Book Review — How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family by Sonora Jha

July 18, 2021 1:00 AM

Part memoir, part feminist text, this book can be seen as a manual for parents

A file photo of a protest in Delhi APA file photo of a protest in Delhi (AP)

By Ritika Sharma

Feminism is not a new subject for author Sonora Jha, a former journalist and now a professor of journalism at Seattle University. She has co-edited a volume, New Feminisms in South Asia: Disrupting the Discourse Through Social Media, Film, and Literature. Her new book, How To Raise A Feminist Son, is both a feminist text as well as a poignant memoir that records her journey as a mother to inculcate certain attributes in her son.

The road to feminism or to raise a feminist son, as she rightly notes, does not have any fixed destination. Feminism is an ever-evolving reality. You live it every moment of the day, confront societal prejudices and try to make the world more equitable and sensitive towards women. For Jha and for many other women, feminism is about the values we believe in, stand for and never compromise on; and while raising your child, feminism is not limited to negotiating with the child’s queries.

It is about the celebration of one’s accomplishments as well as realising one’s failures as parents, besides offering a manifesto for other mothers. The book records the candid confessions of her failures in dealing with her son Gibran, and thus becomes a fine retelling of her past, as she painstakingly exposes the lacunae in our polarised society where notions of race, colour, caste and region complicate the already contentious debate on gender.

I am yet to become a mother, but such is the emotive power of Jha’s confessions that I have stored away a few lessons for myself. One such failure was her telling Gibran about the #MeToo movement “in moments of anguish instead of in calm”. I could imagine a mother earnestly trying to tell her son about one of the most defining movements in contemporary feminism, a movement that has unshackled many a voice and enabled women to stand up to the mighty, only to choose a wrong moment for the lesson.

Born in 1995 in Bangalore, Gibran’s childhood saw momentous events like 9/11, and he grew into an adult knowing about movements like Black Lives Matter, Pinjra Tod and #MeToo. All this while travelling across various geographies and cultures, ranging from India to Singapore before finally reaching the USA. The book is a fine document of a mother trying to make sense of these cross-cultural currents to her son, all the while ensuring that he remains sensitive to women. It has a vivid description of her struggle as she, like any other mother, witnessed the invasion of her son’s childhood by media and video games.

But this is not merely an account of a single mother saving her boy from the clutches of misogyny. The book is replete with accounts of various other single mothers, trans-mothers, LGBT parents, psychologists, counsellors, doctors, colleagues and authors — a wide range of women who have raised their children to be better feminists. The accounts of these women, belonging to different strata, tell us how misogyny has crippled human society across borders and continents.

Another such insight arrives in the section when she distinguishes among a range of feminists — predatory feminist, performative feminist and partner feminist. These terms are self-evidentiary. Obviously then, Jha is not contemptuous towards men and boys. She is sensitive enough to discern that young boys bear the incessant assaults on their fragile minds and bodies in order to conform to a prescribed notion of masculinity. At a very tender age, boys become victims of a toxic masculinity and endure the parasitic misogyny throughout their life.

As Jha narrates the reorientation of men in her own family, the reader realises that it is never too late to reach out and help raise any ‘son’. The memoir begins with the discovery that she is pregnant with a boy and ends with her celebration of the successful upbringing of her son. Can these words ever stop resonating within you: “You will know you have raised a feminist son when he respects women in the work place. You will know you have raised a feminist son when his feminism branches and flowers beyond yours.”

Ritika Sharma is academic resource officer, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla

How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family
Sonora Jha
Penguin Random House
Pp 288, Rs 399

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