In her new book “How To Raise A Feminist Son” (Sasquatch Books), Seattle University journalism professor and author Sonora Jha recalls sobbing at the ultrasound where she learned that her first-born child would be a son. Not with tears of joy, but fear. Overtaken by anxiety, Jha wondered if her son would grow up to be as brutal as the men in her family of origin. “What if he assaulted me?” she asked.
In a series of personal essays, Jha confronts the gender-based violence that she experienced as a girl growing up in Mumbai. Though her family was progressive in their view towards the professionalization of women, Jha observed different rules in the freedoms allowed to her brother and to her. Jha’s father was a retired army major from the Maithil Brahmins, a caste that Jha says records only the names of male ancestors and descendants. By coming to terms with the cultural beliefs that consistently diminished and erased the feminine, Jha faces the trauma of her past to go beyond writing a parenting memoir to claim a distinctly feminist enterprise.
“How To Raise A Feminist Son” focuses on how Jha developed positive parenting practices rooted in feminist values. Committed to building a “gentle and vital masculinity from the ground up,” Jha shares tactics for parents interested in raising boys with emotional intelligence. She conspires with readers to cultivate a new generation of men — allies capable of questioning masculinity and violence against women. “I want parents of all genders and intersectional identities to read it as a conversation between them and me,” Jha said in a recent interview with Seattle’s Child.
Each section ends with a to-do list for readers of potential actions. Jha invites fathers into the reflective process with questions like “What did you lose as you were initiated into boyhood and manhood?”
Readers will appreciate her practical approach. In a chapter on storytelling, she encourages parents to introduce their young boys to books that center diverse characters. Jha even provides a curated resource list of age-appropriate books, including a fairy tale collection penned by activist Rebecca Solnit. But more interesting than Jha’s editing of the bookshelves is her revisiting of Hindu tales. In Jha’s retellings, the god Krishna is a feminist ally, while the goddess Kali is viewed as a symbol of self-actualized motherhood.
In shaping the consciousness of older boys, Jha discusses the importance of co-viewing habits and the development of their media literacy. She writes of analyzing movies with her son from a young age to encourage his critical thinking. These habits of mind inform his ability as an adult to notice how women are portrayed and treated. While Jha had her reservations about his interest in playing Grand Theft Auto as an adolescent, she expresses pride in his outspokenness against the bullying of female game developers that resulted from the Gamergate harassment campaign. Through being involved in her son’s consumption of media and games, Jha engaged her son in an ongoing conversation that created the conditions to increase his sense of empathy.
The voice of Jha’s son, Gibran, is ever present in these essays. As a partner coming into his own consciousness, he has his own wisdoms to reveal. He opens Jha’s eyes to how a pop culture flick like “Planet of the Apes” can be read as a narrative of resistance. On a journey home to India, he acts as a bridge between mother and grandmother by speaking as an ally for his mother. In breaking the cycle of internalized misogyny, Gibran finds his own voice to “speak of love in a language none of us had ever used before.” Jha says Gibran fully supported her decision to write about their lives in this book. “He told me he wouldn’t read it, so I should not censor myself or keep his opinion in mind as I wrote. That’s an act of feminist solidarity.”
Jha’s book is no ordinary parenting manual. She devotes one chapter to ruminating on various regrets and admits her own missteps to acknowledge that “we do not yet have … the language, or the socialization to comprehend what an unquestioning love for women would look like.”
Yet “How To Raise a Feminist Son” is fundamentally a book about cultivating love and connection. Not just as a vision for our sons, but for ourselves, so that each of us might experience, and express, the whole spectrum of human tenderness.
“The world is reeling from toxic male leadership,” says Jha. “Wounded men are lashing out against us all. We can go to the heart of the problem by going to the heart of masculinity and reimagining boyhood and manhood. I have raised a feminist man against the odds and I want to scream from the rooftops that it can be done.”
Shin Yu Pai’s most recent book of poetry is “Ensō.”
This story from the May/June 2021 print issue was first published online on April 6, 2021.