My nephew has five first cousins, and all of them are girls. This means his life already includes a play kitchen and assorted pots and pans, dolls and many off-key renditions of “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen. He is also a first-class ball kicker and catcher and takes lizard spotting very seriously. He is very young, but as my surrogate son he makes me think the same way my daughters do: I worry what society will turn him into. That as parents we try very hard to maintain a certain kind of home environment that we hope will be their touchstone and guiding light for dealing with crises, but when our children go out into the world we are also rendered helpless because we cannot control their experiences out there. We can’t protect them from the mean kid who pushes them or prevent their longing for a backpack, an Xbox, a bedroom just like their friend’s. A lot of time is spent by people writing and thinking about the ways society restricts girls, but that analytical gaze is also being turned towards boys, and it is a welcome one.

The Representation Project ( started out as Miss Representation, an extremely successful film released in 2011 that then developed into an organization spearheading change- for women. As most feminists know, the conversation about gender is not limited solely to women, and when one begins to unpack what and how to navigate gender in society the conversation will invariably also include men. Miss Representation was reborn as The Representation Project to reflect that inclusiveness, and their documentary The Mask You Wear is under production, which explores the limiting construction of masculinity and the damage it does, particularly to boys and young men.

Gender limitations include and affect men and women, and it is essential for us to recognize how. Certain behaviours are feminized and so made undesirable in men- boys don’t cry, for example. Boys don’t need to know how to cook. In our part of the world, the boys are supposed to take care of the women, which is why ten year old younger brothers find themselves chaperoning much older teenage sisters on trips to the bazaar, often driving the car or motorcycle themselves. A psychologist in the trailer for The Mask You Wear says the most damaging three words any boy can hear is “be a man”, because what that entails more often than not forces them to disconnect from their feelings and natural responses. In other words, being a man means repressing the instincts that come naturally to any person, and Freud pointed out that this, more often than not, leads only to neurosis. In cultures across the world, men are told not to be sissies, to grow a pair, to never let anyone disrespect you. That means having emotions is perpetually mocked as weakness. If you are never allowed to feel sad or hurt or upset in a visible way, where does that emotion go? Boys are encouraged to internalize theirs feelings and often it erupts in aggression. Ironically and disturbingly, aggression seems to continue to be an acceptable form of masculine behaviour and worldwide incidents of masculine violence are soaring. We don’t tell our girls to punch a bully, but boys getting into fights is normalized, and often times a cause for pride. They aren’t pansies and nancy boys if they can pulverize someone who insulted them. We teach our girls to use their words but our boys to use their fists as if they were Neanderthals incapable of finer responses to conflict. To me that is setting the bar mighty low.

Men are trapped in their gender confinements in ways that make it difficult for us to separate them as individuals from the role we expect them to take in society. They are supposed to look after their family, but what if they want to be chefs? And how do we address the enormous pressure placed on men to be these breadwinners in the first place? Men are supposed to be the head of the family but what happens if he loses his job and the wife steps up? In our part of the world paternity leave is unheard of because we don’t allow men into the child rearing sphere- many don’t even let them into delivery rooms! It is unfair to exclude men from narratives they have a right to be included in and it is unjust to pooh-pooh their aspirations only because they don’t fit with our rigid notions of what men should be like as opposed to what they want to be like.

Equal-rights movements highlight there is no one way to be a woman—or a man. When we tell our boys not to be ‘girly’ we are simultaneously doing both sexes an injustice; we tell boys that having certain responses are undesirable because they are feminine and thus unworthy and we are telling our girls that just being themselves isn’t as good as being masculine. We want our boys to be sporty, virile and muscular; our girls to be pretty, bubbly and docile. We aren’t very good with difference, but we owe it to our children to try and change that. We want all our children to be happy, fulfilled adults who are empathetic, kind and self-aware; men and women who can use their talents and energy to make a positive change to their world instead of being mired in power struggles, violence and greed. And in order to help them we need the courage to let them be who they truly are, and the onus for that falls on all our shoulders- parents, family, teachers, people who make advertisements and people who write articles. None of us are bystanders in the way we are shaping our future generations. It is a difficult and disappointing thing to realize your beloved child won’t be everything you imagined him or her to be. But they can be much more, just in a different way. Freedom, particularly of the personal kind, is never easy, and it doesn’t come with a manual. But the next time you’re confronted with someone telling you to man up, you can think of the slangy Urdu term, “Insaan banno.” Not a man, not a woman. Be human.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.