons taught about learning to play with one another before playing against each other in the world. There are plenty of opportunities to build relationships with boys, it is so much better when you meet them as an equal. It is possible to learn how to know who you are, show up and not have to lean in.

I offered my daughter the advice my dad gave me in the 70s about coming to school for an education and friends being a possible perk. She met my eye and said, “I know mom, and I want to make good friends, I will!” That’s my girl. Times change and then they don’t. The end.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn