Language of sexism

Language of sexism

'Ma*******', 'Behen****', are more often than not used as punctuation in our country. As a feminist woman living in Delhi, I assure you that not an hour goes by when I don't hear these words. What makes them so common, so naturally instinctive to men and women in our culture? How are these abuses not problematic enough, seeped in misogyny and rape culture as they are? They are not used as abuses, but as casual words mid-sentence, articulating everything from exasperation to joy to sadness!

Because they are still centred around the man. His act of incest, that must be condemned. But what of the woman suffering in the very word and act? What of the violation of her person? We don't think like this, because we are still deeply steeped in the world of toxic masculinity and harsh patriarchy. And in culture, one of the largest roles is played by language. Language, its semiotics, unite a culture, create identity and, by extension, identity politics. It builds conversation and is one of the most critical ways of communication. A lot depends on language and how we use it, and how it gets used, perceived, written and spoken.

How are rapes reported? '3-month-old girl raped' or 'Woman raped at place'. Rape doesn't happen, as is conveyed in such headlines or in our conversations. It is done. It is an act committed, consciously, of power, violence and violation. We must appropriate the blame where it is due. Language must become and charge the way for personal politics.

Popular culture, popular Hindi cinema has, again and again, referred to problematic comparisons between genders, making the comparison itself an act of insult. 'Haathon mein choodiyaan' is a sign of proverbial shame. Exhibiting emotions, a sign of un-manliness. And being equated with a woman the worst form of insult, with brawny men, personifying the idea of a toxic male, guffawing and riling up the one willing to exhibit his weakness or resistance to an open fight. Our cinema liberally uses patriarchal language from objectification of women in songs like 'gatka le saiyyan alcohol se' to 'tere liye palkon ki chaadar bunoon'.

Women are either objectified or placed on a pedestal or are portrayed as submissive these are the three predominant voices we have heard for years in Hindi film music.

Popular Hindi cinema for the most part continues to use misogynistic statements, lyrics and situations to demonstrate their complete lack of empathy towards the gender movement. We still reel under songs like 'DJ waale babu', that shout of power. Of control over situations and enabling the desire of the woman's voice.

The woman's voice. Where do we hear it? Do we hear it? Most of the conversations around women, that aren't by women solely for women, are misinterpreted or mansplained. "Women are being given freedom", a friend said to me once. "Given" automatically implies that men have the authority to either allow or not allow women freedom and the ability to exercise their choice.

Ideas of consent with 'na mein haan' are being questioned, albeit slowly. When men are 'sympathetic' towards feminism, almost as a favour to all of us fighting a personal political battle, the language is patronising, to say the least, exhibiting the sense of inequality. Exactly what the gender movement continues to be up against. The woman's voice still remains stifled, shrieking through the proverbial glass ceilings to be heard.

What do we teach our children? I remember being taught as a child, "don't speak too loudly", "girls must speak softly, clearly and warmly". Why? Because 'loudness' connotes dissent? Were boys taught the same, and in the same manner? To speak softly because they are boys?

Role of language

Gender politics starts early. Earlier than we would care to accept. And from when it starts, language plays an absolutely critical role. "Daddy's princess", "meri Gudiya" vs "strong boy," is how children grow up. "What a pretty girl" vs "What a strong boy". Strength is an asset for both genders, why do we appropriate it for one? Beauty is again genderless, why do we limit it to one? The language we choose, the visual language we represent of dainty princesses and charming princes, all tie back to the culture of patriarchy. Each spoke of the wheel must introspect and critique.

The language of desire is coarse and tilted. Even critiques of body and expectation of body conformity are coupled with an expectation of adequate desirability for men. That is how women are brought up. Keeping in mind their appeal to men, like "patli ho jaao, sundar hogi toh ladka accha milega". This sentence (quoted verbatim) brings alive objectification for both genders. One blatantly on appearance, the other on quality!

The ideas of 'should' and 'must' apply more to women than men. How a woman 'should' be married off at a certain age. For many, the difference between "shaadi ho gayi" and "shaadi kar li" is ignorable. What the latter does is to keep the agency the woman's, and celebrates the existence of a choice. Semiotics are important. They are political. Much like everything we say or do.

Language holds the key to what's communicated. It is the delivery of ideas, thoughts and stories. It's important how we use it. In the conversation of the genders, we have to start using our words well, keeping the agency of each alive, keeping misogyny and patriarchy at bay.

(The writer is a Delhi-based poet and theatre-person)

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