An incident last Sunday morning with friends of my child (two girls and a boy between the ages of 6 and 8 in our neighbourhood) recently demonstrated to me how early in our lives we firmly integrate gender roles. The kids were playing “ikaka” (a traditional Ethiopian child play in which children imitate adults’ roles in a family) when I approached them. One of the girls was chopping leaves of a tree (pretending to be chopping cabbage) and the other girl was pouring water in a tin (pretending to serve coffee/ tea). The boy was just sitting as if waiting for the girls to serve him the food and drink they were preparing.
I asked the boy, “Why are you not helping them out?” Before he said anything, the girls quickly interjected with, “He is not capable of doing this”. This is reflective of the attitude of most women in our society who look down upon men who try to pass the threshold of the kitchen as “setaset” (literally means womanish). Even many of our modern women do not have faith in men’s ability to cook anything edible. The other day a female friend of mine to whom I offered to cook firfir (traditional Ethiopian food) had presumably jokingly responded, “you want me to die!”
In the playground, what struck me more is the boy’s reaction to my request to extend a helping hand to the girls. His cheeks turned pale as he responded emphatically, “Do you think I am female?” He was clearly offended by the request. I then thought to myself, if boys and girls of such young age are so committed to these socially constructed roles, how deeply ingrained then are these roles in us adults? It seems to me that although the human race has advanced significantly over the past century, it is a long, long way before it fully realizes the following guidance from the Bahá’í Holy Writings, which I would like to quote from:
The male and female of the human kingdom are equal before God. God is no respecter of gender. Whosoever practices more faith, whosoever practices more humanitarianism is nearer to God; but between the male and female there is no innate difference because they share in common all the faculties. Why should man create a distinction, which God does not recognize? In the kingdoms below man sex exists, but the distinction between male and female is neither repressive nor restrictive. The mare, for instance, is as strong and often more speedy than the horse. Throughout the animal and vegetable kingdoms there is perfect equality between the sexes. In the kingdom of mankind this equality must likewise exist, and the one whose heart is purest, whose life and character are highest and nearest to the divine standard is most worthy and excellent in the sight of God. This is the only true and real distinction, be that one man or woman.
Daniel Hailu is from Addis Ababa and a member of the #ArifWond circle.