Boys just can’t be girls

Published: June 10, 2012

While we encourage our ‘Bubbly’s to dress in a pair of pants, it is looked down upon if our ‘Chotu’s wear a frock and plays with dolls.

Sitting alone in a train compartment, I waited for my co-passengers to arrive in Bangalore. Like several people, I enjoy being a silent observer of those around me and particularly on a long journey that I was about to undertake, I figured, it was a fine pastime. I was headed from Bangalore to New Dehli. 

A lady, not more than 35-years-old, struggled her way into my compartment carrying a rather heavy child in her left arm and balancing a huge suitcase in her right. Her hair undone, sweat rolling down her forehead, her eyes showed relief that she made it in time. On reaching her spot that was in front of mine, she threw her suitcase on the floor and her child on the berth. Turning her back to me, she yelled in full volume,


Before long, a pretty girl of about eight years, appeared from nowhere. The girl was wearing a pair of loose fitting blue pants and had her hair cut very short. Her eyes looked like what authors of fairy tales would describe as those of princesses – shiny, black, enchanting. She seemed to be quite true to her name. No sooner had she reached her mother and brother than she began to speak in an animated way,

“Ma, I saw this man outside wearing the same shirt as Guddu bhaiyya (brother).”

Her mother nodded and busily began making space for the three of them.

“When I was entering the train na? I smelt the worst of smells! Ma, I will not use those bathrooms for anything!”

The suitcase went below the seat, and the other young child of about six years was placed near the window.

“Ma… when we reach…” she began again, as if it were her duty to fill her mother in on everything she experienced.

“Shut up, Bubbly! Will you?”

Bubbly winced and shut up.

Over the next 36 hours that we journeyed together, I observed the three of them closely. They were a typical upper-middle class family. The children went to reputed schools in New Delhi I learnt, the mother was well educated herself and taught them well – not disturbing others, not making noises while chewing food, being nice to the other sibling etc. Whether it was Bubbly or her brother, they were being taught the same morals and the same good conduct was expected of both of them.

I was smiling at myself looking at a very pleasant family, until Bubbly threw another of her incessant questions at her mother,

“Ma, Sunaina’s younger sister wears Sunaina’s old frocks, why can’t Chotu wear my old frocks?”

This seemingly innocent question is actually a firm slap on our alleged gender neural society.

That is when I did a mental recap of everything the mother had ‘taught’ in the past few hours.

“Bubbly, be brave, go up to the upper berth by yourself! How will you face life if you are such a coward?”

“Bubbly feed your brother while I eat. You should always love your siblings.”

“Bubbly, come on, share your toy car with your brother; he is not interested in those dolls.”

Even though Indian society has come a long way in terms of gender justice, we have learnt subtle ways of discrimination. While we are proud of bringing up our daughters like our sons, we still haven’t learnt to bring up our sons like our daughters.

While we encourage our ‘Bubbly’s to dress in a pair of pants, keep their hair short, show interest in toy cars, it is looked down upon if our ‘Chotu’s wear a frock, play with dolls and have a natural shy, ‘docile’ nature.

I wonder if we could just let a child nurture its natural traits, grow up in families that are consciously aware of the social constructs and strive to keep their kids immune from it. Urban women are under twice the stress as in the yester years, because society expects a dual role (that of a man and a woman) from them under the garb of moving towards “true empowerment”.

As if voicing my thoughts, the mother said,

“Bubbly, we should always learn to adjust, beta (child). Never expect that from others, in this case, your brother.”

Read more by Raksha here, or follow her on Twitter @Raksha_Kumar

Raksha Kumar

Raksha Kumar

The author is a Bangalore based video journalist freelancing for the New York Times and the BBC. She graduated from the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University in May 2011 where she majored in TV news. She is a Fulbright Scholar and has worked in various media outlets in India. She tweets @Raksha_Kumar.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    I’m a little confused with how you have come to your conclusion by watching this one family on a short train journey. It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m in no mood to put my thinking into over drive, so I’ll give this another try at night.Recommend

  • Sheikh Danish Ejaz

    its like this… urban women are under twice the pressure from rural woman… because there is another confused woman who thinks that this girl can perform.. and trust me… guys are soo dependent on that other women… girls are confused… guys are stupid… live with it!Recommend

  • Anum

    “The girl was wearing a pair of lose fitting blue pants and had her hair cut very short.”

    Lose or loose?

    Stopped reading after that.Recommend

  • Shadytr33

    Raise your daughters like daughters and sons like sons. Each gender has their specialized social roles. Just like our body organs that work together in a specialized manner to make the human body function. Our brain can not carry out the work of our heart and our liver can not work as a brain.Recommend

  • Sinclair

    Why should boys be girls? What a pity it is that instead of bringing up self-confident, self-reliant girls – you seem to think making boys more confused and unsure is the solution. Gender justice is seen in creating a society ignorant of gender. Is there really no difference between male and female? They are not unequals, but they are not the same. Feminists need to agree on the meaning of feminism before they screw up their immediate next generation irreversibly. Recommend

  • Faheem Z. Choudhry

    wasted 5 mins of my life on a crappy piece of writing Recommend

  • Feminist

    Here’s what I think. Boys, along with being made to wear frocks and play with dolls and practise their make-up skills in front of the mirror all day, should be given body-transforming hormones so that they develop breasts, and the-thing-in-their-pants changes to the-thing-in-girls’-pants. Girls, along with being made to wear masculine clothing and play with toy guns and cars, should be given body-transforming hormones so that they lose their breasts, and the-thing-in-their-pants changes to the-thing-in-boys’-pants. Thus, with boys just like girls, and girls just like boys, we will achieve gender equality.

    Goodbye sanity :)Recommend

  • Kanwal

    I think the author is pointing towards a problem most male family members can not even see, the whole thing is so subtle. If we magnify the above mentioned observations, the instructions of mother to her daughter, we will prbably better understand. Its the the same thing as asking our daughter to help arrange the dining table and bring the food to it while both she and her brother have been to the university/college and have been studying whole day and while the girl has less physical energy than the boy anyway. Our girls in general are taught to assume specific roles in and around their homes. And it is very true that the urban women of today are facing a double challenge. This is definitely not religion/social role’s division. Because in a civil society, it is kindness towards others that matters. In a home, all should contribue as much as they can honestly. I have myself faced this issue the last 15 or so years of my life. No body stopped me from studying, but no body supported me as much as they did to my brothers even though i was in all possible ways a more shiny student than them. Its not a grudge that i hold. Its an observation. And it taught me that i am going to raise my children to be kind to each other and be considerate of each other’s short comings. Recommend

  • BlackJack

    I think you should just stick to writing about people that you see without trying to come up with some profound sociological insight from each interaction. A lot of the clothing and toys that traditionally were meant for boys are increasingly gender neutral with more girls found in jeans, driving cars or enjoying sports. Now your solution for this apparent injustice is to make boys more confused by dressing them up in girls clothes and making them play with dolls. Pls travel by plane if this is what a day in the train does to you.Recommend

  • abhi

    You are trying to add to what auther said. She said while the girl was wearing pants (Boys dress ) there was a problem with boy wearing frock. She has also talked about while mother encouraged her girl to have masculine traits (climbing on upper berth) she will not encourage softer side in boy (this is her assumption with no example)

    This is actually true, but may be in today’s society you have to be tough to survive. May be in future the masculine traits will not be so much beneficial and then people will encourage boys to have softer side.Recommend

  • Critical


    I just cant comprehend your thoughts….I dont know whether you grew up without any brothers or studied in a girls school in your life….

    Do you have any idea what implies when we make a boy wear frock and play with dolls???

    Its easy for you women to always say how difficult the world is for a woman to live…But if anyone wants to talk about the difficulties a man face,we are called insensitive chauvinists??

    Let me tell you the difficulties a man faces from his childhood
    -When he’s born,the entire family is overjoyed…But they stamp a mark on his head just like Farhan Qureshi’s dad says in 3 idiots…
    -Right from childhood,he has study well to the expectation of his parents,at the same time,be good in sports,so that he is not made fun of by his classmates
    -Some of the boys are bullied,but they cant say it at home as it will create more bullying from others than we cant handle things on our own.
    -Boys cannot cry..They are labelled cowards if they cry and they control their tears no matter what happens..
    -Mind you,if any of his classmates knows that “chotu” once wore a frock and made to play with dolls because her mother was as crazy like you…His school life would be total hell.
    -If a girl is not good in studies,parents start looking for a groom,but boys are tortured to make sure they enter into a college like IIT,IIM…
    -A boys education qualification is his pride..One of my friend is a brahmin,he is having tough time as he’s just an engineer,while all his cousins are from IITs or Ivy League
    -Every “uncle” and “aunty” in street or marriage reception ask what the boy is doing and judge you with their kids
    -If he’s working in software industry,he will be the one who stays late night to complete the deliverables as noone in right mind could ask a girl to stay late(I do agree that girls shouldnt stay late),but in the end,noone will recognise it as he’s just a boy.
    -He might have had a worst day in office,but he should come and listen to all the complaints of his wife.If he doesnt,he’s insensitive…if he snaps,he is abusive

    A man has to first study hard for a good job
    then work for his parents
    Then for his family
    then for his kids education
    and finally he dies
    and noone realises how he has sacrificed his life for others and he’s just a non-entity

  • Adnan

    What’s this article about again? Im a little confusedRecommend

  • AD


  • Atta

    there’s nothing good about this article except the “idea” and author has wasted the entire idea in complete immature write-up,
    This could have be much much better,
    ET please promote creative, thought-provoking but nature writing, please. Recommend

  • R.N.K

    Good piece of writing. it was loud and clear to those who have a sense to sense it. Recommend

  • sidewinder

    whoa..what was that?a fully confused girl,gets more confused by looking at a confused family,writes a confused blog and in turn confuses ,already confused readers.big confusion…Recommend

  • http://NewYork Falcon

    Hence, we can conclude that the day boys start wearing frocks, that day we will have achieved a significant milestone in terms of gender equality? ROFLMAORecommend

  • MAD

    No I will not let my sosn wear a frock. other than that i agree with everything you’ve written. fine article.Recommend

  • khalid

    so miss kumar, if boys ever started wearing frocks you won’t shut, rather you shall be asking men to get pregnant. regards.Recommend

  • God help ET

    Really ??? what is the point here? that boys should be made to wear frocks and play with dolls?

    @ Author
    I think its “maturity” “literacy” and a “respect for everyone” that should be nurtured and encouraged rather than trying to change nature of things. Salt will always taste… well saltish… and sugar will always be sweet… there is no poin in trying to disguise either as the other… its the right mix of these ingredients that makes life delicious… live with it… and learn to appreciate it.Recommend

  • Hanif Shah

    Well, I do consider myself a pretty liberal person but even then I might not be tempted to do that with my son.Recommend

  • Humayun

    Tha author’s point of view is simple. Gender is a social construct. Sex is attributed biologically. So, gender roles should not be considered static or rigid per se. A gender neutral society would be the one where boys are not shamed if they act like women. In a patriarchal culture like ours (Indian subcontinent), while we may encourage women to aspire to masculine characteristics, we would readily look down upon effeminate guys, shunning them by calling ”sissy”, ”coward”. Recommend

  • Ahmed Baluch

    What is the point of this writing? Boys should wear frocks? Sorry, some should write and others should stay far far away. Without making a judgement on where you belong, let me just say “now that was wiiieeerd story”.Recommend

  • Red

    Good article. I am sorry people do not understand this subject very well. Humayun’s is a good, explanatory start. Both feminine and masculine traits have good and bad sides. Emphasizing one at the expense of the other does society no good. There is nothing wrong with wearing skirts except that it is artificially associated with being a woman and being a woman is seen as undesirable. Similarly feminine traits are seen as negative because of their socially constructed association with being a woman. The right way to raise kids is to let them show their inner personality whether it is masculine or feminine, regardless of their sex. Notice that I used the word sex which implies biology rather than gender which is, again, a social construct.

    No one is changing anyone here, you are just letting them be instead of trying to mold them into social roles they may not naturally accept. So if a boy plays with his mother’s makeup, let him, don’t criticize him for it (FYI men wore make-up till the 1850s, you can also look up men and heels…please educate yourself on social constructions! What is normal in one society at one time is often not acceptable in another. Doesn’t that tell you it is not biological? If something was biological, you wouldn’t have to keep drilling it into people’s heads or reinforcing it throughout their childhood and it certainly wouldn’t draw negative reactions on a blog post that are designed to maintain supposedly correct behaviors!). Similarly, don’t criticize a girl for being rowdy and loud if you don’t criticize the same thing in her brother. She wants to learn karate, let her. He wants to help in cooking, more power to him. She wants to grow up to be a civil engineer, support her. He like drawing paintings in his spare time, support him. That’s how it should be. None of these roles stem from biological imperatives. There is no right or wrong way of being a woman or a man. Not following society’s dictates will never change anyone’s sex (yes, that means all those pregnancy jokes and jokes about male parts changing into female parts are nothing but smoke…which again reveals a revulsion of anything related to being a woman by the way). I realize it is hard for people to see it that way because they also grew up this society with these artificial rules drummed into their heads so I suggest that anyone interested in actually learning about this start by reading up literature instead of rushing to judge the blog post. Try not to comment on subjects you lack knowledge in.Recommend

  • abhi

    Pretty good writeup Red, but chairman Mao told us that power comes from the barrel of gun. What is the use of soft power if you don’t have hard power? So girl learning karate is excellent. Boys doing makeup is not so good.Recommend

  • Morning Glory

    The author’s observations might be genuine but the conclusion is not.

    – Wearing pants is not a boys thing. Its for both. Blame fashion if you have conflicts with this, not society.

    – Again, playing with cars is not a boys thing either, don’t girls drive cars?

    But there are things that are gender-specific. Girls play with dolls because they like to, not because they are told to. Same goes for boys watching wrestling. If a boy plays with a doll, he is girly. Similarly, if a girl loves to watch wrestling, for instance, she is a bit boyish at heart.

    And anyway, if girls play with Barbies, don’t boys play with action figures??

    Girls and boys are different because they are meant to be. Gender inequality might definitely be an issue in our society but the arguments presented in the article don’t support that cause.Recommend

  • northern lights

    I am not sure how different boys are from girls when they are so far from puberty. I would be inclined to say that there are a few differences, but not nearly as many as society imposes upon them. It is not abnormal for a boy to want to play with a doll, nor is it abnormal for a girl to want to play with a truck. Lots of little girls like to play with barbies until the cows come home; others think they are the epitomy of sissiness (yes, that was me). The problem arises when society does not give them a choice.

    How must a small child – who might not even know what sex they are – feel when an adult tells them that their preference of toy, or game is wrong? How could that make any sense to them? Recommend

  • talaat

    I am sure author herself have gone through the same experience. Boys are just superior then girls as ultimately they give u social protection in form of father, bro, husband. Recommend

  • Abdullah

    Neither boys nor girls be like each other… creation by GOD matters everythingRecommend

  • deedee

    Well done Raksha…excellent piece of writing…enjoyed it very much!! :-DRecommend