The exclusion of women from learning and language can be observed in the generic uses of “he”. This problematic use of language can be found everywhere, from laws to literature. Using only masculine pronouns or making them “generic” is a result of male control of educational establishments. Although India has witnessed changes in the laws to strengthen the vulnerable and oppressed, it still has a long way to go. As India takes steps towards achieving equality, it should also witness a change in the every-day language since now is the time when representation and inclusion matter more than ever. The generic uses of “he” have graced literature to refer to an unspecified gender. This is problematic and this article shall examine why.
The effect of language on beliefs is pervasive. The generic uses of “he” were made to represent all human beings in accordance with male dominance. Studies have shown that masculine generics invoke male bias in mental representation and make readers or listeners think more of male than models of any other genders. Lera Boroditsky, a professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD writes, “Even what might be deemed frivolous aspects of language can have far-reaching subconscious effects on how we see the world.” This kind of generalisation of pronouns would influence the subconscious and how an individual would perceive certain genders.
For example, Section 8 of the Indian Penal Code states that the pronoun “he” and its derivatives could be used for any person, irrespective of their gender. The offences defined under the Indian Penal Code mention only “he” while speaking about the accused, offender or the victim. This exclusionary law contains, within itself, the potential to impact how individuals perceive crimes and criminals in society. As a result, sexual assault of men is still an alien concept to many, for instance. Recent studies in political science have shown that gendered languages that assign nouns this way are correlated with more regressive gender attitudes.
Some researchers have also found that countries that speak a more gender stereotypes entrenched language have less gender equality. The World Bank reported that in many developing countries, women face significant barriers to their equal participation in society. While some of these barriers are easy to see, a new line of research is uncovering a surprising and less obvious possibility: the very structure of certain languages may shape gender norms in a way that limits women’s opportunities. Asli Demirguc-Kunt, Director of Research at the World Bank stated: “Gender equity is important not only because it can help speed up progress toward ending poverty, but because it provides everyone the chance to achieve their potential”. He further stated “Understanding the deeper causes that shape the barriers women face can help countries be more effective in their efforts to create a level playing field.”
The World Values Survey, Ozier and Jakiela have reported that people who use gendered language such as androcentric pronouns in their day to day lives are likely to agree with stereotypical statements like “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do” or “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than women.” Research has shown that the generic uses of pronouns etc. shape the views of women’s role in society and directly impacts women’s labour force participation.
Profane the Dignity of Non-Binaries
Representation matters. The use of binary pronouns will only limit individuals’ from knowing the fact that there are individuals who do not identify with the two genders. Having respect for the pronouns that individuals use is imperative to give everyone their right to dignity. Assuming someone’s gender and referring to them with the he/him pronouns with or without knowing whether they choose to identify as a man is a violation of their right to dignity. Not assuming pronouns is a way to express respect for their gender identity. The American Dialect Society named singular “they” the word of the decade 2010-2019 and, in 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary amended their definition so that “they” can be used for a “single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” Using gender-neutral pronouns like they/them or even better, normalising asking one’s preferred pronouns instead of assuming the same, would be the right way to begin to remove the gender-bias in the society.
There have been criticisms about the grammatical errors that this could create since the pronoun “they” is used as a plural pronoun in English. However, languages can change and modernise in order to be in sync with the changing times. Better to have acceptance to change rather than a narrow mentality of believing that all individuals identify as either male or female.
Bringing about a fundamental change, such as radically questioning the use of the same pronouns for all genders, requires conscious and sustained efforts. To bring this about, we could start by consciously observing our daily language and making amendments to it. Change can happen if we make conscious efforts to make it happen. Let’s go beyond the binary perspectives and give everyone the dignity and representation that they truly deserve.
Pravah Ranka is reading law at Gujarat National Law University, India. Her research interests include International Human Rights Law, Public International Law and Arbitration. She has interned under Senior Advocate Indira Jaising and now works as a research assistant at Centre for Human Rights Studies, Jindal Global Law School. She is also the co-founder of Bleed Organization, which is a non-profit working to end period poverty in rural India. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter.
Featured image source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India