The controversy that swirled when Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referred to President Droupadi Murmu as “‘Rashtrapatni” last month reiterated feminist writer Rita Mae Brown’s assertion that “language is the road map of a culture”. As she explained, “It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”

Questions about how an Indian woman president should be addressed in Hindi were initially discussed when Pratibha Patil became the first woman to occupy the post in 2007. Despite this, when Chowdhury addressed Murmu as “‘Rashtrapatni”, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party claimed to be outraged and demanded that he and his party should apologise.

Chowdhury blamed his poor grasp of Hindi for his choice of words but the furore has highlighted the gendered nature of language.

“Rashtrapati” is used as a translation of the English word “president” – a gender-neutral term for the presiding head of a group. But the Hindi word “rashtrapati” is not, because of the suffix “pati” used with the word “rashtra” or “nation”.

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 example, 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. There are many more examples but they show the power relation denoted by the word “pati”.

In everyday usage, “pati” generally means husband, but again, the inherent patriarchal power relation is reflected through compound words such as “pati-dev”or “pati-parmeshwar”, which refer to the husband as lord or god for the wife.

When the word “patni” is suffixed with the word “rashtra”, it takes a sexual connotation to mean “wife of the nation”. This is a reflection of how the word “patni” is entrenched in the Indian mind: as a sexual being and wife.

The problem here is how languages are structured. Since language is a product of society, it reflects and perpetuates existing biases and power relations. As academicians 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 the article Language and Woman’s Place published in 1972, Robert Bakoff for the first time explored the relationship between language and gender. He argued that “women generally use linguistic forms which are lower/subordinate to that of men with the use of tag questions (isn’t it?, am I?), questioning expressions or mitigators (sort of, I think)”.

According to a study by Francesca Di Garbo, Bruno Olsson, and Bernhard Wälchli on grammatical gender and linguistic complexity published in 2011, about 75% of the world’s languages propagate sexism with an abundant use of male pronouns. Hindi is no exception.

In everyday lives too, the use of heavily gendered terms in conversations is ignored. When English words such as policeman, fireman, chairman, and salesman are used, the gender bias is often ignored. These terms are seen as referring to jobs which are primarily done by men. When these words are used in Hindi for women occupying those roles, they almost always have the prefix mahila, or woman, attached to the role/position: mahila police, mahila doctor and others

As to why this sexism prevails in everyday language, it is the sources of vocabulary formation such as dictionaries, newspapers, or journals that require examination where editors are primarily men who do not understand the inference of using a particular language in a specific way. Hence, the persistence of gendered language is managed by the overall structure itself.

A suggestion

In 2007, when questions emerged over how to address President Pratibha Patil in Hindi, Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray wrote an article in party newspaper Saamna arguing for the word Rashtrapati to be replaced by Rashtra-adhyaksh, a more apt, 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.

There is no reason as why the word “rashtrapati” should not be replaced with “rashtra-adhyaksh”, or another term, “pradhan”, which was used to refer to the president in the Hindi draft of the Indian Constitution, making the nomenclature of the highest constitutional position gender neutral.

The Rasthrapatni row has offered an opportunity to reflect on the patriarchal roots of popular Hindi terms such “udhyogpati”, used for industrialists, “sabhapati”, used for chairperson/man, “lakhpati”, used for millionaires, and “crorepati”, used for billionaires and many more order to create gender-neutral replacements.

Bijayani Mishra is an assistant professor at Maitreyi College, in the department of Sociology, University of Delhi. Harsh Vardhan is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.