Views & Reviews
Inclusive Language for Gender Equality
“Words have power. The words we use transmit “facts”, ideas, emotions, and values; they thereby shape attitudes, influence action and change or reinforce others’ perception. Because words have power, the words we use can help to build a community where each member is recognised as child of God; conversely, the words we use can undermine a sense of community, create social divisions and obstruct the reign of God among us. The words we use and the way we use them, are influenced by the cultural and social systems in which we are involved. … As Christians, we hold that the word which is everlasting is the Word made flesh. We believe this Word crosses cultures, social systems, sexual differences and all other boundaries which separate us from one another.” (H.P. Mabrey, Language and Community: Inclusive Language)
This world, dominated by patriarchal system, has been conveniently and unapologetically using gender-exclusive or male-centred language to express and interpret meanings. The American Academy of Religion defines gender-exclusive language as “… a consistent pattern of English usage where the male is taken to be the normative human person; i.e., the word ‘man’ connotes both the male and the human as such.” The practice of assigning masculine gender to generic antecedents stemmed from language reflecting the prejudices of the society in which it evolved, and English evolved through most of its history in a male-centred, patriarchal society. Thus linguistically, women have long been in the shadows of men in the male generic terms such as ‘man’, ‘mankind’, ‘he’, ‘brothers’, ‘sons’, etc. Though the world has undergone tremendous changes and with it the role of women extended into roles which were previously exclusive for men, the continued usage of this historically shaped, outdated and potentially divisive and demeaning language consciously or unconsciously excludes women, and perpetuates prejudice and misogynistic attitude towards women.
The usage of ‘man’ and masculine pronoun generically is found in the common English proverbs, for example, ‘Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’, ‘Every man is the architect of his destiny’, ‘An honest man is trusted’, etc. Often ‘man’ is used as a suffix or prefix of another word to designate a position, occupation or status, such as, chairman, postman, watchman, spokesman, businessman, sportsman, fireman, layman, etc. Traditionally it was men who took up nearly all the occupations and tasks outside the domestic chores, and therefore such usage became the norm. Though times have changed and today women are working at par with men in many areas, the continued usage of such gender-biased designations could directly imply that only men perform these tasks or attain these statuses. The usage of ‘chairman’ as generic for both man and woman is widespread and accepted both in church and secular offices. For instances, NBSE Chairman, Town Council Chairman, Ward Chairman, Village Council Chairman, chairman of church boards and school boards, etc., except for those offices, organisations, or departments existing exclusively for women. Similarly, the terms housewife, housemaid, lady doctor, man and wife (After the exchange of marital vows, some ministers declare “I now pronounce you ‘man and wife’” rather than ‘husband and wife’), etc. are not only inappropriate but unjust. This type of expressions encourages stereotyping of gender roles and discrimination, and therefore should be omitted unless the sex of the subject is important to the meaning of the sentence (An example where the health care professional’s sex might be relevant as some women feel more comfortable seeing female gynaecologists.). The unmindful usage of such language distorts the mindset and thereby most people believe men are superior and universal, while women are conditioned to accept their secondary roles. Therefore gender-neutral terms such as chairperson, post worker/mail carrier/postal worker, guard, spokesperson, businessperson, sportsperson, firefighter, homemaker, doctor, etc. should be used when/where appropriate. In cases where no useful gender-neutral alternative is available, both male and female terms should be used. Commenting on our culture and language which follow a generic masculine framework, Caroline Criado Perez, in her book Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, writes “male bias is so firmly embedded in our psyche that even genuinely gender-neutral words (like doctor or actor) are read as male”.
To this day, it is common to use ‘early man’ instead of ‘early human’, and ‘forefathers’ or ‘grandfathers’ instead of ‘ancestors’ or ‘grandparents’ to refer to the pioneering members of a family, community, or people. This directly or indirectly perpetuates the idea that women had no role to play in the civilisation of the community in particular and the human race in general. While acknowledging (verbal and written) an individual for an achievement, it is a common practice to mention the father’s name, while the mother’s name is not acknowledged. The same goes with epitaphs on gravestones on which the name of the deceased’s mother is rarely inscribed. It is as though the mother had/has no role in her children’s life. The use of gender-exclusive language can cause women to feel ostracised and demotivated both in domestic and professional environments. Thus, the sensitive and appropriate usage of words and expressions which validate the unique identity and role of both men and women is a fundamental and urgent necessity.
It may not be easy to change one’s linguistic habits, especially those developed over a lifetime. But it is not impossible. The family, as the first institution a child is exposed to, must take the lead in nurturing the young mind in developing healthy and just attitude towards another human being. Educational institutions should take active role in promoting respectful and inclusive language. Curriculum, texts, and any form of teaching-learning resource which are sexually exclusive and unjust should be replaced with more inclusive and respectful ones. In a Christian dominant state like Nagaland where the Church’s sacrosanct status makes its voice the most powerful, it is pertinent for the Church to be at the forefront and play the biggest role in conscientising equality, justice, and the need for the inclusion of women as equal members in the body of Christ through the use of sexually- inclusive language.
“When [dehumanising] language becomes institutionalised,” writes Haig Bosmaijian in her article Dehumanising People and Euphemising War, “when it is spoken by judges, religious leaders or presidents, it receives the imprimatur of authorities who have the power and influence to impose their metaphors.” Therefore, keeping the context in mind, we should affirm with H. P. Mabrey who says “sensitivity and creativity are needed on the part of all of us as we seek to proclaim the God who is greater than our words have allowed us to understand”.