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Why The Media’s Referring To Our FinMin As Just ‘Nirmala’ Is Problematic

Posted: May 17, 2020

Does referring to powerful women by their first or full names give a sense of familiarity and deserving less respect? Is it a manifestation of deep-rooted patriarchy?

After the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s address to the nation, a few days ago, a thread on Twitter caught my attention. “Why do we refer to women in politics by their first names and the men by their last?” or something similar the tweet said. 

But it was the replies that intrigued me further. One of them even referred to an old tweet that said people call women by their first names despite not being on that personal footing to make them more familiar. Calling powerful women by their first names makes them less intimidating and requires less politeness.

Yet another user pointed out that males apparently own all of their names, as opposed to females who own only their first names. Their first names are either parental or (if they choose) spousal. While this made sense, it still left me with more questions.

Isn’t it the same across the globe?

It also reminded me of the 2016 US Presidential elections. And during an English lesson on language and politics, my teacher commented on how both the candidates addressed each other. 

Hilary Clinton often referred to Donald Trump simply as ‘Donald,’ while he called her ‘Secretary Clinton.’ I noticed this especially because men are rarely referred to by their first names in such formal and professional settings. 

In hindsight, I realised how this may have been an unconscious way for Hilary Clinton to impose and exert power in a political landscape. One where women are eviscerated and undermined for their competency. The way we address an individual ascribes a certain sense of ownership and power over them. And also it expresses how you view and perceive someone. 

Why do women feel the need to conceal their names?

Some of the most powerful women in business and politics are often referred to by their first or even full names. Even in the entertainment industry, we refer to well-known figures by their first name.

Rarely do we call Oprah and Ellen by their full names and last names. Meanwhile, we refer to famous figures such as David Letterman and Stephen Colbert mostly by their last names or their full names. (Like I just did)

A war of words ensued between Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump when she expressed her concerns about his presidency back in 2018. And during this, the former was referred to as ‘Oprah,’ while the latter was called ‘Trump,’ by the media. This may send a subliminal and latent message that automatically may give one individual more legitimacy and respect simply by how they are addressed. 

Previously, last names were even used by women to conceal and hide their gender for fear they would not be taken as seriously. JK Rowling famously did so to appeal to wider audiences. Many female authors and scientists are known to have employed pseudonyms for similar reasons.

Does how we are addressed change depending on where we are?

In our daily lives, we have grown accustomed to being addressed a certain way during our years in school, university and the workplace. Upon asking a few friends, I understood that the way they were addressed often depended on the context and the environment they were in. 

Workplace and company culture has also impacted the way people address one another, especially as it appears more formal and is a sign of respect. These may also vary based on our communications with fellow interns, colleagues or college mates, as well as professors and employers. 

We also observe how last names are often more masculine in nature. There rarely seem to be feminine seeming names, though this varies between different cultures. Male-friendly names also make it difficult for us to identify women in the workplace especially since we tend to assume their gender. 

Is it patriarchy once again?

This could also be attributed to the patriarchal norms inherent in family names when the women often take the name of their husband. For instance, referring to Sonia Gandhi’s full name directly highlights her relationship to the Gandhi family, almost as if her identity is defined by this completely. 

People are also nearly twice as likely to call male professionals by their last names than women. This may automatically increase their stature, profile and recognition in their careers. Addressing them by their surnames give them a certain sense of power as well as recognition.

These instances of perceived ‘unintentional sexism’ are debilitating and becoming a concern in fields such as science, technology, and medicine. This may even hint at some of the gender gaps within these fields, where female participation is already greatly diminished. 

Moreover, the last name can also be a sign class and status, especially in the Indian society. A family’s perceived influence may be conveyed by ones’ surname. Regressive caste traditions may also still persist in an individual’s last name and could cement and aggravate further casteist and hidebound ideals. 

Will an etiquette reform help?

This sheds light on the pattern of internalised gender norms that often goes unnoticed in schools, universities as well as the workplace. The way we address each other is often a reflection of our relationship and even respect for the person. Unfortunately, despite ongoing progress, women still struggle to gain the latter due to the lack of parity in professional settings like the workplace. 

There may not always be direct links, however, acknowledging some of the undercurrents of gender bias in the ‘progressive’ environment is a step in the right direction. We may even begin considering how we address non-binary or gender queer individuals in the future. This could help us understand these normalised patterns and hopefully, undo them in the future. 

Picture credits: YouTube and Twitter

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Shivani is currently an undergraduate political science student who is passionate about human rights and

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