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Tanu Shree Singh Headshot

Learning Respect, From Scratch

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I feel violated. We all have, at different points in our lives -- by the guy who just sped past on a cycle and tried to grope, by that pervert who hangs on to the railing in the bus and can never maintain his balance while standing next to a girl, by the bunch standing near the paan-shop at the corner who can't help leering at any person of opposite gender passing by. We all have been violated as we grow older, warier, and wearier. But yesterday was different. I felt violated all over again. Violated and vulnerable.

Somewhere, as we grow older the stereotypes about the perpetrators get fixed in our heads, depending on our brush with the beasts as we go along. We start attributing it all to a certain 'type' of men -- the ones on the street. We also start believing that education is the answer.

I am a mother of two boys -- 11 years and 13 years old. They go to one of the best schools in town, and have, as they call it, a well-rounded academic life. They are not the men on the street. So, by the logic I grew up building around me, the boys should be fine. And so should their friends. After all, they too are receiving the same education, come from similar families -- not the kind we grew up putting a warning light over, and marking as potential 'violators.'

But yesterday changed all that. The older one came up to me and mumbled, "I want to talk to you. I am feeling disturbed about something."

The confusion and hurt were fairly apparent. He had my attention.

"Two boys in my class have a crush on our teacher."

I smiled and said, "Ah. That is a normal part of growing up." And as I geared up to add more stuff about hormones, he stopped me.

"No, that is not the disturbing part. They were planning to run down the corridor, shoving each other when she is coming from the opposite end. They intend to accidentally bump into her." His forehead was creased now.

"Mumma, they said 'We'll end up touching something.' It sounded wrong, Ma. I don't know if I can be friends with them anymore."

It felt like a crushing blow. For a few moments, I froze -- my mind was flooded with all the times when I had gone rigid, and had been ready to elbow while in a crowd. Thirteen-year-old boys devising plans to grope -- the voice in my head went mad screaming. I could hear loud crashes of the stereotypes being shattered around me. A hug was in order. I told him that I am proud of him. I told him that I am glad that he is disturbed. And I told him that this is the worst breach of personal space and respect that anyone can bring upon a woman.

Somewhere in my head, another voice was mocking me for being so naïve; for assuming education was the shield required to stop turning little boys into the guys we shirk from. We as parents, feel content with scholar badges, straight A's and the odd Gold medals that come our way. Do we ever sit and talk about gender sensitization? Do we lead by example? Do we discuss our own experiences as women? We do not. Perhaps, along the way, we have learnt to take it as a part of being. We have assumed that there will be violators but it will never be my son, because he is going to the absolutely wonderful school, and winning all competitions there are to win.

It is never the education. It is never the social background. It is never the number of accolades the boy brings back. Nothing of this sort is linked to the way he treats women. I do not blame those kids. They are at a stage where they are a mix of an overdose of hormones, and a supreme need to be that 'cool dude'. I do, however, put a chunk of blame on the folks. Our job is not done with putting them in great schools. Neither is it done when we gloat about being that cool parent who managed to discuss the birds and the bees with them. Ours is an ongoing job of keeping the dialogue open, of sensitizing the children towards the other gender, of discussing our own feelings towards any form of violation that we might have faced or seen.

I know it is tough, and the words would probably have to be softened depending on the age of the child, but it is worth it. A child who knows that women are more than objects is less likely to bump into his teacher so that he can feel her up. A boy who sees his mother being respected at home has a better chance of extending the same courtesy to girls in his class. A boy who gets disturbed on seeing the 'cool kid' of the class devising plans to grope a woman stands a better chance at turning out to be the rare breed who set the record straight. We need to extend education beyond the books and grades. Sometimes, we need to simply talk to children to make them more human -- talk, not preach. Just plain talk.