Mind Your Language, Gentlemen

This is the unedited version of the article that appeared in The Nation on Tuesday July 8, 2014

“We are not wearing bangles”, “Be a man and face it”, “Have some balls and do it”, familiar language? Awfully so. Around us, at home, at workplace, on roads, in political rallies, in advertisements, in newspapers, on TV, on social media, where not?

Arsalan Iftikhar, the celebrated son of former Chief Justice of Pakistan, said it on TV and the anchorperson – a male – let it pass. Couple of months ago it was Khwaja Saad Rafique, the Federal Minister, who was demanding of Pervez Musharraf to ‘be a man’ and face the charges. Khwaja Asif, the Defence Minister, didn’t wait before raising similar ‘demand’ form the retired General. Federal Information Minister Pervez Rasheed was heard during those days mocking Musharraf’s ‘age-associated illness’, the nuanced way of alluding to the lost sexual drive that equals loss of ‘manhood’.

Not very long ago, Tehmina Daultana, a member of the parliament, was seen throwing bangles across the aisle in the National Assembly chamber as a gesture to describe them cowards. Ahsan Iqbal, another Federal Minister was recently heard on TV saying, “ہم نے چوڑیاں نہیں پہنی ہیں” (We’re not wearing bangles) while responding to Imran Khan’s announcement of long march. Even Tahir ul Qadri, the cleric prone to periodic fits of revolution, denied wearing bangles after police action on his Lahore residence last month.

What exactly is happening in the minds of these gentlemen and ladies? Poor guys are convinced of their perceived ‘strength’, which they invariably link to their reproductive organs. It is however quite funny that these reproductive organs would not survive a forceful knee-kick in many cases.

Sexist language is not limited to one culture or one era. We certainly don’t have copyright on it. During the primaries in 2008, Barack Obama had invited the feminist wrath when he said “I understand that Senator Clinton, periodically when she is feeling down, launches attacks as a way of trying to boost her appeal”. Well, really Mr. Obama? Periodically feeling down? PMS – Pre-Menstrual Syndrome – is a very familiar weapon to attack women. When a man raises his tone in a heated debate, he is just ‘a bit aggressive’. When a woman does it, she is PMS-ing. It takes just one strong argument on table from a woman, and they would hurriedly show their misogynist face.

The English language words like ‘mankind’ and ‘brotherhood’ or Urdu language ones like ‘bhai chara’ and ‘mardaana vaar” were not invented yesterday. Their unabashed usage today, however, is a blot on the face of 21st century man and woman in times best known for enlightenment and modernisation.

In a society bragging about ‘respect for women’ as their key distinguishing feature following their culture and / or religion, it is ironic that most men (and women too) would use sexual organs to describe bravery, courage and valor. Most of the words and phrases used to illustrate truthfulness, bravery, courage etc, describe (or imply) women as subservient, secondary or an inferior being.

The titles for the positions of power have ‘man’ as suffix. ‘Chairman’ was changed to ‘Chairperson’ only when Ms. Nusrat Bhutto and Ms. Benazir Bhutto became the Chairperson and Co-Chairperson of their party. That too ended with them. The next party heads reinstated the title to ‘Chairman’ as soon as they came in. The Senate and the parliamentary committees still have their chairMEN. Even that women chairing these Committees are called ChairMEN. At some instances I’ve even heard Lady ChairMAN from secretariat staff. It is probably very difficult to call her a chairWOMAN. Hurts badly no?

The Constitution includes she in he. Isn’t it other way round? Isn’t ‘he’ a part of sHe? So why call a president a he when you can write s/he? And when you mention this, there would be an avalanche of voices from all sides of the table who would educate you how a ‘he’ has the privilege of being used for both sexes in legal documents. Well, gentlemen, let me use ‘she’ as a neutral way to describe both sexes. Demeaning? I rest my case!

According to a 2009 paper by Marge Piercey, there are around 220 words to describe sexually ‘promiscuous’ women, while only 20 to describe such behavior among men. Slut-shaming is much more pronounced in south Asian cultures although. A woman is a ‘slut’ if she is non-conformist. At least that is the impression I get while facing criticism in every kind of media. Out of more than a dozen women that I spoke to, who were fiercely abused on social media, almost 99% admitted having been called sluts, whores and prostitutes just because they said politically controversial things.

My cigarettes have earned me many of such titles lately. A year ago, an otherwise progressive and self-proclaimed ‘secular’ blog used my enlarged picture with a cigarette as part of one of their posts. I was being castigated and disparaged in that post, for something I was presumed to have said. Subliminal message was: look she smokes; she is certainly a bad woman.

In 1911 Ambrose Bierce wrote The Devil’s Dictionary and expressed her surprise why there are titles like Miss and Missus for women describing their marital status while no such requirement for the Mister. Probably because it should be out and public when a woman still has ‘market appeal’ for the most popular game of all times, marriage hunt. ‘Marriagibility’ was and still is such a sought-after trait that determines a woman’s worth. Many factors, in turn, would determine your ‘marriagibility’ including being a Miss, being a virgin, being fair skinned, skinny, being a chaste woman, being a career-less, ambition-less, conformist and submissive woman having excellent skills to act as house maid.

On social media I experienced a new low in this trend. It is going to be shocking for many of my readers for which I apologise. But the fact is, a new qualification of a worthy woman appears to be how ‘rape-able’ she is. Not making it up. Couple of years ago when I was threatened for a rape and I made the threat public, I was told by the modern-day educated and forward-looking youngsters that I had such a ‘repulsive and ugly’ face that no one would ‘even rape you’. My shock and horror knew no bounds when a very progressive friend, a human rights defender (a male) expressed his anger for a woman politician who had said something offensive about other women. He while expressing his anger for her insensitive remarks about other women, casually said and I quote, “who will even rape this shapeless, unattractive cow’. He had also used the word ‘bitch’.

That reminds me of our college days when a popular badge-pin said: “Beautiful, Intelligent, Talented, Creative, Honest – I am a B.I.T.C.H.”. Apart from redefining or re-orienting sexist language, gentlemen and ladies have to embed in their minds, its what you have in your skull that determines your worth, not what you have between your legs.



15 thoughts on “Mind Your Language, Gentlemen

  1. zobia says:

    The easiest thing in this word is to malign a woman, to call her names. Women are the most vulnerable section of our society. To born as woman is a.curse. Can a man born without woman, if no than this abusive language against woman should be stopped.


  2. Usman says:

    While the linguistic purification at scale is a futile pursuit, the least that we can do is to keep the public discourse civilised and free of patriarchal retorts.


  3. lastpoint says:

    “its what you have in your skull that determines your worth, not what you have between your legs”….Pathetic…She does not even know the interconnection between the two..


  4. wahaj alam says:

    I agree with author of the post and all of u who condemn bad language against women.
    but beleive me i have heard girls calling other girls “behen—od”……lolssssss. Abusive language is more to hurt sentiments of opposite person. It has very little to do with gender.


  5. nikhil says:

    Well I guess we south asians are linguistically more male chauvinist, you probably forgot to mention the hundreds of abuses and swear words we have particularly referring to female sexual organs ! At least in indo aryan languages. Even to abuse a male friend we have an immense vocabulary to refer her mother and sister. Well I must confess that due this patriarchal linguistic legacy, me too and many of my friends use this swear words(referring to woman) even while talking casualy 😦


  6. Ghulam Hyder says:

    a thought provoking article for ignorant people, abusive language against women must stop now i love and respect my mom, my daughters ,my wife and coworking ladies, they deserve respect. after all a women gives birth to man and woman she must be called and remembered with respectful words


  7. Ron says:

    A mystic once said that the elevation of a nation is dependent on the elevation of its women. The implication is that for men to stake claim to the success of upliftment of their nation, they have to first ensure the upliftment of women. This can only be achieved when men act as conduits for Innovation and New Ideas, which provides the requisite amount of space and opportunity for women to manifest their creativity for the common good. When men stagnate, the inevitable result is the lack of opportunity for women, which manifests itself in various forms of marginalization. Hence, when women are being discriminated, men should understand that they’ve failing in their duty to Innovate and bring about New Ideas.


  8. MARVI SIRMED says:

    Molvies do not wear underwear and keep scratching their genitals in public. We should raise awareness in our boys and girls about underpants and encourage them to do so since their teen age. Society should also end the stigma about underwear or panty. In our society , undergarments are given sexual connotation which is completely wrong. Create an open society where everyone can fulfil his/her needs and discuss their issues ( even sexual ones)


  9. Awakened Soul says:

    I can’t believe my eyes!
    I never knew somebody had the same exact thoughts & views as I have lately started developing in that thing of mine atop my entirety, The Skull.. I never really looked into what and who you were, Ms. Marvi Sirmed; although, I did hear rants like you’re on the payroll of a neighboring country’s intelligence agency and ignored. It didn’t really mean anything to me as I live/lived out of Pakistan and did have an ignorant lifestyle packed with comfort and luxuries.
    Today, I am writing to you willingly having looked you and your words up on google after I bumped into that circulating video of yours where you were mistreated by an emotional male/religious chauvinist live on a TV channel.
    I must say I have immense amount of respect for your words & your bravery. I feel as if I understand your struggle..
    My positive vibes are with your selfless self!


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