Seen on a street in the north-eastern Estonian city of Kohtla-Järve. What could be behind a door with a sign above it reading Väikemees (Little Man)? The building is surrounded by an enclosed yard and has playground equipment in the back. My first thought: "Could this be a private boys kindergarten?" Photo: Riina Kindlam
Sunday, 06 May 2012 23:30
It was no doubt in light of recent media flurry on the subject of a soo/neutraalne gender-neutral kindergarten in Stockholm that seeing this sign caught my attention and really stumped me. BBC News among others reported on the new pre-school Egalia (the Swedish word for equality) last summer, but it was on April 14, that the Estonian daily Postimees broached the subject locally under the headline "Poiss või tüdruk? (Boy or girl?) Ei, hoopis sootu. (No, genderless in fact). Sugude keelamine Rootsi moodi (Prohibiting genders the Swedish way)". The subject garnered a lot of attention, created much discussion and was also posted amongst www.eesti.ca's hot topics.
There are in fact two gender-neutral kindergartens in the Swedish capital; Postimees visited Nicolaigården in the Old Town. Although many call it "gender madness", the goal of both of these pre-schools is to "free children from social expectations based on their sex".
"All the girls know they are girls, and all the boys know that they are boys", says Lotta Rajalin, Director of Egalia. However teachers avoid using the pronouns "him" (han in Swedish) or "her" (hon) when talking to the children, something that would not be a problem in Estonia with our wonderfully soo/neutraalne TEMA. Instead, they refer to the children as "friends", by their first names, or as "hen" – "a genderless pronoun borrowed from Finnish" writes BBC. Postimees reports that this is a made-up term not officially recognised or practiced within the norms of Swedish.
Some of the practices at Nicolaigården are actually quite thought-provoking, such as not having separate areas where typically boys or girls toys tend to gather; everything is thoughtfully mixed and weighed. On their rooftop outdoor play area, neither cars nor mootor/rattad (motorcycles) can dominate amongst the ridable vehicles. Special attention is paid to not põlistada (perpetuate) stereotüüpseid soo/rolle (stereotypical gender roles) in any decorations, pictures or literature. Many books simply do not mention the sugu (gender) of the main character. So what would supporters of such gender-neutral educational beginnings think of a kindergarten being called Väikemees?...
It is in fact a kindergarten. And not a private boys kindergarten, but completely mixed. Their website states the pre-school was built in 1954 as Lasteaed (kindergarten) nr. 11 and belonged to the Kohtla-Järve soojus/elektri/jaam (electric heating plant). Only upon seeing mention of eesti keele tund (Estonian language lesson) did I realise this was in fact a Russian-speaking kindergarten. Everything on the website was in perfect Estonian, except the lyrics to the school song (kirillitsas) – in Cyrillic script. I started to wonder whether many parents might not even know what väikemees means... (Only 21% of this oil shale mining city's residents are ethnic Estonians). It's a common term of endearment for a boy, yet it's hard to fathom how and why a non-segregated kindergarten could be named with such a representational slant.
Oddly enough, Kohtla-Järve continued to prompt introspection on the subject of sugu. During that same recent visit I walked in on my kids (perhaps I shouldn't reveal their sex just yet? – Remember sootu (genderless) baby Storm in Canada? S/he was actually preceded by a little anonymous Swede name Pop.) So there they were, scissors poised in the hand of the elder, piles of hair on the floor.... you get the picture. The poisi/pea ("boy head" – yikes, that's what short crops are commonly called) of my older daughter (truth be told) actually ended up being a style improvement, once tamed by a trained hand. But my younger võsu (offshoot, sapling) is now... quite gender-neutral indeed. So much so, that I was initially quite upset. Not being hung up on appearances (or so I thought), and not taking pink & frilly to excess, I am in fact a huge fan of short hair on women (above all myself), so why was I so distraught about my 2,5 year-old losing her fine locks and wisps?The Estonian pronoun TEMA is way ahead of its time and perfect for all situations where a person's sex is redundant. Need a wake-up call regarding your gender hang-ups? A buzz cut (siili/soeng – hedgehog "do") should do the trick. Without the relatively clear gender identification marker provided by juuksed (hair), the line between väikemees and Pöial-Liisi (Thumbelina) becomes blurred. Photo: Riina Kindlam
She didn't care. Her reaction in front of the mirror was a ecstatic "Otto!" (Her lasteaia friend, whose hair is currently longer than hers.) I was the one mourning the loss of the keerub (cherub), as someone had recently described her. I suddenly realised it was the HAIR, that insidious sexual characteristic that had made the angel, a persona her relatives in Canada would not witness this summer. Although ashamed for being so pealis/kaudne (superficial), I had her in a roosa samet kleit (pink velvet dress) in no time, so there would be no mistaking her for... What? A poiss?! Or so she would under no circumstances stop being classically cute?
Cherubs are genderless, so who says this one was a she to begin with? I'm happy to say this Emme's over her fickle-attack, but obviously needs to continue working on being a model gender-indifferent parent. Little TEMA on the other hand would be accepted to "Egalia" no questions asked.
Some age-old gender-specific (sexist?) Estonian expressions: Nimi ei riku meest. (A name does not ruin a man.) Riie ei riku meest. (Clothing does not ruin the man.) Juuksed on naise uhkus / ehe / ilu kroon. (Hair is a woman's pride / jewel; the crown of her beauty.) And a new one: Soeng ei riku naist. (A hair-do does not ruin the woman.) It took an Emme-in-denial some time to realise the ingel was still very much present; she was just a bit more ballsey. A valuable lesson in gender perceptions for the whole family.
As we drove out of Kohtla-Järve, Tallinn-bound, we passed yet another "Väikemees", a mängu/asja/pood (toy store). A case of lost in translation or being stuck in some kind of a warp? Most likely innocent indifference regarding details of gender and that can't be so bad. An ironic twist on what the gender-neutral doctor ordered.
Riina Kindlam, Tallinn