Art & Culture

Why we must tell our sons that our daughters need to be loved, not protected

Mehr Tarar
Mehr TararOct 21, 2018 | 14:40

Why we must tell our sons that our daughters need to be loved, not protected

Lines are still being crossed, harassment is still prevalent

All my life I’ve had people talk to me about their issues, confide in me about their dilemmas and confusions, open up about their pain and suffering, and quietly listen when I offer advice, or add things that I’ve learnt over a period of time, fumbling, bewildered, lost, finding clarity after making mistakes.

What I never saw girls and women open up about was one subject: sexual harassment, abuse and rape. While they opened up about emotional and physical violence they had been through as children, teenagers and adults, there wasn’t anything about a wrong touch, crossing of a line, molestation, and worse. And although many must have experienced various kinds of sexual inappropriateness, no one ever came forward and said: it happened to me. No one joined her voice to the first one to add: me too.


It is not that nothing ever happened. It is simply the fundamental manifestation of that conditioning that is done without much ado, with many a word, occurs over a period of time, with a lifetime warranty. It is the conditioning of silence. It is propped by shame. It is based on honour. The body of a female is connected to the honour of her family. Whatever happens to that body is not a matter of an act happening to an individual, i.e. her. It is taken as an insult to have a collective effect on every male member of the family. The consequence if not violent is that of adopting a stance of silence that forces the female to internalise the trauma, never verbalise the pain, let it fester, grapple with unsatisfactory and fallacious explanations of why it happened, and let one or many acts become the voice within to shape her mind into a mess that misinforms and misguides until it is to late to put the life back in order. And thus is marked the debut victory of silence and shame to maintain the status quo of honour.

Talk to your children, encourage them to talk. (Photo: Reuters)


Although many girls and women added their stories to Meesha Shafi’s explosive Me Too experience, what happened: nothing. In a society where other than in the relative anonymity of social media and among a certain enlightened class, there is clear-cut emphasis on maintaining silence when the issue is of sexual harassment. Barring a few, most Me Too stories in Pakistan are/were without the name of the alleged perpetrator, and while the stories were many, and the virtual support in abundance, the effect didn’t have longevity. Without naming anyone, it remains what it is: an exercise in catharsis. That you are not alone. That it happened to me too. And whereas that knowledge gave much-needed strength to those who had suffered alone all their lives, or for a long time, battling emotions of pain, shame, confusion, betrayal and isolation, not much happened to change what happens to countless females on all levels all across Pakistan.

Lines are still being crossed, harassment is still prevalent, sexual abuse is still a reality in not merely dark and dank corners but also in houses that are palatial and by hands that are soft and groomed, and rape is still rife but mostly unreported, mostly kept a secret. And as many females speak up about their experiences on Facebook, Twitter, in blogs and articles, most will remain silent. The nexus of shame, silence and honour continues in its macabre steadfastness, and things remain the same even when they change.


Many factors play a role. Religion, culture, family background and long-standing, entrenched mores all play a role about what is right and wrong, what is to be verbalised and silenced, what is honour and shame, and what is in contrast to what should be. Media awareness plays a role in initiation, popularisation and mainstreaming of a narrative of breaking the silence, but the solution has to be more substantial, long term, far-reaching and workable than mere familiarisation of what is happening, how it can be avoided, how to report it. While a female, and even many male children, teenagers and adults who face sexual abuse in varying degrees, know they are not the only ones to go through hell, not much will change unless the basic edifice is redefined. It all starts at home.

A daughter is not a little princess that needs to be locked up in a tower. (Photo: Reuters)

Me Too is not a movement to create a world that is without men, or exclude males from the discourse of how to bring about a change. Me Too is not exclusionary, it does not delineate ways to isolate genders, create misunderstandings and draw blueprints for a women-only domain. It is merely to show what is wrong, what happened, how it affects and how it can be used as an instrument through dialogue to form a world that is fair, unthreatening and harmonious. When the voice is heard, the discourse evolves and changes are made on policy and legislative level, creating spaces that are safe: safety is a fundamental right. But beyond that and before that is what happens at home.

In creation of an environment of safety, the keyword is communication. Talk to your children, encourage them to talk. Notwithstanding the gravity or triviality of an issue, the door should always be open for your child to reach you, and to tell you everything without any fear. Never say it is kuch nahin, shush, don’t tell anyone what you told me, it’s no big deal, just go to sleep. Pay attention, listen, absorb, and then act. Teach your children to talk, about things that bother them, about their nightmares, about their unexplained silence.

Teach your sons to love their female siblings, not protect them. A daughter is to be loved and treated as a child who is an equal of her male sibling. A daughter is not a little princess that needs to be locked up in a tower to be saved from the big, bad monster. The entire concept of male protection of a female is troubling if even the surface is scratched. What is this protection from? Bad gaze, bad touch, dating a boy, doing things with the boyfriend, safety in college and a workplace, not to be leered at, dress “decently,” not stay out late, abstain from liquor and drugs so as not to be vulnerable to be taken advantage of, be emotionally, materially and physically safe with the spouse, the list is endless. What is absent in the guidebook of the don’ts for females is one basic reality: what males shouldn’t do.

Teach your sons to love their female siblings, not protect them. (Photo: Reuters)

The brother who pledges to protect his sister is abusive to someone else. The father who thinks his daughter is his little princess is a serial workplace harasser in a position of power. The devoted husband doesn’t think serial flirtation with everything female that breathes is harmless. The son whom his mother adores is the one who date-raped someone. It is males who do these things, and it is males who expect that these things must NOT be done to females they are related to. Imagine the shortsightedness, the absurdity, the convoluting of all that shouldn’t be that hard to fathom and reform. Teach your sons to be with others what you expect and wish to happen to the ones you love. Rocket science? Hell, no.

To me it is very simple. A male child is not given guidelines on how to behave with a female. He is taught to be a good human being. Period. He grows up in an environment in which gender equality is not a debate but a given. He treats his male and female siblings as his equal, not as lesser beings who need protection. Protection is emotional, not physical; it is not gender-specific; and it is to reassure the other person you are there, no matter what.

Being the single mother of an only and a male child, what I know: Raising a single child follows the same pattern: you teach him to be good. You teach him to be good to everyone – people of all genders and animals. You teach him to respect boundaries, to be empathetic, to listen. You teach him to never be cruel, to never resort to physical violence as a means to settle a score or unleash anger on a physically or emotionally weaker person. You teach him to back off without being pushed. You teach him to never consciously hurt anyone, and to reach out to people in pain. You teach him never to indulge in trivilisation of anyone’s suffering, and when unable to comprehend it, never to mock it. You teach him to be the best of him fully aware of his limitations and weaknesses. You teach him the value of acceptance, responsibility and accountability. You teach him to be a good human being.

And that good human being will always be the man who represents everything that is good about being a man.

Last updated: October 21, 2018 | 14:40
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