Rajya Sabha Directs Ministries to Use Gender-Neutral Terms: Addressing the Gender Bias in Language

New Delhi: In a democracy, it is important for languages to evolve and undergo changes to accommodate all those who come under its purview. Recently, Shiv Sena M.P Priyanka Chaturvedi appealed to the Rajya Sabha to drop the usage of phrases like ‘no sir,’ and introduce a more gender-neutral language in its address to the session.

On 8th September, M.P Priyanka Chaturvedi appealed to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Prahlad Joshi through an official letter to make the official language of the parliament more gender inclusive. As a result of her appeal, the Rajya Sabha Secretariat directed all fellow ministries to adopt a more gender-neutral and inclusive language of address during their sessions.

The Maharashtra M.P stated that her letter was “meant to observe institutional gender mainstreaming” by the very “temple of democracy”, which is the parliament.

Rajya Sabha Secretariat took her appeal in good stead and responded to the letter: “As per conventions and rules of procedure and conduct of business in Rajya Sabha, all the proceedings of the Houses are addressed to the Chair, and replies to Parliamentary questions being a part of proceedings are also addressed to the chairperson only. However, the ministries will be informed to furnish gender-neutral replies to the Parliamentary questions from the next session of Rajya Sabha onwards.”

M.P Priyanka Chaturvedi greeted this directive of the parliament by tweeting: “Although this may seem like a small change, it will go a long way in giving women due representation in the Parliamentary process.”

With the seemingly easy resolution of the conflict and the parliament ushering in new changes to make the official language more gender inclusive, it might be worth introspecting the patriarchal connotations of the language that we inherit and speak daily.

Language is patriarchal in its very roots. It evolves with the people who speak it. Therefore, in a patriarchal society, it inevitably becomes exclusive to male authorial power because it is men who have wielded power over the formation of the language through the centuries.

M.P Priyanka Chaturvedi’s appeal, however righteous in spirit, remains limited within the gender binary. The inclusion of women as opposed to only men only serves cisgender folks and leaves out people who fall outside the gender binary. However, her initiative serves as an important reminder that official procedural language in political dealings or policy-making should not be exclusive to only those who conform to gender norms.

Cis-normative usage of language, especially in policy-making and law, legitimises the hegemonic claim of patriarchy in our society and invisibilises those who are non-conforming to the existing gender binary.

Even if changes in usages such as ‘men/women’ or ‘she/he’ are incorporated into the official language of Parliamentary address, it leaves out trans and non-binary folks from its purview. Language has the power to bring people into existence and give visibility to their identity, history, and struggle for inclusion. Subsequently, gender exclusive language has the power to render people invisible in the eye of the law and remove them from the position to exercise their rights as fellow citizens of the nation.

Any person, whose identity is not written into the law, exists beyond the protection of the law. Gender non-conforming persons and gender minorities are always in a vulnerable position and often invite atrocities simply for being visible. Oftentimes, the violence comes from the state-sanctioned law enforcement itself.

In such a dire state of existence, if the language of the law’s language itself leaves trans and non-binary folks out of its purview, then law enforcement can easily forgo any legal obligation to recognise trans and non-binary folks’ rights and inflict violence on them to the point of invisibility and non-existence.

Therefore, it is important for gender inclusivity to reach beyond the binary and adopt a more fluid approach to its formal recognition. The fight against patriarchy does not entail replacing men with women in positions of power. Rather, it seeks to destabilise and dismantle the power structure that maintains patriarchal influences over the society at large.

People who do not conform to the gender binary sanctioned by patriarchal language structures pose a threat to its legitimacy and its hegemonic existence. Therefore, they are often left out of mainstream language usage and are given the status of ‘outsiders’.

Most mainstream languages that are spoken in the official state or regional communications, as well as the parliamentary level, are structured in such a way that gendering of its grammar and subjects come naturally to the speaker. These languages offer concrete resistance and often cease to make sense when one tries to de-gender them. Therefore, it becomes quite a task to adopt a more fluid and gender-neutral language.

However, recognising the issue that resides within gendered language constructs is the first step towards solving the issue. This opens up a wide scope of invention and research work for linguistic experts and researchers, as well as the society as a whole to break away from the gendered pattern of languages.

(Courtesy: feminisminindia.com)