Talking Gender

Birds fly to the Sun, by Iryna Lialko

Birds fly to the Sun, by Iryna Lialko

The linguistic bias against women

By Sana Hussain

In Urdu, the colloquial word for rape is ziyadti. When translated, ziyadti karna is defined in the Oxford Urdu-English Dictionary under three heads: “1. Use force, show high-handedness 2. Exceed limits 3. To rape.” The everyday use of the word extends to describing an unfair act or an injustice done to an individual. So the meaning of this one word covers something as trivial as stealing a parking spot to rape. Ismat dari and izzat lootna are also words that are used to describe rape. While more purposeful than ziyadti, these words take away male agency from rape, and reassign the focus from the perpetrator to the victim. In contrast, English includes the word “rape” to explicitly define the crime of forcing another person to have sexual intercourse with the offender against their will. Yet, recently, the use of rape as a verb that describes a plethora of actions, ranging from defeat or victory in a sporting event, performance in a test or even being overcharged in the market, has become disturbingly common. The word has now been modified to a tech-friendly, on-trend variant, “frape”; casually thrown around on Facebook timelines and comments to indicate that someone has been tricked and/or humiliated by a prank by one of their friends on the social media website.

These examples of the implications of the word “rape” are meant to contextualise how language reinforces negative attitudes towards women, often normalising and sometimes aggrandising them. The fact that a word used to describe a horrifically violent act is also used for other inconsequential things that are in no way comparable to rape, reflects a society’s desensitised attitude towards the issue itself. It also shows how the act is considered something that is inherently linked to a woman’s honour, shifting the burden from the rapist to their victim(s). When seemingly decent people make jokes linking masculinity, dominance and superiority to the vile act of rape, and express pride over it, they don’t realize that the language they are using not only trivializes the trauma, horror and pain of rape victims and survivors, but also makes them culpable in promoting rape culture. In fact it is often through the uninformed use of such words that language becomes a tool in perpetuating sexism and violence against women in society.

When seemingly decent people make jokes linking masculinity, dominance and superiority to the vile act of rape, and express pride over it, they don’t realize that the language they are using not only trivializes the trauma, horror and pain of rape victims and survivors…

Simone de Beauvoir’s well-known opening line to Book 2 of ‘The Second Sex’ [i], “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”, is also indicative of how society constructs acceptable and unacceptable ideals of womanhood and femininity; which are then systematically reinforced throughout their lives by various means including language. Language, as a medium of social interaction and expression, not only reflecting the biases and prejudices ingrained in a culture, but also limits thought in terms of roles and norms related to gender. An article by Stephanie Pappas titled ‘Gendered grammar linked to global sexism’ cites a study conducted by researcher Jennifer Prewitt-Freilino and her colleagues, which finds that when presented with gender neutral pronouns like “they” or in languages where a single gender neutral pronoun is used for “he” and “she”, people automatically assume that those being referred to are men and not women. This is the result of years of conditioning, which begins as soon as children start to learn language. They are taught early on that “man” and “mankind” refer to the whole of the human race and that when talking about a person whose sex is not identified, he/him/his is used. A blog piece titled ‘One giant leap for language’ puts forward an interesting hypothesis on what language may have been used if it had been women instead of men who had made that fateful landing on the moon. Would it have been “the first womanned Moon landing”; would the inscription on Nixon’s plaque have read “Here women from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all womankind”; and would the much quoted line be “one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind”? The answer of course is no; because in language, as in every other walk of life, mankind is representative of the human civilization as a whole, whereas womankind is just that.

The same is true for words and titles that signify power, dominance and superiority. Because society typically thinks of these qualities as being inherently masculine, in sentences such as “The president addressed the nation” or “The party leader’s service to the country will always be remembered with high praise”, it is a foregone conclusion that the people being referred to are men. Language also reinforces our socially constructed assumptions with titles like chairman, fireman and policeman instead of chairperson, firefighter and police officer. When referring to a woman who occupies a position of power or has a job “in a male-dominated field”, the need is often felt to add a disclaimer like “lady” doctor, “lady” reporter, “woman” pilot, and actress, to serve as a reminder that women typically do not belong in such professions, which is why in this rare occurrence their gender must be emphasised along with their professional titles.

Not only does language discriminate against women by portraying them as “Others” in positive, important roles, it also attributes words and phrases with negative connotations or those that promote gender stereotypes to women. Michael Sainato in ‘Sexism in the Dictionary’ says that “Modern dictionaries have incorporated sexism into several stereotypically feminine negative terms […] There is rampant use of female-specific nouns used in example sentences that perpetuate the negative connotations in language that are inferred by traditional sexism”. He gives the example of the Oxford Pocket Dictionary and the free online Merriam Webster Dictionary, where definitions of words and example sentences of their usage are blatantly sexist. He cites the word “impressionable” as an instance, which has been explained through the sentence “a girl of eighteen is highly impressionable”. Similarly, feeble, coy and naïve are explained through multiple examples having both male and female subjects, but only the one attributing these traits to women are uncomplimentary and condescending. It is also interesting to note that in true patriarchal fashion, words with pejorative connotations for women either portray them as sexual objects or as weak, powerless, and subservient creatures.

It is a fact that the use of language mirrors social mores and values. Using language that is sexist and insensitive towards women is a reflection of the patriarchal values that we all imbibe living in society, affecting women both on a personal, day-to-day level, and on a collective, large-scale level. These values are reinforced when a boy is chastised with “you throw like a girl”, or a girl is admonished for being bossy, pushy or a nag. The firing of Jill Abramson, executive director of the New York Times, ostensibly because she was “brusque”, “pushy” and “mercurial”, is a perfect example of how language upholds the bias that society harbours against women. All the qualifiers that were used to describe Abramson’s “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues” would never be used for any of her male colleagues. In fact, when speaking about the same traits in a man, the media would most likely describe him as a direct, authoritative, no nonsense kind of guy. Kat Lister, in her article ‘Who cares if Jill Abramson was bossy?’, comments on this double standard and women’s disadvantaged position at work, in language and in the media by saying that “Try and forget the pay discrepancy story for a moment and simply concentrate on language and the expectations women placate to exert authority with one foot stepped back. Jill Abramson’s story shows us all what happens when a woman throws her ball like a man. She gets knocked out of the game altogether. She’s told it’s her fault… Assertive? Yes, but never aggressive. Commanding? Certainly, but always with a smile. Behave too professionally and you’re an ice queen, show too much emotion and you’re unstable”.

Unfortunately, narratives about women, whether it be women in politics, women at work, homemakers, victims and survivors of rape, or women in the entertainment industry, are all insidiously and categorically sexist. And the bias is present all across; from Urdu newspapers with bylines that read “lady reporter”, to British newspapers carrying headlines, “mother of three poised to lead the BBC”. For anyone sensitised to gender and language, it has become very clear while observing and participating in everyday discourse that language marginalises, stereotypes and belittles women. It reasserts the systemic prejudices that are ingrained in patriarchal society, and is often also used to rationalise misogyny. While it is true that gendered modifications in language alone will not end patriarchy, it would be a start. A much needed start that will, at the very least, force language users to confront their own biases and see how they are reflected in the everyday usage of language. Or, to quote Sheryl Sandberg [ii], it may also prompt one to reconsider calling a little girl “bossy”, and say instead “that she has executive leadership skills”.


[i] De Beauvoir, Simone, ‘The Second Sex’; Vintage Books, 1989

[ii] Sandberg, Sheryl, ‘Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’; A.A. Knopf, 2013