We don’t live in a polite society. Calling it thus, would be a farce. As Indians, our threshold for erupting into rage is far too low. Even having a car’s side-view mirror slightly nudged on a jam-packed street would probably cause us to launch a series of expletives at the driver. Profanities, at varying levels of intensity, form a core part of our lives. At some, nay many, points in our life, we’ve cursed, cussed and abused.
Most of the pet cuss words however, are located, alarmingly, in sexism. In fact, our constant usage of these profanities, corroborate, reiterate and promote sexism. The most ludicrous, disturbing and common profanities – a majority of which are directed at men – interestingly are popular for their association with women. “Mother-f*****”, “Chu****” (pu***-fu****), “Behen ke L***” (sister-f*****), “bastard” and other variants of such – are all profanities that shame women. And by extension, the said man at whom these words are hurled, is insulted as well, mocking his inability to ‘prevent’ his women relatives from straying. In fact, he is held as an accomplice who participates in their sexual immorality.
The roots of these gendered profanities can be traced to the age-old discourse of female propriety. The culture of honour, present to some degree in all known societies, is a gendered phenomenon. In a country like ours, in certain regions, “family honour” coincides with female promiscuity. If a woman family member is sexually active outside marriage, it is taken as a great sign of disrespect towards her family’s “honour”. It is the men in the family therefore, who ‘guard’ the woman to ensure that the vital, albeit vulnerable, “family honour” is not penetrated or abused.
Conversely however, there is an absence of loaded epithets that challenge or downgrade a man’s sexual virtue. In the sprawling lexicon of profanities, the chorus of condemnation against men with phrases like “brother-f*****”, “father-f*****” don’t exist.
Culturally, women in modern societies, swear with remarkable ease, rarely feeling conscious or struck by the guilt or fear of social condemnation. However, it’s not something that is socially applauded. There are more words in the spectrum of profanities that are derogatory towards women than there are for men. In fact, phrases that are used to insult women are often associated with either their anatomy – cu*t, pu***, ti*s – or their sexual promiscuity – wh*re, sl*t, ny*pho, prostitute. A woman’s identity is ultimately, and overtly, reduced to her sexual organ.
Such profanities seep into the world of journalism and politics as well. MoS for External Affairs General V.K. Singh infamously used the term “presstitute” for journalists. The term, a combination of “press” and “prostitute”, went viral. Trolls on social media happily adopted it to undermine journalists and the media who were doing their job. It is the subtle complexities in that term, however, that are important. Not only does it derogate women, it derogates the sex-workers, who are compelled to work for money. In fact, linguist, Deborah Cameran points out the sharp irony in men degrading prostitutes. She writes in her book, Feminism and Linguistic Theory: “No group of women is more vilified than prostitutes, whose job exists precisely to cater to men’s desires.”
The question to mull over is whether sexist language is a reflection of how our culture perceives women – as nonentities? Or is it harmless, particularly because not many people give too much thought to it? The latter would argue that profanities like “mother-f*****”, or “presstitute” are used as a matter of habit, and don’t intent to hurt women. It has nothing to do with one’s ideology or one’s disrespect towards women. That, words are trivial. However, Cameran writes that “the issue of language has an extraordinary subterranean importance for those critics who deride feminist concern with it.”
The words used for women are considered to be far more aggressive, hard-hitting and insulting than those used for men. Colloquially, ‘cu*t’ and ‘pu***’ are hurled at men for derogation as well, where the intent is to specifically challenge their manhood/masculinity. Calling a man thus, suggests that he is effeminate, coward or feeble – like a woman, perhaps. Through word association then, these phrases belittle women with two-fold intensity.
It’s of critical importance that we consider the magnitude of sexism certain profanities promote. And this is not a radical feminist idea. Language contains power. Women and men, and their respective standings in societies, can be seen through the lens of language employed in said societies.