The rashtrapatni row should make us rethink the everyday bias against women in our languages –

Posted By on August 29, 2022

During his Independence Day address on August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised that it was important that in speech and conduct we do nothing that lowers the dignity of women. He urged his fellow citizens to get rid of everything that insults women in our daily life, nature and culture. One wonders if this was in response to the controversy that erupted at the end of July over Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referring to President Droupadi Murmu as rashtrapatni.

Days after Murmu made history as the first tribal woman to assume the highest constitutional office in India, she unwittingly became the centre of a slugfest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. BJP minister and Member of Parliament described Chowdhurys remark demeaning while Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said it was a deliberate sexist insult. Both houses of Parliament were adjourned amid heated debates and protests over the matter.

Chowdhury apologised to President Murmu stating that his use of the contentious word was a slip of tongue and a result of him not knowing Hindi. His remarks seemed to suggest that he was under the impression that the feminine form of the Hindi word for president, rashtrapati, was rashtrapatni wife of the nation. Chowdhurys explanation invoked the popular clich of an innocent Bengali gentlemans well-meaning, but horrendous mangling of the Hindi language.

Whether this defence was genuine or a shrewd manoeuvre, the fact remains that the ubiquity of gender in Hindi can often pose a challenge to non-native speakers. To those unfamiliar with the language, the categorisation of the Hindi word for chair (kursi) as feminine but bed (palang) as masculine can be baffling. Grammar conferring the masculine or feminine gender on inanimate objects is not unique to Hindi. French, Spanish and Hebrew to name a few also have gendered grammar.

For many, it is about time this changed.

Around the time Chowdhury committed the gender-based faux pas, the international media was reporting on some developments in the debate over gender-neutrality in Spanish. Over the past few years, activists in Latin America have sought to alter Spanish words in a bid to make them more inclusive. What began as a feminist movement to dissuade the use of generic masculine collective nouns has, over time, evolved into a broader exercise.

The alteration of Spanish nouns is intended to render them gender-neutral, eschewing the male and female identity to make space for those who do not conform to normative gender roles or identities. A common example of this is the replacing of the masculine O, the feminine A with a gender-neutral E, X or @.

Argentina, in particular, has been at the forefront of this language revolution with universities and judges using the gender-neutral form of words. Of course, it has not all been plain sailing. Such developments have invited the ire of the puritans and conservatives. The Royal Academy of Spain has referred to such modifications of Spanish words as being alien to the morphology of Spanish.

A few weeks ago, the city government of Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, imposed an unprecedented ban on teachers using gender-neutral words during class. The legality of the ban has been challenged in court and is sure to set an intriguing precedent.

A similar script has been playing out across the Atlantic. In October 2021, a French dictionary recognised the freshly-minted pronoun (iel) as a gender-inclusive alternative to the prevalent male (il) and female (elle) terms.

This seemingly innocuous addition to the French lexicon triggered a discourse mirroring the one taking place in the Spanish-speaking world. Traditionalists decried the move and the erstwhile French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer had ominously stated that, inclusive writing is not the future of the French language.

Even millennia-old Hebrew has not been immune to the winds of change. Like Hindi, Hebrew too is gendered with objects being prescribed masculine or feminine nouns. Now, activists are trying to make the language more inclusive by adding new characters into the Hebrew alphabet.

When it comes to English, pronouns have been the focus for gender-inclusive advocacy. While scrolling through social media, one is bound to encounter instances of people expressing their preferred pronouns: he/him and she/her are self-evident, with they/them becoming the popular pronoun of choice for gender non-conforming people.

Inevitably, some have argued that the use of a collective pronoun to refer to an individual is cumbersome and inelegant, but such protests ring hollow in the face of history. In truth, the pronoun they has been used in the past to refer to singular subjects and is still used to refer to a single individual whose gender may be unknown. Interestingly, it is the pronoun you whose use in the singular is now considered natural, which was once used only in the plural sense hence, the you are as opposed to the you is).

But put aside the antecedents of these terms for a moment. Let us assume that the use of they as a singular pronoun is an innovation and a wholly novel twist to the English language. Is that sufficient to proclaim it as unacceptable?

Languages, like civilisations and people, are meant to evolve. For those who have been battling for countless years to carve an identity in this world, the words that denote such identity are pivotal. Claiming space in ones language, therefore, can be a key step to claiming space in ones society. Is that not reason enough to shun the pedantic rules of grammar to usher in change?

As this linguo-cultural revolution sweeps across the world, Chowdhurys use of the term rashtrapatni can serve as a moment of introspection for everyone. If one were to ignore the politics, this row laid bare the gendering that pervades Hindi after all, the term rashtrapati is inherently masculine and assumes the holder of such office to be male.

Modis call for gender equality is a commendable message but perhaps it is time to go beyond merely condemning the use of inappropriate language. Perhaps, it is time we delved deeper to rectify the biases upon which language is constructed.

As a young nation striding into the future, we must do all we can to preserve the fundamental principles of inclusivity and equality upon which the state was founded. An important step towards this ideal would be to ensure that our language, and through it our society, evolves to reflect these values.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.

Also read: Rashtrapatni row is a reminder of the sexist roots of language and a suggestion by Bal Thackeray

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