The line ‘rashtrapatni’ should make us rethink the everyday prejudice against women in our language

During his Independence Day speech on August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed the importance that in speech and conduct “we do not do anything that lowers the dignity of women”. He urged his fellow citizens to “get rid of everything that insults women in our daily lives, nature and culture”. One wonders if this was in response to the controversy that erupted in late July over Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury calling President Draupadi Murmu a “rashtrapatni”.

Days after Murmu made history as the first tribal woman to assume India’s highest constitutional office, she unwittingly became the center of a tussle between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. The BJP Minister and Member of Parliament called Chowdhury’s remark “degrading” while Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said it was a “deliberate gender slur”. Both houses of parliament were adjourned amid heated debate and protests over it.

Chowdhury apologized to President Murmu saying his use of the disputed word was “a slip” and the result of his unfamiliarity with Hindi. His remarks seemed to suggest that he was under the impression that the feminine form of the Hindi word for president, rashtrapati, was rashtrapatni – bride of the nation. Chowdhury’s explanation invoked the popular cliché of a well-meaning innocent Bengali gentleman, but horrible Hindi language mutilation.

Whether this defense is genuine or a shrewd maneuver, the fact remains that the ubiquity of the genre in Hindi can often pose a challenge to non-native speakers. For those unfamiliar with the language, the categorization of the Hindi word for chair (kursi) as feminine but bed (palang) as masculine can be confusing. The grammar conferring the masculine or feminine gender on inanimate objects is not unique to Hindi. French, Spanish and Hebrew, to name a few, also have a gendered grammar.

For many, it is time for that to change.

Around the time Chowdhury made the sexist faux pas, international media was reporting on some developments in the debate over gender neutrality in Spanish. In recent years, activists in Latin America have sought to modify Spanish words in an effort to make them more inclusive. What began as a feminist movement to discourage the use of generic male nouns has, over time, evolved into a broader exercise.

The modification of Spanish names aims to make them gender neutral, avoiding male and female identity to make room for those who do not conform to normative gender roles or identities. A common example of this is replacing the masculine ‘O’, feminine ‘A’ with a neuter ‘E’, ‘X’ or @.

Argentina, in particular, has been at the forefront of this linguistic revolution with universities and judges using the gender-neutral form of words. Of course, it was not all easy. Such developments angered both Puritans and Conservatives. The Royal Academy of Spain called these modifications of Spanish words “foreign to the morphology of Spanish”.

A few weeks ago, the city government of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, imposed an unprecedented ban on teachers using neutral words in the classroom. The legality of the ban has been challenged in court and will certainly set an intriguing precedent.

A similar scenario is playing out across the Atlantic. In October 2021, a French dictionary recognized the freshly minted pronoun (“iel”) as a gender-neutral alternative to the predominant masculine (“il”) and feminine (“elle”) terms.

This seemingly innocuous addition to the French lexicon triggered a discourse similar to that taking place in the Spanish-speaking world. Traditionalists denounced the move and former French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer had ominously declared that “inclusive writing is not the future of the French language”.

Even millennial Hebrew has not been immune to the winds of change. Like Hindi, Hebrew is also gendered, with objects being prescribed by either masculine or feminine nouns. Now activists are trying to make the language more inclusive by adding new characters to the Hebrew alphabet.

When it comes to English, pronouns have been central to gender-inclusive advocacy. Scrolling through social media, one is bound to come across cases of people expressing their preferred pronouns: he/him and she/she go without saying, they become the popular pronoun of choice for gender non-conforming people.

Inevitably, some have argued that the use of a collective pronoun to refer to an individual is cumbersome and inelegant, but such protests ring hollow in the face of history. In truth, the pronoun “they” has been used in the past to refer to singular subjects and is still used to refer to a single individual whose gender may be unknown. Interestingly, it is the pronoun “you” whose use in the singular is now considered natural, which was once only used in the plural sense – hence the “you are” as opposed to the “you are” ).

But let us dismiss the antecedents of these terms for a moment. Suppose the use of “they” as a singular pronoun is an innovation and an entirely new twist to the English language. Is that enough to declare it unacceptable?

Languages, like civilizations and peoples, are meant to evolve. For those who have struggled for countless years to carve out an identity in this world, the words that denote such an identity are essential. Claiming a place in one’s language can therefore be a key step in claiming a place in one’s society. Isn’t that reason enough to avoid pedantic rules of grammar to usher in change?

As this linguistic-cultural revolution sweeps the world, Chowdhury’s use of the term “rashtrapatni” can serve as a moment of introspection for everyone. If one were to ignore politics, this dispute would lay bare the gender that permeates Hindi – after all, the term ‘rashtrapati’ is inherently masculine and assumes that the holder of such a position is male.

Modi’s call for gender equality is a laudable message, but perhaps it’s time to move beyond simply condemning the use of inappropriate language. It may be time to dig deeper to rectify the biases on which the language is built.

As a young, forward-looking nation, we must do all we can to preserve the fundamental principles of inclusiveness and equality on which the state was founded. An important step towards this ideal would be to ensure that our language, and through it our society, evolves to reflect these values.

Rohan Banerjee is a lawyer in Mumbai.

Also read: ‘Rashtrapatni’ line is a reminder of the language’s sexist roots – and a suggestion from Bal Thackeray

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