24 JUNE 2015

How many girls have been asked to look after their siblings while the parents were away? Raise your hands.

A common answer to that would be “Of course I did: I was older/ they were ill/ I’m more responsible” – fill in the blanks with the excuse of your choice.

I myself was in charge of my (not so sweet) brother from the age of nine. I thought it made sense, I was older. So I never really wondered about it. Then a friend said she was asked to do the same even though she was younger than her brother. It seems to be a common pattern: mothers ask their daughters to care for the boys in the family.

My brother is now 14 years old and he is yet to learn how to press the power button of the dishwasher, or to throw a packet of macaroni into boiling water. It seems sexism not only comes from men but also from women, our own mothers. They don’t mean any harm, they are simply transmitting ‘mother duties’ to their daughters as a natural given.

And so it is that some 30-year-old men still go back to their mother’s for the weekend so they can have their clothes washed. Her justification: ‘At least he comes to see me that way.’ You know, your son should be coming to see you because he wants to see you, not because it spares him from buying (and learning how to use) a washing machine.

My family came to visit me recently and my parents left me and my brother to catch up. Before they were due to come back for dinner, I casually announced to my brother that we should start getting supper ready:

“Could you cut the peppers please?”


“The peppers. Could you cut them please?”


“Oh come on, you can do it just fine, I’ll show you.” He grudgingly got up, and after a couple of attempts, proceeded to finish the task as quickly as possible. Before he could sit down, I had put on his favourite CD and showed him how to prepare the pasta. And so it was that we cooked together while dancing to Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’.

I’m not sure he has applied his newly acquired skills at home, which precisely proves my point. It is not expected for boys to contribute to the household chores, or if they are, the chores will rarely include cleaning, ironing or cooking.

When we’re children, we tend to get gender-biased toys. Every Christmas without fail, my grandmother would send me something with Barbie on it. And d’you know, I really hated pink Barbie clothes. I would get dolls and DIY-bracelet sets, butterfly clips and fairy costumes. I never really knew what to do with them and rather preferred to repair a broken shelf with my father, or play ‘boat’ by putting together some chairs. The only chance I ever got to play with Playmobil castles was at my male classmates’ birthday parties.

If we are assigned particular tasks and interests from an early age, we are likely to grow up thinking that these are the only choices open to us and are natural. But nothing in my genes says I cannot do microbiology, or enjoy basketball, or fix the leak in my sink. It is our education that makes us think this way, and in the end they are no longer choices but impositions which become a norm.

It is this form of domestic education that most likely ends up with the question: “So, you’ll take care of me when I’m old won’t you sweetie? Your brother will have a family to look after.”


Laura Rahman is studying for a Masters degree in international relations at the Institute for International Relations in Strasbourg, France