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Number of Downlaods: 40

Published Date: Apr 30, 1998

Language and Feminist Issues in Pakistan (W-31)

Tariq Rahman, SDPI


Verbal behaviour is part of socialization.  One learns one’s role in life, including one’s place in the power structure, from the way one talks and is talked to.  Thus in rigidly hierarchical societies servants and children, for instance, may be expected to show verbal deference to employers and grownups respectively.  Brown and Gilman (1960) called the pronouns of deference vous forms and those of less power or intimacy tu forms.  Thus, in Pakistan too, social inferiors are addressed as tum (or tu) while they are expected to say aap to their superiors.  In other words, our address system reflects our power structure.

Verbal behaviour also reflects the role of women in the power structure and, more importantly, the philosophy upon which this role is contingent.  This philosophy is loosely termed patriarchy i.e the domination of males.  Feminists have only recently turned their attention to how it is sustained and reinforced by language.  Goffman (1977) suggests that the arrangement between the sexes in Western – and by extension all patriarchal – cultures is on the model of the parent-child relationship.  The husband loves and controls the wife.  Similarly androcentric generics – use of general words so that the male appears as the norm while the female is the deviation, the marked case – are said to reinforce male domination.  The feminists using the English language wrote manuals suggesting the adoption of non-sexist terms some of which are given below:

Box 1:
Conventional terms           Non-sexist terms
Officers and their wives      Officers and their spouses
Mankind                           Humanity
Manpower                         Personnel
He                                   He or she (s/he)
Miss                                 Ms
Chairman                         Chairperson

Recently there has been a decline in the use of androcentric generics, at least in written English. However, Cooper rightly points out:

The women’s movement shows us that social movements have linguistic consequences, whether or not such consequences influence nonlinguistic behaviour.  It has, in any event, proven easier to change written usage than to change the practices and attitudes which subordinate women (1989: 20).
However, the desire for changing linguistic usage is a psychological response to devaluation and subordination.  Even if it does not change the structure of society, it does decrease women’s feeling of being peripheral or dominated.  That is its rationale and justification.

Such linguistic matters have not been given any attention in Pakistan though here, too, language does reflect and support social realities.  The aim of this article, then, is to study how the use of Urdu and Punjabi in Pakistan reflect the subordination of women.  For this purpose the article relies on literary sources, unstructured ecounters, interviews and general observation.