Thursday, Oct 06, 2022

How Does ‘Gendered’ Language Affect Social Reality?

In 2007, when questions emerged about how to address former President Pratibha Patil in Hindi, the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackrey argued for replacing the word ‘Rashtrapati’ with ‘Rashtra-adhyaksh’, a more apt and gender-neutral Hindi translation of the word President.

A political row erupted when Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referred to President Murmu as 'rashtrapatni'
A political row erupted when Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referred to President Murmu as 'rashtrapatni' Getty Images

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”
— Rita Mae Brown

The question about how a woman who is elected to the post of president should be addressed in Hindi first came to the fore when Pratibha Patil became the first woman to occupy the highest constitutional post in India in 2007. 

There were debates on whether she should have been addressed as ‘Rashtrapati’ or ‘Rasthrapatni’, but that debate did not invite the amount of uproar that was caused recently when Adhir Ranjan Choudhary, the Leader of Opposition in the Lower House, addressed President Droupadi Murmu as ‘Rasthrapatni’. 

Unleashing a scathing attack on Choudhary, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demanded an apology from the Congress for insulting Murmu, which led to huge drama both inside and outside the Parliament. Though Choudhary apologised for his remark citing his poor Hindi, the issue has sparked a much necessary debate that concerns the gendered nature of our language.

The controversy that emerged around Chaudhary’s remark can only be understood if we look into what the two words ‘pati’ and ‘patni’ mean and what meanings are attributed when both these words are suffixed with Rashtra (nation). 
The Hindi word Rashtrapati is used as a translation of the English word ‘President’ which is generally used to refer to the presiding head of a group and is a gender-neutral term, but its Hindi translation as ‘Rashtrapati’ is not because of the suffix ‘pati’.

Etymologically, the Hindi word ‘pati’ is part of the Indo-European language family, where it usually means ‘lord’ or ‘master’. When used as a suffix it usually means ‘lord of…’. For e.g. the Sanskrit word for a married householder is ‘grahapati’, which means lord of the household. Similarly, ‘senapati’ means the lord commander of the army; Ganapati means lord of the tribe; Chhatrapati means lord of kings. 

Such examples can only be multiplied to show the power relation that the word ‘pati’ denotes. In our everyday usage, the word ‘pati’ generally means husband, but again the inherent patriarchal power relation is reflected through compound words like ‘pati-dev’ or ‘pati-parmeshwar’, which refers to the husband as lord or God for the wife.

In contrast to pati, the word ‘patni’, which is used for ‘wife’, has no such meaning. It is a relational term unlike ‘pati’ which is an independent term and is used only for a married woman. It is simply a female derivative of pati and therefore has an inherent sexual connotation and meaning attached to it.

‘Patni’ is merely a man’s sexual partner. Moreover, there is no counterpart to Hindi words like ‘pati-dev’, or ‘pati-parmeshwar’ in any Indian vernacular for a married woman, which only shows the power differential between pati and patni in Indian society. And herein lies the root of the recent Rasthrapatni row.

The word ‘Rashtrapati’ is a combination of two Hindi words, ‘Rashtra’ and ‘Pati’. When used as a translation for the English word President, it is usually understood to mean ‘leader of the republic’ and not ‘husband of the nation’. And this meaning is in perfect congruence with other such words that have the suffix pati. But when the word ‘patni’ is suffixed with the word ‘Rashtra’ to produce the compound ‘Rasthrapatni’, the meaning takes a sexual connotation to mean ‘wife of the nation’, which again is just a reflection of how the word ‘patni’ is entrenched in the Indian mindscape, that is, as a ‘sexual being’ and ‘wife’.

The problem here is how our languages are structured. Since language is a product of society, they reflect and perpetuate the existing biases and power relations existing in any particular society. As Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini have argued, "language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced". 

In an article titled ‘Language and Woman’s Place (1972), Robert Bakoff for the first time explored the relationship between language and gender and argued that “women generally use linguistic forms which are lower/subordinate to that of men with the use of tag questions (isn’t it? or am I?), questioning expressions or mitigators (sort of, I think)”.

According to a study by Francesca Di Garbo, Bruno Olsson, and Bernhard Wälchli titled 'Grammatical Gender and Linguistic Complexity (2011) about 75 per cent of the world's languages propagate sexism where one finds abundant use of male pronouns, and Hindi is no exception. 

In our everyday lives, we very often ignore the use of ‘heavily’ gendered terms in our conversations. When we use English words like ‘policeman’, ‘fireman’, ‘chairman’, and ‘salesman’, we skip the very fact of gender biases. For any individual, these terms refer to those jobs which are primarily done by men only. When these words are used in Hindi for women occupying those roles, they are almost always addressed with the prefix ‘mahila’ attached to the role/position, so we have ‘mahila police’, ‘mahila doctor’ etc.

As to why this sexism prevails in our everyday language, we need to look at the sources of our vocabulary formation like dictionaries, newspapers, or journals where editors are mostly men across the globe, who probably don’t understand the inference of using a particular language in a specific way. Hence, we can say the persistence of gendered language is managed by the overall structure itself.

Way back in 2007, when questions emerged about how to address former President Pratibha Patil in Hindi, the late Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackrey penned an article in his party’s mouthpiece Samna, where he argued for replacing the word ‘Rashtrapati’ with ‘Rashtra-adhyaksh’, a more apt and gender-neutral Hindi translation of the word President. In fact, it is a common practice among all political parties to use the word ‘adhyaksh’ while referring to their national as well as state presidents.

Therefore, there stands no reason why the word ‘Rashtrapati’ should not be replaced with ‘Rashtra-adhyaksh’ or with another term ‘pradhan’ which was used to refer to the President in the draft Hindi version of the Indian constitution, making the nomenclature of the highest constitutional position gender-neutral.

The ‘Rasthrapatni’ row, though an outcome of ice-cold political rationality, has presented us with an opportunity to reflect upon the patriarchal roots of certain popular Hindi terminologies like udhyogpati (used for industrialists), sabhapati (used for chairperson/man), lakhpati (used for millionaires) and crorepati (used for billionaires), etc. in order to create gender-neutral terms for them.