A leading national magazine recently ran a cover story about the achievements of Indian women in making life better for their countrymen. The only thing worse than this use of sexist language in a story ostensibly celebrating the achievements of women, was the fact that no one I asked even noticed its use. The magazine headline not only put women in the service of men – a role they have played for long, especially in this country – but also did it in a framework of apparent care, killing women with kindness.

Why words matter

The importance of language to the feminist movement has been the subject of debate for a long time, and it seems amazing that Indian journalists either have no awareness of this debate, or simply do not care. There are some who say that “men” does not mean men, it means everyone. If that is indeed the case, one must ask why “women” cannot be used to mean men? Clearly, the word matters, but it seems to matter only when the power of men to define everyone is threatened. The same people who claim that language does not matter – it is a convention to use words such as "mankind" and "chairman" and “he” to refer to all people – would baulk at the possibility of using "womankind" and "chairwoman" and “she” to refer to all people. Words matter.

If we believe that they do not, then we would have lost a crucial tool with which to approach the shocking gender crimes in India. “He” rules the roost both in language and in reality. Why don’t we conduct an experiment and start using “she” for all general statements, or “she or he”? Let us compare social indices after 10 years of using gender-neutral or actively female-centred language. I am not a social scientist but I can almost guarantee that we would have seen a spike in women’s achievements and a drop in crimes against them. Language does not only reflect reality, it also creates it. If it did not, would we still see the aggressive use of a Sanskritised Hindi to support the cultural project of the government currently in power? What do we gain or lose when we say “dhanyavaad” instead of “shukriyaa” , which cuts out Urdu speakers just as surely as “he” cuts out women.

An argument is made: Shakespeare used the word “countrymen” in Antony’s famous speech to “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen”, so why can’t we? Surely, Shakespeare was not sexist?  Leaving aside that last question for a moment, let us consider the utter disingenuousness of the statement. If we want to live the way people did 400 years ago, why don’t we go all the way? Why do we have luxury cars – Shakespeare in his horse-drawn public carriage would have been shocked! – and plastic containers and McDonald’s? There is little to no resistance to changing in every way, except in the realm of gender relations. If we can change the way in which we dress, eat, and work, can we not change the way we speak and think?

Language and power

Using non-sexist language is crucial to changing our mindset. Right now it is heartbreaking to see that not only do women not expect to be seen as the norm, but they also do not think they deserve it. This is not to suggest that all women are victims – several women, as we know all too well, can also be perpetrators at the individual level. But it is to bring back to our attention the fact that not only are we individuals, but we are individuals who exist within certain structures of power and inequality. These structures are supported in a fundamental way by the language we use. For speakers of Hindustani, social class is carefully calibrated by the version of “you” we use to address others. Similarly, using “he” or “men” to refer to everyone carefully calibrates who does and does not matter. Individual men can be wonderful and individual women can be awful. But unless the structure of language recognises women as human beings with agency, no amount of individual wonderfulness or awfulness is going to affect the structures of power within which we operate.

Another argument often used to prevent changing language is that there are more important problems in the world so why should we bother with this little thing that, after all, does no “real” harm? Apart from the fact that there seems to be a direct correlation between women’s oppression in society and the sexist language used by that society, I always marvel at this level of resistance. Just because there might be “bigger” problems does not mean we should not address the most immediate problem. Arguably, language is the thing we use most every single day. In its ubiquitousness lies its agency, and this is what we need to take seriously.

Indeed, to all these naysayers, I’d like to ask: what are you scared of? Go on, take the plunge! Start using “he or she,” “humankind,” “chairperson” “countrypeople,” and see how much of a difference it can make. You have nothing to lose but sexist language and the structures of power it supports.

Madhavi Menon is Professor of English at Ashoka University.