Gender inequality and the role of language

Wardah Irum:

Language is the most important form of communication in our society. Human-race owes much of its civilizational growth and modernity to language. Language is, without doubt, our most distinguishing feature that makes us superior to animals. According to Noam Chomsky, a renowned linguist, humans have an innate capability to speak a language. Every aspect of our life be it political, economic or socio-cultural is based on a well-defined structure or pattern of language.  We conduct all our human affairs in and through language and it is an indispensable tool to learn about other peoples and their culture. Language often acts as a centripetal force; fostering a feeling of group identity and solidarity.

Within this edifice of language, every word is an idea. It would not be wrong to understand language as myriad of ideas embedded in wider socio-cultural context. As such, language is a socially constructed phenomenon that has evolved over a period of time. Despite its evolution and progression one aspect of language seems to be constant, that is, its role in stimulating gender inequality. There are almost 5000 languages in the world and most of them have apparent sexist predispositions. This ‘language sexism’ is biased in the favor of one gender and treat the other discriminately. Mostly, it tends to favor men against women.

In this widespread language sexism, the most disturbing fact is that most forms of abuses makes degrading and insulting references towards women as a gender. Most forms of insults and abusage targets women directly or indirectly. Notwithstanding that such abuses are often slangs, they are widely used by everyone regardless of genders. Significantly, such abuses cannot be justified by referring to their symbolic meaning because these words are deeply rooted in the wider social setting. They reflect how society in general perceives one gender particularly women in relation to men. Moreover, it also reveals how such slangs attaches certain moral codes, the notion of dignity only to women and associate weakness, fragility and cowardice with them. The way such abuses make references to women genitals connote the fact that it is often perceived that women’s dignity lies between her legs.

Given the limited space of this article, few widely and frequently used abuses in both English and Urdu/Hindi languages are examined. One of the most commonly mentioned abuse in English is Mother Fucker. Cambridge dictionary defines it as an ‘extremely insulting name for someone you hate or for someone who has made you angry’ where as Collins dictionary defines it as ‘If someone calls a person, usually a man, a motherfucker, they are insulting him in a very unpleasant way.’ Why ‘insulting’ someone by making such immoral reference towards his/her mother?. Have we ever heard someone saying father-fucker?. Another example is of verbal abuse ‘You are such a pussy’ or be a pussy that is defined as ‘behaving in a manner that is commonly considered as specific to women’. However, it isnormally used to denote men who are less courageous, shy or sensitive. This is the result of stereotyping against women as they are often considered coward, emotional and sensitive and because men are not supposed to have such characteristics it is considered a great way to insult them. Nonetheless, ‘Grow some balls’ exquisitely refers ‘to man-up and respond maturely to a given situation or problem’. Similarly, manly or manliness refers to the ‘good qualities’ traditionally associated with man. Ever wondered- why womanly cannot be used in the same manner?

Slut and whore are often used to slut and body-shame women to either restrict women’s choices, or make them feel ashamed of themselves. This ‘character assassination’ of women occurs in both developed as well as developing nations. Both of these words slut and whore are also used, in an insulting manner, to mention prostitutes or women with many sexual partners. The very word prostitute carries a negative connotation and particularly refers to women selling their bodies to earn money. Conversely, there is a great amount of male prostitution occurring in various parts of the world but surprisingly it is almost never mentioned. Why prostitution is always symbolizes as a ‘dirty business’ carried out only by women? How often male sex workers are discussed, judged and represented as slut or whore? Ironically, the terms like man-whore, man-slut, and womanizer are present in the common language, but are usually used with a sort of dismissive affection or even a spiteful admiration. For, having the ability to attract and hook up with various women is considered ‘manly’ and does not morally corrupt man. Apparently, it does not even inflict any harm on men’s genitals as opposed to women-who become ‘loose’ because of her vibrant sexual life.

In the same way, Urdu and Hindi both are jam-packed with such verbal abuses. Behan-chod(sister-fucker) is commonly used in Pakistan and India. It is frequently used in day to day conversations, movies and in dramas (to a lesser extent) and even get passed through censor board as well. Sexually explicit content becomes a big issue but such sexually degrading ‘gendered abuses’ never comes under the scrutiny of censorship. Madar-chod (mother-fucker) is another regularly used abuse in both the states. Likewise, Chutiya, Bhosadike, Teri maakichut/maake ankh means progeny of cunt, born from a rotten pussy and your mother’s pussy respectively. These references to women’s genitals are enough to reveal how patriarchy degrade and disrespect women.Thurkithat has the sameconnotation as womanizer is also used in a rather flattering way that almost nullify any negative meaning attached to it.

Significantly, such ‘gendered abuses’ are not innate rather indicative of a society that how it sustains such language structures that reveal deeply ingrained gender biases. These abuses expose how patriarchy has divided and categorized reality into two binary opposites one of which has to be superior to the other. All the dichotomies like ‘activity/passivity’, ‘Culture/nature’, ‘high/low and others have been evolved through the fundamental dichotomy that is man/woman. In this dichotomy, man is linked with all traits like active, cultural and high whereas women are considered as passive, natural and low. Moreover, the first category in the man/woman is the one from which the other departs. In other words, man is the self and woman is the other. Consequently, it leads to the notions that men are the guardians of women and men are entitled to women’s bodies. As men are supposed to protect women, it became inordinate to inflict psychological and emotional injury to them by using such abuses that actually affront women and their bodies.

Last but not least, there is a dire need to restructure language to make it gender neutral, to eliminate such ‘gendered abuses’ and sexist tendencies in it. Until and unless these patriarchal language structures exist, gender equality will remain a distant dream.

Wardah Irum is a post-graduate in international relations from Quaid i Azam university, Islamabad, Pakistan. Her areas of interests include gender and IR and peace and conflict studies and foreign policy analysis.
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