August 26, 2023
We are what our thoughts have made us. Our beliefs become our thoughts. Our thoughts translate into words. Words change into actions. Actions make up a civilized or uncivilized society. Language plays a vital role in expressing ideas and perspectives as well as prejudices. Any discourse deliberated specially in a public sphere should be in neutral, inoffensive, and in an unbiased language.
Over the centuries, through rooted indigenous ideologies combined with ideologies of invaders and colonialists we Indians have evolved our own brands of stereotypical attitudes and languages infiltrated into our daily lives, at home and in workplaces including temples of learning where young minds are formed.
Towards a benevolent cause of setting right historically unjust systemic flaw, an attempt to induce unlearning of stereotypical language especially in the deliberations and delivery of justice, DY Chandrachud, Chief Justice of the supreme court of India has made available a handbook to ‘assist judges and the legal community in identifying, understanding, and combating stereotypes about women’.
Why the legal system?
It is an undeniable fact that even in the temples of justice women are attacked during the deliverance of justice where lawyers and even judges use stereotypical and derogatory words sometimes deliberately or simply due to unconsciously acquired language through acculturation. There are studies and lists of cases where deeply rooted patriarchal words used by judges and lawyers wished women did not report the sexually outrageous violence meted out to them in public and in private spheres of their lives.
A 2018 study called Gender Notions in Judgements of Rape Cases” by G.S Bajpai and Raghav Mendiratta, National Law University, Delhi examined Supreme Court judgements in 50 rape cases to study the impact of judges’ preconceived notions and outcomes of the trials and concluded that the present legal framework was inefficient in eliminating preconceived sexist biases and prejudices with crimes against women.
Justice cannot be gendered. Therefore, the handbook cautions that “Judges must be vigilant against all (emphasis mine) forms of gender biases and ensure that every person, regardless of their gender identity, is treated equally and with dignity before the law.” Most importantly the handbook identifies stereotypical language and gives alternative usage of proper words to be used in courts.
This is certainly a great leap towards an inoffensive and politically correct language that does not intimidate, shame, degrade, demoralise, or discriminate against the persons involved in a case. The handbook urges the users to use just woman instead of “Chaste woman”, “career woman”, “woman of easy virtue”, “seductress”, “slut”, “prostitute”, “whore”, “woman of loose morals/easy virtue, promiscuous woman/wanton woman”.
In a session of no confidence motion in the parliament, a politician used the word ‘misogynist’ to refer to another politician’s act of a flying kiss. Misogynist means “a person who dislikes, despises, or is strongly prejudiced against women”. Be that as it were a conjecture as to the gesture of flying kiss towards a group of people in general sent the country in a tizzy of debates and name calling. Instead of pointing out the flaw in her argument or how she strategically derailed a discourse of the main issues on the agenda by using a strong word to digress the discussions, she was attacked with references to her marital history. Personal and sexual attacks and are commonly used on women than on men to shame them. Words have the power to humiliate and humble. For the distinction between good words and not good words hopefully another handbook for parliamentarians who use unparliamentary language without qualms will soon find its place when a consensus is met!
The HANDBOOK OF COMBATING GENDER STEREOTYPES is a platter of distinction between the existing stereotypical terms and the preferred politically appropriate language, stereotype Vs reality, and clarity on what the Indian Constitution says on gender and equity and the Supreme Court’s ruling on gender roles and stereotypical belief systems.
1. Some excerpts from the table Stereotypes based on the so-called “inherent characteristics” of women and what it is.
2. Some excerpts from the table with some common stereotypes about the gender roles ascribed to men and women, and why they are incorrect.
3. Some excerpts from the table of Stereotypes concerning sex and sexual violence.
The HANDBOOK OF COMBATING GENDER STEREOTYPES a downloadable public document of 31 pages is a must read for every cog in the wheel of justice. As much as we would like to believe we are unbiased, we are not immune to the subconscious narratives shaped by societal beliefs and stereotypes. I would urge every person to read it, for our thoughts do translate into words and this action could be one more step towards a more humane society.