A few days ago I happened to be in a shopping plaza in Karachi with my almost four-year-old son. We were walking around looking at fabric, khussas and of course, toys! As we walked around, I caught sight of a transgender person walking up to ladies and asking them for help.
I saw this person approach women a number of times and I was approached multiple times as well; it seemed like every time I would turn a corner with my son, this person would be there – with a very meek expression and hand extended, asking for monetary help. Now I have nothing against transgenders or any marginalized community and in fact, have been very happy with all the work and effort that has been done to give them their due rights. After all, they are citizens of this world, just like the rest of us.
But unfortunately, we live in a society where as much as one tries, it is hard to shake off taboos and meaningful conversations rarely happen. Since I was with my pre-schooler (and a very inquisitive and vocal one at that) I was wary of his observations, questions and blunt remarks and hence, subconsciously I was trying to avoid this person.
If it had been a single encounter, things might have panned out differently. But since we were approached a couple of times, I knew there would be questions. And as we walked away from this person for the third or fourth time, my son asked,
“Mama, was that an aunty or an uncle?”
Now some transgenders look more feminine than others but this one was sturdy, strong-jawed and had a very obvious stubble shadow on the face. BUT the clothes were that of a woman’s (as they are in most cases). So I decided to go with that to avoid confusing my son and replied,
“That was an aunty.”
Without pausing for a breath, my son asked,
“But Mama…why was her voice like that? Like Baba’s?”
I looked down at his sweet, inquisitive face, so innocent and so naïve about this world and its complexities. In that moment, I recognized my long-term responsibility as a parent to tell him the truth as much as I thought he could handle. I recognized the difference between the next generation and us – the questions, the confidence, the openness – things that had either been (implicitly or explicitly) discouraged by our parents or perhaps, just missing from our gene pool. I have never been able to fool my son in almost four years and hence, I said,
“Because Allah Ta’ala made us all different and gave us different kinds of voices. Some people have a loud voice, some have a soft voice; some speak in a deep voice and others in a gruff voice. Right?”
Thankfully, that was enough for him and he picked up on the word ‘gruff’ and began pestering me to read The Three Billy Goats Gruff to him when we got home.
I don’t remember asking my parents this question or other similarly awkward ones. We have always had transgenders in our society but some things were just left unsaid when we were growing up. I was talking to a child psychologist the other day and she said that in cases of child sexual abuse, children often don’t know WHY something is wrong; but often they have a FEELING that it is wrong. Call it basic instinct, but they KNOW. That’s how we knew growing up that some things were just NOT asked.
Children today are bolder, more confident and more inquisitive from the early years. Parenting such children is tough but the need of the hour is to be as honest as you can with your children. Keep the lines of communication open so that they come to YOU to satisfy their curiosities, as awkward as those questions may be. If you are not easily accessible, your child might turn towards friends or the internet to get his/her information and the information they get from there might be incorrect at best and harmful at worst.
In hindsight, I am actually glad we had this encounter because a) it is almost always better to step out of your comfort zone; b) I want to raise a child who is conscious of his surroundings and aware of the complexities of our society and this world – a person can be accommodating and empathic ONLY if they are consciously aware of differences and God knows how much our society lacks when it comes to empathy! Boys, especially, can be downright cruel when it comes to transgenders, be it in the form of jokes or humiliating one in person.
Schools today have awareness programs regarding these sensitive issues, especially in higher grade levels. But as parents we need to encourage our children to ask questions, read up on how we can respond to tricky questions in an age-appropriate manner and if we find ourselves at a loss, be honest and ask them to give us some time so we can do our research and get back to them. We are all learners in this world and trust me, your children will understand and appreciate your truthfulness and integrity.
Let’s not underestimate our children OR the task given to us parents to raise them well!