By Amrita Roy:
No, I am not talking about calling a woman a “slut,” “bitch” or a “whore.” I am referring to words that are pervasive in our everyday language and are accepted without a flinch. People refer to the entire universe of human beings as “mankind.” Words for persons occupying positions are known as postman, chairman, freshman. There is “manning” the tables and children learn that “all men are created equal.” In Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, universal suffrage is referred to as “One Man One Vote.” And all of us, including me, use supposedly benign phrases like “you guys” and “Man, where did I keep the keys?” These male-based generics reinforce a societal structure in which “man” in the abstract and in the flesh is more superior and more privileged than the woman. These male-based generics establish that “man” is the standard for all human beings, not “woman.”
“Man” is the anchor of our language which makes it a high status term. “Woman” is still a term that is considered to be lesser in our society. This manifests every time when a man is referred to as a woman. “He cries like a girl.” “Stop being such a girl.” I hear these phrases very frequently when I am surrounded by a group of my male friends and often these phrases upset the man who is at the receiving end of these phrases. I am sure none of them believe they are being sexist when they say this. But even unknowingly, they are promoting the concept that being a woman is lesser and thus these phrases are used to taunt. But women often take pride in being referred to with male generics as it elevates one’s status and after all women also want to be included in the “better” group! When Vidya Balan does an excellent film which earns a decent amount of money, people call her a “hero.” No one goes and calls Salman Khan a “heroine” when his films do well. “Hero” is the high status term here; it is good to be a “hero.” You may say that situations are improving because at least Vidya Balan is now recognized for her talent at par with other male actors, which was not true of the earlier times. She is included in the group! Sadly this is only a guise of inclusion, not the reality. If we as women were truly included, then we wouldn’t have to disappear into “you guys” or other male-based generics.
Many would argue that this is such a trivial matter. For those of you who believe this, next time do go to your workplace and call the (male) chairman of the company a chairwoman. (Disclaimer: I do not take any responsibility in case you are fired). Here’s another safer mental experiment. Replace all these male-based generics with race-based generics. Chairwhite. Postwhite. “All whites are created equal.” “You whites.” “White, where did I keep the keys?” Do you feel included in these phrases? Now repeat this again but replace the “white” with a nationality, say American. Many of us would probably cringe at the idea of these phrases becoming the standard in our language. As a non-white Indian person, I do not feel included in any of these phrases. And yet, women are supposed to feel included and flattered by male-based generics! Substituting “white” for “man” makes it much easier to see why this is wrong because we as a society as more sensitive to racism.
A good proportion of the world’s 7 billion people uttering these male-based generics many times a day reinforces the message all across the world that men are the standard of the society and that women are substandard. And thus, women are consumed by the male category. This effectively makes the entire category of women invisible in language. And by just turning a few pages of a history book you will realize that the invisibility of a group makes it easier for the powerful to do what they want with the members of that group. If we, as women, are not even considered to be worthy enough to have gender neutral, true generics like “first-year,” “chairperson” and “you all,” then how do we even expect to be paid an equal wage, or have reproductive rights, or any of the other things we strive for? If we aren’t even deserving of our own place in humanity in language, why on earth should we expect to be treated as decent, respected human beings?
Our language is reflective of our society; and it isn’t ideal. It isn’t fair and just to all. You and I can’t suddenly wake up tomorrow morning and stop domestic violence, sexual abuse, dowry harassment, child marriages and rape. They require the implementation of laws and long, bureaucratic processes along with changing the mentalities of people. But we all have language at the tip of our tongues. All of us can wake up tomorrow and alter the way we speak. And we need to speak this new language together; men and women. This isn’t just a struggle for women. As Emma Watson said in her speech at the UN Conference, it is a fight for humanity which includes both the sexes. Either we use our words to maintain the status quo or we can choose our words to think in new ways, which will in turn create the possibility of a new, freer and more equal society.