‘Why do they always say ‘Ladies First’? my son, then 10, asked me with a genuinely puzzled look on his sweet little face.
Apparently, he had been in the school playground that morning, eagerly moving forward to tackle the parkour course when two girls stepped in front of him with the words: “Ladies first”!
As my son narrated the incident, I imagined two bossy little girls looking down with upturned little noses at a boy who had no clue just where this rule came from. I’m sure the girls too were just mimicking adult-speak, and had never stopped to ponder: “But why ladies first?”
Since that first account, my son has time and again brought up the same question. It’s become some sort of pet peeve for him. And often in his narration of various incidents — such as when his music teacher asked the class to pick out a musical instrument, following it up with the suggestion that the little ladies go first — he will sneer: “It’s always this stupid rule ... ladies’ first.”
A year later, and after a term of learning about the Suffragettes and the hard-fought rights for women, the sneer was replaced by a more mellowed, rather plaintive, plea for justice and equality. “Alright I understand that it was difficult for women before,” he amended, “but it’s different now. So when they say ‘ladies first’ it’s not fair to us.” I feel he has a point. It is often the case that when we try and right a wrong, we often twist the knobs too far out the other way — in the process, giving rise to a new wrong!
A baby pops out, with next to no views on gender, colour, religion and nationality among the many self-defining attributes we adults think so important. Which means to say that every child’s birth is an opportunity for us to press a reset button. Theoretically, it represents a chance for us to begin afresh by correcting prejudices and misconceptions, negative perceptions and skewed views.
Realistically speaking, however, this is easier said than done. Most of us speak authoritatively to our children about ‘justice, equality and fraternity’. And then we go about our lives, where a nuance here, a mean-spirited word there, a flare of irritation, or a bout of road rage, an insensitive action or a careless gesture impresses a child with the true ways of the world. “Aha ... so that’s what it means to be an adult!”
It’s mind-boggling to think of the number of chances we have had as a breed to set things right. The world population is estimated to be growing at an average rate of 83 million per year (www.worldometers). That’s 83 million chances a year!
How many of those opportunities will result in families the world over sending out well-balanced, happy, compassionate young men and women?
One fine day, a note came in from my son’s school announcing the addition of a new topic to the curriculum as part of a directive from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority in Dubai. Every class would now be discussing ‘You, Me and the UAE’ once a week. Among the very first discussion points were UAE’s multicultural society and taking on optimistic and pessimistic viewpoints. To hear my son and his friends earnestly air their views on the day’s discussion goes to show how impressive young minds are, and as such how imperative it is that we impress them with all that’s good in our collective humanity.
Probably in time, the class may progress to discussing gender issues; and the ‘ladies first’ rule and its basis ... and even #MeToo that has overwhelmed us all of late. As adults, it’s time we declutter all the historical baggage that we carry piled up on our shoulders. Or at the very least, if we can’t do that, let’s refrain from passing them on to our children for safekeeping!
Maria Elizabeth Kallukaren is a freelance journalist based in Dubai.