x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Raising a daughter is a huge challenge

I worry how I will prepare my daughter for a world where both religion and being a woman are often treated with negativity

The "terrible twos" that many parents tell you about are actually more terrifying than terrible. It's my daughter's second birthday this week: suddenly I am faced with the alarming reality that she will grow up.

She has recently changed from a helpless infant into a little person, establishing her own understanding of and relationship with her surroundings. It is my job to equip her to make her way in the world, so my worries about what kind of woman I want her to be intensify daily.

This week marked the publication of Raising Girls, a book by parenting guru and psychotherapist Steve Biddulph. About 15 years ago, he wrote Raising Boys because he saw many boys and young men increasingly troubled and needing attention.

About five years ago, he said, more girls, too, started to register rising levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

His diagnosis is that girls are losing key years of childhood in the rush to grow up. He highlights corporate targeting of young women and an accompanying increase in social sexualisation; as a result girls don't have the space to find out who they are and to establish themselves as the strong women Biddulph aspires for them to be. It's all about giving them the backbone to stand up for what they want.

I see this as a continuing problem. Girls were once prized as objects, chattel to trade with prospective husbands, their value depending on their beauty and their chastity. How they exercised these two qualities was determined by men.

Fast forward to 2013, and despite the fantastic advances in women's rights, in my view women are still prized as objects on the basis of their beauty and how they manage their chastity, and both of these are still determined by men. In the countries of the West that Biddulph talks about, how women choose to exercise their will is still male-centric, except it's now framed as women's choice. For girls in their teens, he sees this as catastrophic to their self-esteem and for the decisions they make.

The steps to avoid this include ensuring that your baby and toddler gets plenty of love and feels secure. Let her have fun exploring the world and being adventurous. Help your "tween" to find her spark and determine her identity.

The core of his advice is for mothers: you are your girl's role model, whatever you exhibit about your place in the world, she will mimic. And I thought I was terrified before reading this!

It's great to see a book devoted to raising girls. But for me the big question still remains: how do I instil moral values and character in my daughter?

Women's status and position are changing, but so are the contexts and cultures within which we live. I'll need to guess at the skills and knowledge she will need in 20 years, from basic things like which languages she should learn to what career she should pursue.

As someone of religion, my greatest worry is to prepare her for a world where being religious, like being a woman, is often treated with negativity. In fact, being a religious woman invites challenges from both inside and outside the religious community. For this one needs spirituality, knowledge and the backbone that comes from combining the two.

It is this mystery of the future and its unknown perils - and opportunities - that make me worry for her. It's a hard job, this job of raising girls.

 

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk