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Language requires an urgent update to reflect growing female presence in ‘male’ spheres

Sadly, however, that is overwhelmingly not the case, with the old English rule of “man” including “women” and indeed, all of humankind continuing to remain in currency.

Written by Richa Roy |
Updated: June 27, 2016 1:05:57 am

When Raghuram Rajan took over as governor of RBI in September 2013, he memorably said that while some actions he took would not be popular, he hoped to do the right thing, regardless of criticism, even while looking to learn from it. To illustrate what he thought were the characteristics of an ideal central banker, he quoted Rudyard Kipling’s immortal line from the poem If: “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too”.

In addition to his excellent taste in poetry, Rajan also demonstrated his commitment to the need for gender-neutral language by pointing out that Kipling’s reference to only “men” dated these lines — meaning clearly that we are far away from the days when the default common noun should be male.

Sadly, however, that is overwhelmingly not the case, with the old English rule of “man” including “women” and indeed, all of humankind continuing to remain in currency. This holds even in the face of semantic unreason — in fact, it is the word “woman” that includes “man” within and not vice versa.

This rule of language often gets codified in law and can sometimes lead to absurd consequences. The ludicrousness of this rule is contained in the State Bank of India Act, 1955, which only has references to a “chairman” and therefore Arundhati Bhattacharya’s business card identifies her as the chairman of the SBI.


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This unfortunate rule of language persists in respect of the default common pronoun (“he” or “his” rather than “she” or “her”) as well. Yet again, this is hard-coded in the General Clauses Act, 1897, which provides that “words importing the masculine gender shall be taken to include females”. The American Dialect Society voted the feminine pronoun “she” as the word of the millennium in the year 2000 (trumping other contenders like “truth”, “justice”, “freedom”, “government” and “science”) as a representation of a fundamental social category and in recognition of the gains made by women at the end of the millennium. Yet, the default common pronoun remains male (an honourable exception being the op-ed pages of The Indian Express).

The under-usage of a seemingly mundane word that gets taken for granted in fact represents the insidious ways in which language can be used to perpetuate received social constructs and stereotypes. Linguistic theorists believe the use of the default common pronoun “he” was justified by 17th and 18th century (mostly male) grammarians on the grounds that language (much like the culture it articulated) was biased in favour of the “superior” and “worthier” male gender.

Not only does this require updating, as women are more visible and participate in public life (so that language reflects reality), but must also change in order to transform our public imagination (so that language reflects what we want the world to be). When one uses the word “he” as the default common pronoun to refer to bankers (and bank chairpersons) doctors, lawyers, journalists, professors, public servants and the like (and quite often, the default common pronoun “she” when referring to nurses, school teachers and stay-home parents), we further the perception that certain professions or activities are meant only for members of a certain gender, which is a disservice to both genders.

Rajan spoke eloquently about this yet again, in his first speech following his use of the expression “in the land of the blind the one-eyed is king”. He clarified what he meant — that our growth isn’t at its potential, but also that language is important and we should be mindful of its usage.

He said, “not paying attention to words or phrases that give offence risks perpetuating debilitating stereotypes that prevent advancement. When referring to bankers, scientists, engineers, or surgeons in the abstract, we often refer to them as ‘he’, thus perpetuating the unfortunate stereotype that these are not jobs for women. Clearly, in doing so we ignore the increasing presence, and even dominance, of women in these fields. What should we do to remedy matters?… I think we all have work to do to improve public dialogue. The greatest danger of all is that we do not communicate or debate, for then we will allow distorted stereotypes to flourish unchallenged, and divisiveness to increase.”

Recently, a male Bollywood superstar spoke frivolously about rape, comparing his training regimen to a sexual crime. Arguments defending this statement have said that it was a metaphor and should not be over-analysed. However, the effect of such language is to trivialise a crime that is vastly under-reported and prosecuted in any event.

Victims of sexual crime are often not believed. Law enforcement authorities come with the preconceived notion that people who report rapes are in effect reporting consensual relationships that have soured. We already live in a culture that normalises violence against women, and so for an iconic star to make a statement like this would further reinforce these unfortunate perceptions. People who joke about sexual violence would do well to heed Rajan’s advice about communicating carefully.

The writer, 31, is a finance and public policy lawyer. She was most recently part of the drafting committee for the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016, the report for which uses ‘she’ as the default pronoun

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