A controversial new children's book is teaching kids alternative notions of gender to encourage greater equality. But critics say the book endangers traditional notions of the family and promotes homosexuality.
At a nursery school just outside the Latvian capital Riga, a preschool teacher plays with the children. The boys and girls at Bitite nursery are building a house with colored plastic bricks, and then all of them play together with dolls. It's hard to imagine that such a setting could cause any controversy. But the games the children are playing are among the games and activities suggested by a book of two children's stories called "The Day when Ruth was Richard" and "The Day when Karl was Caroline."
The book was translated from Danish and tells fictional stories about a boy and a girl who, one day, awake to find themselves living a life as their opposite gender. The characters are confronted with the stereotypes of both genders and they become confused by their unequal roles in society.
An unconventional approach
The book is part of a broader pilot study by the Latvian government that encourages teachers to discuss the roles usually associated with men and women. Agnese Gaile from the Ministry of Welfare says the book will enable boys and girls to have the same opportunities to develop their talents, without the constraint of gender roles.
"Children are often being fenced in by some kind of mental frames of gender roles and this hampers their expression," says Gaile. "If we allow children to be free and creative, then they tend to become more responsible and this will help them later on in adult life. Instead of shying away, they'll try to find a solution to a problem."
The book is currently in its trial phase, being tested out at Bitite nursery. But the ministry plans to introduce it as a voluntary teaching aid at all preschools in Latvia. Though the pilot study has been underway for several months, the book was only made public at the end of September. Since then, there's been a heated debate underway in Latvia as to whether pre-school children should be taught about gender roles. At the press conference there were emotional outbursts from some of those attending, who were angry at the book's content.
Numerous NGOs have been outraged by the book, believing it is biased in favor of homosexuality and poses a threat to traditional family values. Fifty NGOs - many of them church-based - have sent protest letters to the country's top officials demanding the resignation of Welfare Minister Ilze Vinkele. They also want the book banned from kindergartens.
Maintaining the status quo
Twenty-five-year-old Natalija Magazeina, an NGO representative, says the book poses a threat to traditional gender roles: "We think that a boy should be brought up as a boy and a girl should be raised as a girl. It shouldn't be vice versa, that's wrong!"
Magazeina says children should be educated knowing their gender: "Of course, if a child wants to play with toys of the opposite sex, he or she should be able to do it. But one shouldn't cause confusion over the natural sexual identity of children. And a child mustn't be addressed as a member of the opposite sex."
While Magazeina says there are no problems with gender inequality in Latvia, the sharp criticism the book received has provoked a counter-reaction. An online petition was started by a group which is protesting against what its says are radical views expressed by the NGOs. Linda Curika, organizer of the petition, says the NGOs have taken the book the wrong way. "These NGOs think that, if children become familiar with the roles of the opposite sex, then it's homosexual propaganda. But the thing is, there are various books and movies about this issue and nobody regards them as homosexual propaganda."
While both sides continue to argue, a number of parents have publicly announced they have no concerns about the new book. They say that children learn about gender roles simply by observing their parents. Sandija Salaka from a support organization for young parents called The Mothers' Club says she thinks people are upset for different reasons. "The ministries usually launch random campaigns for no obvious reason and cooperation with non-governmental organizations tends to be minimal. The officials hardly give any information about their plans and that's why there's such a furious reaction to this project."
Experts say that Latvia doesn't have any obvious gender equality problems, and point out that Latvian women hold high political posts and head companies. But the public uproar over the children's book shows that there are strong prejudices against modern gender roles. According to studies, most Latvians think women should be housewives, take care of the children and do the shopping. They also believe men should be the bread-winners of the family; they should not bear responsibilities in the home and should never express their emotions.
Breaking down stereotypes
Marita Zitmane, a gender researcher at the University of Latvia, says these sexist stereotypes can only be changed in early childhood; she welcomes the new book's contribution. "It's the first attempt to speak to children about gender. And it's important to speak about this subject to pre-school kids because they're at the age when they become aware of gender roles and they begin to realize what a real man and woman is."
Zitmane agrees that the titles of the book's stories may initially seem quite controversial - especially given the strong homophobic attitudes in Latvian society. But the critics, she says, have most likely misunderstood the book's motives. Meanwhile, Bitite nursery has, for the time being, decided to suspend its use of "The Day when Ruth was Richard" and "The Day when Karl was Caroline," until controversy settles down.