The roots of misogyny in language

Rarely do we find curse words that target the male relation of an individual


Taimur Ali August 14, 2016
The writer is an undergraduate at Georgetown University, Qatar, and a Researcher at the Centre for Governance and Policy, ITU Lahore

Recent events of hurling obscenities against women in public should not come as a surprise. What else do we expect from young boys, and increasingly girls, when they integrate graphic profanities, almost always centred on women, into their language. Referring to women’s shalwars and threatening assault, as was done by a senator on national television, is deeply entrenched in our colloquial language, and hence, such events are only symptoms of a much larger social issue.

In Pakistan, the frequency and nature of swearing in colloquial Urdu/Punjabi highlights the extent to which misogyny has become ingrained in our culture.

Rarely do we find curse words that target the male relation of an individual; rather, it is always the females that are threatened with assault or worse. The existence of such profanity is inherently ironic; degrading the female members of someone’s family is considered the highest form of insult,because of the concept of honour, but at the same time, such language has become so mainstream that society considers it normal.

The issue here is two-fold: first, the very fact that profanity-filled language centres around women is misogynist. Such language is based on the premise that a woman’s identity and social existence is regulated through her relationship to a man. Therefore, her honour and dignity are tied to a man such that she is the vessel that carries his honour. Phrases such as'baap ki ghairat ka socho' -- with 'baap' being eventually replaced by husband-- are often used to emotionally blackmail and regulate the behaviour of women.This is not to say that the concept of respect should be abolished, it is only the misogynist manipulation of such language that oppresses women.

Another example is the term 'honour killing'. It is misleading because the narrative around it is that the woman’s honour has been tarnished, and so she must be punished. But rather, the underlying fact is that the man, whether a husband or father or brother or son, feels that it is his honour, represented by the woman, that has been attacked. From a man’s perspective, these crimes are less about protecting the woman’s honour as about protecting his own. This is why when profanity is targeted towards other men,it always attacks the reputation of the women associated with him, because by doing so, the sanctity of his honour is being questioned.

Secondly, the frequency of such profanity is symbolic of how desensitised we have become to such obscenity. Though this behaviour is rightly labelled as unbecoming of any respectable individual, the underlying reality is that in all-male environments, such colourful language is not only the norm,but is often times glorified. From teenage years, strings of expletives are casually thrown around to refer to one another, under the premise 'I don’t really mean it'. Whether it is used with the intention of being hurtful or is simply the jargon that exemplifies masculinity, the frequency with which such language is employed in single-gender environments directly affects social psyches and subconsciously normalises society towards such degradation of women. It is simply a neurological result of incorporating such words and phrases into colloquial language and failing to recognise the direct relationship between language and our minds, and language and culture.

Passing laws to protect women only represents a top-bottom approach, which is met by strong social resistance and runs into a plethora of complexities. Language, however, has an intimate relationship with our minds,and is perhaps the only thing that cuts across religion, ethnicity, age, social class and other classifications. Let there be no doubt that this is a widespread issue that is not only implicitly consented but is also reinforced by individuals all across society, and hence, warrants an equally holistic response.
Recently, in an attempt to exert themselves in the public sphere, some women have started partaking in this act, exemplified by the response hurled at the senator. While the intention may be to fight patriarchy by throwing their own stones at men, the result is the opposite because by using such language, for whatever reason, the roots of patriarchy are not being challenged. In fact, women are strengthening these by adopting such repressive instruments.

If we are truly to rid ourselves of the menace of assault,abuse and oppression of women, the reform must come from within each of us topurify our language and not celebrate the use of obscenities in the private sphere, so that it does not then transcend into the public sphere. Whether religiously, culturally or purely morally, incorporating the abuse of our mothers and sisters into everyday language and then becoming desensitised to it, is vile at all levels. No marginalised group, whether women or transgender or any other, can be truly liberated without neutralising the integration of their oppression into our language. 

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2016.

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COMMENTS (3)

V S S KUMAR | 5 years ago | Reply Good article. The question arises always in my mind, when exactly using abusing language derogatory to mothers, sisters and wives had started ?
kdp | 5 years ago | Reply To add to my comment we South Asians are one up on Americans because so far I have not heard american curse word targeting sisters. In our culture it is one of the major one that is widely used in daily conversation if you know which word I refer to.
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