Ever wondered why people always say “he or she”, “man or woman”, and “his or her”, and not “she or he”, “woman or man”, or “her or his”. Does it roll of the tongue funny when people do? Does it sound unusual, somehow not right? People may argue that its sounds better to say “he or she” and “his or her” for instance. Others may say that it’s only fair because it’s about following an alphabetical sequence, because H comes before S, M before W. But not in the case of “his or her”. Why don’t we say “That is her or his prerogative”? Why should masculine pronouns always precede feminine ones?
French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Simone de Beauvoir have written about the hierarchical nature of gendered language such as French (and English, just so you know) that places women as second to men in language and should one go even further, women and the feminine are also last, less important, inferior in language.
Now before you say how gender neutral Malay is, because we do not have gendered pronouns but use “dia” to refer to both women and men, Malay words borrowed from Sanskrit such as saudara is always followed by saudari, sastrawan is always followed by sastrawati, putera then puteri. You get the idea.
Another example of how women and the feminine are pretty much diminished in language is when we talk about people in general. There are people who are almost always men, and then there are women. This may sound incredibly far-fetched at first, but consider when we talk about a person whom we do not know, the first instinct is use the pronoun “he” to describe the person. “He” – men – is the default person not just in language but in the way view the world.
But the masculine bias in language is not limited to the human world. How many times do you use or hear people use the masculine pronoun “he” to describe an animal whose sex you do not know? “Look at that panda. Isn’t he is cute?”. Imagine how odd people will look at you when you say “Isn’t she so cute?”.
So why does any of this matter? It matters because we play into trap of hegemony too easily and without much questioning about the little things like gender bias in language and as a result we will continue to contribute to gender stereotypes. Hegemony is the dominant idea that people take as common sense. It is a form of dominance that requires the consent of people. The funny thing about hegemony is that people often get a little upset and resistant when their common sense is challenged.
But how do we contribute to gender stereotypes through gender bias in language? Simple: consider the number of times you’ve assumed a doctor, police officer, soldier, scientist or politician to be male until you discovered the gender of that person. You’re reading a book about a doctor, and in your mind you think of a man. You’re about to be introduced to a nurse, and you’ll imagine to meet a woman.
Gender stereotypes is a subtle yet powerful mechanism that ensures that women and men should remain the way they are or be or do something that totally makes sense. Gender stereotypes maintain the unequal status quo. Women are more suited to be nurses and homemakers because women are more caring – this is a gender stereotype.
You may argue that stereotypes are not necessarily bad, like what’s wrong with being caring anyway? It is after all a positive trait. But the assumption that all women are caring and therefore should be carers punishes women who are not. How shocked will you be when you hear a woman saying she hates the idea of being a mother and dislikes babies?
And so gender equality is not about the “big” things like eradicating gender-based violence and ensuring equal representation in “important” jobs, but also about the small things that add up and have the influence the bigger things. Challenge the way you use language and be surprised by how you challenge people’s taken-for-granted ideas about gender. Say “she or he”, “women and men”, “her and his”.
Use the pronoun “she” to assume a gender of a person you don’t know. Alternatively, you can use gender neutral pronouns such as “hir” in lieu of “her” or “his”, “zee” instead of “she” or “he”. Challenge the idea why people (read: women and men) have not been offended when they are all referred to as “him”, but why a gender-unknown person may be offended when referred to as “she”. You will discover much more than biases in language, but the nerve centre of inequality itself – disrupt and dismantle it.