Sonora Jha’s How to Raise a Feminist Son: A Memoir and Manifesto is what it sets out to be — to raise a feminist son ( Penguin Randhom House India). She recounts those essential parts of her life that can be justifiably linked to her being a feminist / feminist awakening. From the incident of bathing on the railway platform in a tiny bathing area constructed for male pilgrims to analysing the violence she witnessed or experienced first-hand at home. The desire to nurture a child with her refreshing outlook on life but always encountering patriarchal structures. Whether it was in her then-husband’s wish to relocate to Singapore for better career prospects without any thought to Sonora’s flourishing career as a journalist in Bangalore. She quit it. Became a full-time mother who loved her son dearly but was surrounded by baby babble 24×7, unlike her husband who worked in an office or later in the evening attended social events whose invitations were not necessarily extended to Sonora. Soon, with her husband’s encouragement she applied for a doctorate programme in the United States, assuming that this would be the first step in their move to the country. Instead, after a horrific car accident that left her incapacitated for months, confined to a wheelchair with a little boy, her husband paid her a visit but declared that he preferred living on in Singapore. Through it all, Sonora redefined her life and understanding of what it takes to bring up a son who would not be like the men in her life — violent men, sexual predators, hostile men, racist men, misogynist men etc. It seemed like minefield as systemic patriarchy reared its ugly head everywhere.
She spells out the hideous ways in which men perpetrate trouble upon women. Whether it is the nonchalant manner in which her ex-husband chose not to move to USA with her, the violence of all the other men she encountered. Much of this is never discussed in decent middle-class houses as if it is an internal matter and no one should be privy to it. What is truly maddening is how much middle-class women suffer because of the socio-economic space they occupy; it is presumed that all is well with them and their lives. Many times, it is not. It is worse than a golden cage. It is precisely why books like this are essential and add to the existing body of women’s literature. It is in the documentation of these tiny details and sharing of experiences that hopefully more and more women will be empowered. Perhaps even men who witness women in their lives being abused are equally emboldened to take action. Who knows? More and more it is imperative that stories need to be shared and not doctored. It is critical to share.
Slowly, her recovery period from the car accident that left her with a crushed ankle and many other injuries, coincided with her discovery that it is not demeaning in any manner for a strong, independent woman like herself to seek assistance from others. Steadily she created a sisterhood, a well spring, a nurturing ring, that enabled her to heal and grow. It was also a web of strength and power that stepped in to look after her son, even if it meant admonishing him without hurting his feelings. These tiny, tiny events added up to make Sonora what she is today — a confident, well-loved, highly respected academic and mother. She never hides the importance of balancing her professional and personal lives.
She brought up her son in this positive environment even though at times it was challenging financially and emotionally. She made mistakes that she is quick to admit such as her bad second marriage with a white, racist man. In her inimitable style of being generous and seeing positive in others, despite being at the receiving end of much brutality, Sonora chose to date and ultimately, marry this man. But his inability to understand or even comprehend the need to be sensitive to others, especially to people of colour, confirmed his outlook as a supremely privileged white man. When he is unable to understand her misery at racist incidents, and she quits the marriage, even though it was not yet a year. This happened close on the heels of her son trying to enter their home and having the police called upon him by the neighbours who could not understand why an Asian boy was trying to enter the home through a window. (He had forgotten the front door keys.) To the police who came and the neighbour, they could only see a burglar and not a resident as this was a white man’s house. The prejudice that exists inherently in society is terrifying. Something that Sonora and her son could perceive but not her white husband. This was another event in her life that made her resolve stronger to have a son who is sensitive and understanding towards others, rather than entitled. The book ends with an adorable account of an exchange between Gibran and his maternal grandmother, Nani. Sonora’s mother is in denial regarding stories about her daughter having been molested while she was growing up in India. Her mother is convinced that Sonora is lying and trots these stories out as attention-seeking tactics. Listening to the heated conversation, Gibran asks his Nani gently to believe Sonora. When his Nani refuses, Gibran points out wisely that she may consider why Sonora never told her mother, perhaps the fact that social structures are give precedence to boys as opposed to girls. A fact that even Gibran has had first-hand experience of as he is “treated like a god”. He reasons with his Nani that perhaps his mother, Sonora, found it hard to share the truth with her own mother for precisely this reason – she would not be believed. He pleads with his Nani to believe Sonora at least once.
She outlines her definition of feminism. It consists of compassion, empathy and kind people. It is labelled as feminism as it focuses upon half of humanity – the female condition, It is also alert to misogyny. Feminism is about love. She advocates strongly that boys are taught this way of loving too. It will grow and take new forms. This is a pertinent point that she raises as it also addresses the challenges women feel about being labelled as a feminist or not, even though everything in their action points to being a feminist.
Sonora has written about a hard subject. The manner in which she has negotiated the personal spaces and extrapolated learnings to share with the world is truly admirable. The pain she went through while writing this book is unimaginable. It is hard to define How to Raise a Feminist Son. No wonder the subtitle of the book is “a memoir and manifesto”. It has a box of instructions/ exercises at the end of every chapter and a list of resources in the appendix.
It will become classic reference material in gender studies and other disciplines. It helps answer many questions as well as encourages readers to introspect. The manual-like element in the book may not appeal to gender specialists but it will prove to be a handy guide to many who are keen to explore these areas but too shy to ask. This book is written with such an assured confidence despite the violence and abuse Sonora has faced from men within her inner circle. There is almost a motivational quality to the book. She includes a lot of PoC narratives and other intersectionalities. It will encourage others to speak up for themselves and focus upon raising the next generation of more empathetic and sensitive boys. This is irrespective of whatever intersectionality they may inhabit. It cuts across cultures and races and formulates a brand of feminism that borrows heavily from the feminist literary canons in India and America. She focuses upon creating her own feminist village, a sisterhood, a collective, that saw her through some tough years. It is interesting that Sonora focuses on this aspect as many strong women are encouraged to be a part of a sisterhood but at the same time fend for themselves. Rarely do women ask help of each other. It is their one weakness. It is not pride but a form of self-sufficiency and self-preservation to prove to society that as single mothers or independent women, they can survive. It is extremely brave of Sonora to document the physical and sexual abuse that she has faced.
I have truly liked this book. Read it. It speaks to everyone.
9 May 2021