Once in a day or even on multiple occasions, a woman is likely to hear a sexist remark, be it an offensive WhatsApp forward, some colleague making a sexist joke at the workplace and so on. But when women are fighting for equal pay, equal opportunities etc why shouldn’t our society adopt gender neutral language to have a more level playing field?
Vitamin Stree, a women-centric content platform, which focuses on cultural, political, artistic and ideological perspectives that shape the lives of women in the contemporary world, recently released their campaign, Language and Feminism, to spread awareness of gender neutral language. Padmini Vaidyanathan, editor and creative head of Vitamin Stree, says that people don’t realise misogyny in the simplest of sentences and use it so casually. “Our campaign is aimed at all because both men and women are guilty of using misogynistic language, that’s how deeply it is ingrained in us,” she says.
Talking to Vaidyanathan, we find out more about the need to use gender neutral language.
As a digital platform, what does Vitamin Stree stand for?
Vitamin Stree is trying to reshape the narrative for the young urban women in India, which is not an easy task and can’t be achieved overnight. So we begin by starting conversations around topics that people are not comfortable talking about. And there are so many of these topics — from pubic hair and menstrual cups to rights of women, marriage and millennials and sexist/ misogynist language. Our job is to present well-researched, fact-driven stories. Our viewers are given all the sides. It’s then up to them to decide.
Many look at feminism in a negative way and think that feminists are male-bashing people. Why do you think this image has developed in the minds of people even though feminism simply stands for equality?
Yes, feminism stands for equality — for everyone. I think perhaps a lot of the negative perception you are talking about exists because we forget that equal rights for women will never mean unequal rights for men.
And to be fair to those who are perceived as ‘male bashers’, their perspective maybe linked to what they have seen a certain section of men do. For instance, the MeToo movement brought out a lot of anger of women who have been abused and harassed by men and that is understandable. They need to be allowed their anger and grief. And like with every relationship, this one too will evolve for the better, once we have mutual respect, empathy and trust.
Tell us more about the campaign, Language and Feminism, and what it is aimed at?
Language and Feminism is looking at how we don’t realise the misogyny in the simplest of sentences and use it so casually. It is really aimed at all of us. Both men and women are guilty of using misogynistic language, because that’s how deeply it is ingrained in us. When researching for the video we came across phrases and thought processes that children are taught in school. So from a very young age the biases exist. What we are trying to do with this campaign is to call everyone to stop for a minute and acknowledge the casual misogyny. Whether it’s the abuses we hear, or how boys are told ‘don’t cry like a girl’ or how we choose to describe an ambitious women versus an ambitious man — aggressive versus a born leader. Misogynistic language is everywhere.
We come across sexist language everywhere, be it on greeting cards, WhatsApp forwards, advertisements and even jokes that people crack and expect women to laugh at. Why do you think this problem prevails and how do you think a woman should tackle such situations?
Like I said before, this has existed for centuries and we are taught these biases from a young age. There are TV shows that are extremely popular, but all the host is doing is making jokes about his wife or sister or girlfriend or mother. Or there are songs that become overnight hits, but have sexist lyrics. If a man cracks a sexist joke and you don’t laugh, you are just uptight or can’t take a joke. The best way in my opinion to tackle this is two fold — don’t feel the pressure to be part of the herd. If you feel something is wrong or makes you feel uncomfortable, call it out. And perhaps also explain as politely as possible why you find it offensive. Maybe the person will get it, maybe they won’t — but at least you would have started the conversation.
Do you think Indians are ready to adopt gender neutral language?
Yes, of course, if we make concerted efforts, we can reach a stage where we can adopt gender neutral language. First step is to acknowledge that we are all guilty of using sexist language. Then evaluate where we are going wrong — does our education system need to be reevaluated, do offices need strict guidelines of what is permissible and what is not, do we need to have conversations at our home. And then finally, apply — make a conscious effort to mind our own language, and if you can, don’t consume any pop culture or media that promotes misogynistic language. It is all pervasive only because we have allowed it.
Could you give us three examples of how one can avoid being sexist while talking?
* Avoid using inherently sexist words, that discard the existence of women completely, like instead of ‘mankind’ say ‘humankind’ or instead of ‘policeman’ say ‘police officer’.
* All subjects are not male. When you are writing/ saying a generic sentence, avoid gendered subjects, if you say ‘before an exam, a student must ensure he has revised all subjects’, you have already assumed your subject is male, whereas the subject could be male, female or both. So unless you are specifically talking about a male, don’t assume.
* And then finally, watch out for phrases where you are being derogatory to either of the sexes and reinforce stereotypical, sexist gender roles. It’s not just women who gossip, a lot of women throw really well and boys can cry the way they want. And this is just in English.
As a woman what do you think feminism stands for in 2019?
Feminism stands for equality for all. And in 2019, we have at least started a conversation towards that. Whether it is about intersectionality in feminism, or involving more men, when we talk about feminism, it is happening. We are definitely in a better place than we were ten or even five years ago, more and more companies are now talking about equality — whether it is about wage gap, opportunities gap or even something as simple as paternity leave. More women are stepping out of their homes to study, to work, to become financially independent. We are having more conversations around safe spaces for women, anti-harassment laws, equal rights — Triple Talaq and the Sabarimala verdicts were big wins. We squashed section 377. So, yes, we are definitely not in a bad place. But there is a lot more to do. As long as we keep talking about it, addressing issues and solving for everyone, we will achieve gender equality in the future.