SEXISM IN LANGUAGE
A stroll into the dark side of Bengali
by Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad
STORIES across the world abound about how languages were created and almost all can trace their roots back to a god or a goddess who endowed people with the gift or the curse. According to Vedic tradition, it was the goddess Saraswati, who created Sanskrit, an ancient language fit for god and people alike.
Bengali has more of a humble beginning. It is the apabhramsa, the deviant offshoot of Sanskrit. While modern linguistics is doubtful about the divine origin of languages, it acknowledges the verbal residue of Sanskrit in Bengali. In this article, we will look into the sexism in Bengali and some semantic prejudices it inherited from Sanskrit.
A language, according to linguistics, springs out of a society, and in doing so, it soaks up the gender formation and gender stereotypes prevalent in that particular society. As most societies in the past were patriarchal in nature, languages originated there had misogyny embedded in them. Bengali is no exception to it.
Misogynistic words and phrases in many European languages including English were few and far between, say thousand years ago. Most of them came into being during and after the Late Middle Ages. For example, as many as 69 humiliating words for sex workers were coined just between 1550 and 1700. No other semantic field in this language saw such an extraordinary development in the given timeframe.
Unlike English, Bengali too has accommodated sexist trait right from the beginning. It inherited a part of its misogynist attitude in the form of words denoting women loaned from Sanskrit. Some of these words are three thousand years old, if not more. If we unpack one or two Indian mythological names, they will give us some ideas about how deep gendered imagination goes. One such name is Sati, who married Lord Shiva against the will of her father, Daksha, who was not much of a fan of this dirty demolition god. Once, her father arranged a great sacrifice and invited all but Shiva. This infuriated her so much that she immolated herself in the fire made for the sacrifice, praying to be born again as his wife. She did, and the mythological melodrama could end there. But it didn’t. Her name Sati came from the Sanskrit word ‘asti’ which means ‘she is pure’. Burning themselves on their dead husbands’ funeral pyre became the test for ‘purity’ for women. Thousands of women were forced to burn themselves for centuries to be certified as ‘a good wife’.
Another name that lays bare the sexual imagination of that time is Ahalya (অহল্যা), the wife of the sage Gautama, who cursed her, and turned her into a stone. The curse would lift only if Lord Rama touches her. Ahalya literally means ‘unploughed’. Rabindranath Tagore interpreted ‘Ahalya as a symbol of stone-like, infertile land that was made cultivable by Ram’. The metaphor of female body as cultivable land is downright sexist and forms an archetypal image which would later become a popular way of looking at women.
If we examine some of the words denoting women of different age, we will see the level of eroticisation they signify. One of the Bengali words for daughter is kanya (কন্যা). It sounds so innocent but the root it comes from tells a different story. It is derived from √ কন means ‘to be satisfied or pleased, to strive after, seek, desire, wish’. The same root gives birth to another Bengali word, কনে which denotes to brides at bridal chamber. Bengali words for son/ছেলে and daughter/মেয়ে also reveal different outlook to look at off springs. In Bengali, the word for son, ছেলে: শাবক, যে অল্প অল্প হাটতে পারে etymologically means a toddler. However, the original word of its counterpart, মেয়ে comes from মাতৃকা/mother. The word for daughter contains its future gender role.
The level of sexualisation increases as girls moves along their age. Lalana (ললনা) is Bengali for young women. Etymologically, it refers to those who seduce — ললনা, যে লোভ দেখায়. There is a popular folk etymology around the corner that, মহিলা, a word for adult women, literally indicates to those who live in a house/palace (যে মহলে থাকে). In reality, it comes from the root √ মহ্, which means ‘to elate, gladden, exalt, arouse, excite’. Sexual connotation is even more evident in, রমণি, another common word for adult women. The word comes from the root √ রম্, which means ‘to delight, make happy, enjoy carnally,to play or sport, dally, have sexual intercourse with. The words for women in Bengali mean business: they tell what the society expects from women and how it looks at them. The Bengali word for wife is ¯¿x, which refers to a kind of container where semen solidifies or takes shape. However, we should keep in mind that this etymology is contested. In the past, this was the most common words for women in Bengali as if the patriarchal society were incapable of imagining women outside marriage. Or, women who are not married are not women. Fortunately, it was replaced by a bit more neutral word নারী, and phrases like স্ত্রীস্বাধীনতা (women’s liberation) became নারী স্বাধীনতা. It shows that sexist and demeaning words can be changed with a better one.
Interestingly, the Bengali word for marriage (বিবাহ) has something to do with ‘carrying’ (বহন করা). Maybe, the word is indicating to an age-old practice when men used to snatch away any women they liked. As a result, one of the most common words for wife in Bengali, eay refers to someone which can be carried (যাকে বহন করা যায়). With time, the word changed into a much sweeter form, বউ.
Among the Muslim population of the country, some Persian and Arabic loan words denoting women are frequently used. If we put them to test, we will see they cut the society along the gender spectrum and disseminate sexism. Our first word is zenana, a word of Persian origin. In Persian, ‘zan’ means ‘women’ and ‘zenana’ means ‘belonging to women’. In Indian subcontinent, in the families that practice purdah, there are two separate parts of a household: the inner part is zenana, or women corner, and the outer part is mardana which belongs to men and guests. It makes use of the binary of private and public. Zenana meant space or things allocated for women. However, in the course of time, zenana became synonymous with women. Another word similar in meaning and popularity is awrat (আওরাত), which is a Persian word of Arabic origin. In Arabic, awrah is derived from ‘a-w-r’ which means ‘defectiveness’, ‘imperfection’, ‘blemish’ or ‘weakness’. Awrah, in Arabic, comes to mean a lot of things: ‘nakedness’, ‘shame’, ‘intimate parts of both male and female body that should be covered’ and ‘women’. In Persian, awrat means ‘nakedness’ and ‘young women’. These two words draw a gendered line. In case of zenana, women were accommodated with space and regarding awrat, women were reduced to body parts. Both words dictate that women are private, and should stay far from the prying eyes of men. It brings mind to a Bengali epithet (অসূর্যম্পশ্যা) for a good woman, which refers to ‘a woman whom even the sun didn’t see ‘. These words celebrate women’s seclusion and hinder their social mobility.
A fertile source of sexist words in Bengali can be found in words denoting sex workers, most of which are seriously disparaging. It shares an uncanny similarity with English, where there are more that 170 disgraceful words for female sex workers and only 10 for their male counterparts. It suggests the society is more eager to belittle females compared to males for the same ‘offense’. What is particularly unbelievable is that only four words can be located for clients who buy the service and three of them (trick, John and score) are pretty encouraging.
In comparison with English, the number derogatory words for female sex workers in Bengali are limited, but some of them are twice as old as English language itself. They are from Sanskrit and some of them include: veshya (বেশ্যা), rupajiva (রূপজীবা), kulata (কুলটা), svairini (স্বৈরিনী), nati (নটি) etc. Here, veshya, kulata, and svairini are highly defamatory and none of them tells about what kind of profession they are in. For example, kulata refers to a woman who dishonoured their family (কুল). Only, rupajiva tells of a woman who makes a living selling her beauty (রূপ).
The most popular English word sex worker is prostitute. The word being morally derogatory, sex workers protested against its use and replaced it with ‘sex worker’. In Bengali, the most famous word for sex workers is patita (পতিতা), which refers to a fallen woman, a woman who has been morally degraded. Encouraged by the change in English, the sex workers staged protests to replace the work with a more neutral term (দেহকর্মী). To some extent, they have been successful.
Replacing individual words with sexist overtones is relatively simple; they are easy to trace, and easy to ban, at least in formal exchange. However, getting rid of proverbs that discriminate against women is a tough business. The difficulty lies partly in the fact that they come to us in the shape of knowledge and rarely makes use of offensive words. Besides, we sometimes grow up with these saying, and take them for granted. We should look into one or two examples of sexist proverbs in order to clarify our points. For instance, every now and then, in villages, we see this rhyme written on a piece of decorated cloth: brother is precious, the bond of blood,/ if turned against each other, this is because of women (fvB eo ab, i‡³i evuab/ hw` nq ci, bvixi KviY|). The proverb is clearly teaching misogyny, and saying that if there is any bad blood between brothers, certainly there will be a woman to account for it. There are stories (for example, the story of the Asuras brothers, Sunda and Upasunda ) from religious books to support this piece of ‘knowledge’. Our society is teeming with proverbs that actually poison our mind when they try to ‘educate’ us about women folk. Some of them show us the ‘true’ worth of women such as the proverb that says, ‘fortunate are those whose wives die, unfortunate are those whose cows die (ভাগ্যবানের বউ মরে, আর অভাগার গরু মরে). Some of them inform us about their ‘ownership’. For example, ‘Boat, horse, women; become theirs who ride them (নাও, ঘোড়া, নারী যে চড়ে তারই). And yet some others offer us a manual to control them — ‘Women and drums, need constant hitting’ (মাইয়া মানুষ আর ঢোল- মাইরের উপর রাখতে হয়). These proverbs teach women and men their gender roles, and their ‘true’ position in the society. They instruct women folk to behave and fall in line and men to control ‘their property’ — women. Unfortunately, proverbs with this level of hatred towards women lurk every corner of our society, thriving on our male chauvinism.
Now, let’s talk about slangs and swear words. We know they are made, said, and meant to offend. But, they become extremely hurtful when they are directed towards women. And we have hundreds of them to choose from. Swear words are actually the most obvious idiomatic celebration of our deep fear of and misplaced anger at women and the other class. These can express nonconsensual sexual intentions such as, fuck your mother/sister (তোর মায়েরে/বোনেরে চুদি), make a comment on the supposed profession of your mother such as, son of a harlot (খানকি মাগির পোলা) etc.
Like most languages of the world, Bengali has sexist elements in it. So, what can we do about it? Well, we can identify and discourage their use. Besides, it’s time we learn a different way to communicate with a language that is committed to equality and respectful. When we are celebrating International Mother Language Day, we should celebrate the Bengali that doesn’t hurt, or disempower others.
Mohammad Abul Kalam Azad is a member of Lokayoto Bidyaloy.
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