From 'ladylike' to 'mankind', these terms perpetuate gender bias through language

A few months ago, India’s Supreme Court took a step towards ridding court rulings of patriarchal language by issuing a Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 8 Feb 2024, 6:59 PM

A few months ago, India’s Supreme Court took a step toward ridding court rulings of patriarchal language by issuing a “Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes”. The 30-page document details instances of misogynistic language used in Indian courts and describes how this hampers the impartial delivery of justice for women by perpetuating gender stereotypes. It unequivocally states that there is no place for regressive ideas about women in court rulings; judges must use alternate terminology to ensure their judgements are not only just, but gender-just.

There’s little doubt that the English language reflects an ingrained sexism. It is evidence of the cultural biases that have influenced people’s attitudes over time, and it’s important the court recognized its own role in perpetuating sexism through language. For instance, judgements in sexual assault cases have described a female victim as a “woman of loose morals,” “a seductress,” an “adulteress”, someone given to “promiscuous” behaviour, or even as a “slut.” But it’s not negative language alone that the handbook decries. Even expressions like “ladylike”, or “dutiful wife” (or “good wife” or “obedient wife”) are described as “incorrect” because of their “patriarchal undertones”. Traditional gender roles for women in society are reflected in such language, implying that by using such phrases, the judge endorses the view that women are best suited to look after the home and care for the family and that deviations from this “norm” are frowned upon.

The handbook warns of the larger impact of these societal stereotypes that entrench patriarchal roles for women. Judges have no business using language that seemingly compels women to conform to conventional roles, serve as chaste custodians of their family’s honour, and “dutifully” undertake household chores, child-rearing and care for the elderly. The handbook says such language is not just anachronistic but “unconstitutional”, and should be avoided. Judgements should be impartially decided and written based on the law rather than on “preconceived notions about men and women.” In many instances, the simple word “wife” would be “preferred”.

In his foreword to the handbook, the Chief Justice makes it clear that he hopes to remove patriarchal language from the court’s legal parlance. A detailed glossary of terms lists regressive stereotypes for women, and offers alternative words that judges should use in their rulings. Misogyny is inherent in some judicial pronouncements, whereas the Supreme Court should foster an environment of “gender equality” and work toward a “gender-just environment”. Euphemisms like “eve-teasing” should be dropped for the more accurate “street sexual harassment”. References to a “fallen woman”or to “inherent characteristics” of women are nothing but stereotypes, the handbook argues. It differentiates between “sex” and “gender”; while the former is a biological attribute of an individual, the latter refers to socially constructed roles for girls and women (and for boys, and men for that matter), which should be eschewed. Gender stereotypes and traditional ways of “harmful thinking”, the handbook says, “impact the impartiality and the intellectual rigour of judicial decisions”. Two years earlier, the then-Attorney General KK Venugopal had told the Supreme Court that there is a need to educate judges on gender sensitisation, as language “objectifying women is a gross trivialization of [their] distress”.

The handbook is an unprecedented initiative by the Supreme Court and should be welcomed. Though it is aimed at judges and the legal fraternity, the Court expressed the hope that by taking on the issue of gendered language, it would set an example for society at large and be a “catalyst for change.” “Words influence society’s attitudes” and “inclusive terms will break traditional harmful thinking,” the handbook points out.

Three months after the handbook came out, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development in turn issued a ‘Guide on Gender Inclusive Communication’ for administrators and educational institutions. Though somewhat briefer -- the guide has just over 60 words and phrases – it is sharply prescriptive in its desire to “percolate a language which is more inclusive and just”. Amongst its recommendations are to use 'owner' instead of 'landlord or landlady', 'humankind’ or ‘humanity' instead of 'mankind', 'workforce’ or ‘workers' for 'manpower', and 'toughen up' instead of 'man up'. Releasing the Guide, Minister Smriti Irani declared that “the power of language has been embellished by empathy and equity because of this guide”. Let’s hope more government institutions around the world follow suit.

A few months ago, India’s Supreme Court took a step towards ridding court rulings of patriarchal language by issuing a Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes. The 30-page document details instances of misogynistic language used in Indian courts and describes how this hampers the impartial delivery of justice for women by perpetuating gender stereotypes. It unequivocally states that there is no place for regressive ideas about women in court rulings; judges must use alternate terminology to ensure their judgements are not only just, but gender-just.

There’s little doubt that the English language reflects an ingrained sexism. It is evidence of the cultural biases that have influenced people’s attitudes over time, and it’s important the court recognised its own role in perpetuating sexism through language. For instance, judgements in sexual assault cases have described a female victim as a “woman of loose morals,” “a seductress,” an “adulteress”, someone given to “promiscuous” behaviour, or even as a “slut.” But it’s not negative language alone that the handbook decries. Even expressions like “ladylike”, or “dutiful wife” (or “good wife” or “obedient wife”) are described as “incorrect” because of their “patriarchal undertones”. Traditional gender roles for women in society are reflected in such language, implying that by using such phrases, the judge endorses the view that women are best suited to look after the home and care for the family and that deviations from this “norm” are frowned upon.

The handbook warns of the larger impact of these societal stereotypes that entrench patriarchal roles for women. Judges have no business using language that seemingly compels women to conform to conventional roles, serve as chaste custodians of their family’s honour, and “dutifully” undertake household chores, child-rearing and care for the elderly. The handbook says such language is not just anachronistic but “unconstitutional”, and should be avoided. Judgements should be impartially decided and written based on the law rather than on “preconceived notions about men and women.” In many instances, the simple word “wife” would be “preferred”.

In his foreword to the handbook, the Chief Justice makes it clear that he hopes to remove patriarchal language from the court’s legal parlance. A detailed glossary of terms lists regressive stereotypes for women, and offers alternative words that judges should use in their rulings. Misogyny is inherent in some judicial pronouncements, whereas the Supreme Court should foster an environment of “gender equality” and work toward a “gender-just environment”. Euphemisms like “eve-teasing” should be dropped for the more accurate “street sexual harassment”. References to a “fallen woman”or to “inherent characteristics” of women are nothing but stereotypes, the handbook argues. It differentiates between “sex” and “gender”; while the former is a biological attribute of an individual, the latter refers to socially constructed roles for girls and women (and for boys and men for that matter), which should be eschewed. Gender stereotypes and traditional ways of “harmful thinking”, the handbook says, “impact the impartiality and the intellectual rigour of judicial decisions”. Two years earlier, the then-Attorney General KK Venugopal had told the Supreme Court that there is a need to educate judges on gender sensitisation, as language “objectifying women is a gross trivialisation of [their] distress”.

The handbook is an unprecedented initiative by the Supreme Court and should be welcomed. Though it is aimed at judges and the legal fraternity, the Court expressed the hope that by taking on the issue of gendered language, it would set an example for society at large and be a “catalyst for change.” “Words influence society’s attitudes” and “inclusive terms will break traditional harmful thinking,” the handbook points out.

Three months after the handbook came out, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development in turn issued a ‘Guide on Gender Inclusive Communication’ for administrators and educational institutions. Though somewhat briefer — the guide has just over 60 words and phrases — it is sharply prescriptive in its desire to “percolate a language which is more inclusive and just”. Amongst its recommendations are to use 'owner' instead of 'landlord or landlady', 'humankind’ or ‘humanity' instead of 'mankind', 'workforce’ or ‘workers' for 'manpower', and 'toughen up' instead of 'man up'. Releasing the Guide, Minister Smriti Irani declared that “the power of language has been embellished by empathy and equity because of this guide”. Let’s hope more government institutions around the world follow suit.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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