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Bringing feminine pronouns, including women in legal language is as important as putting a nameplate outside your house despite having legal papers as proof of your ownership.
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash
The Apollo-11 mission is forever entrenched in the history as the Human conquest of Moon. But very few know the major and historic blunder that the mission committed.
The landing module of the spaceflight was left on the moon with a plaque that reads –
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”
In one stroke, this plaque has deleted existence of women not only from the Earth but the whole Universe.
If you find this cynical then let me tell you that in the year 1789 one such humongous blunder was committed when the glorious French revolution culminated in the declaration of the ‘Rights of Man and of the citizens.’ And it took Olympe de Gouges’ ‘Rights of Woman’ nearly 150 years to become a reality.
So imagine, if we ever face an alien invasion, then the aliens will spare all men because they have made that peace pact, remember? But rest of us will be grazed to ground. Or worst could be that ‘they’ too miss our existence and assign all the seats of that inter-galaxy parliament to the mankind.
Lo, that will bring us back to square one, to the day of declaration of rights of men.
As someone threw wisdom at me – Men mean everyone. ‘Those Apollo group were all men that’s why they wrote so.’ My wise friend simplified my agony.
‘Don’t you see, that exactly is the problem.’
Throughout my growing up and adulthood, I have remained unsure when ‘he’ includes me and when he excludes.
Why can’t this be simple like those signs outside restrooms. ‘He’ for men and ‘she’ for women. You don’t need to hesitate outside the door, simply find the correct sign and barge in.
This looks simple but actually it is very complicated.
In our political science lectures, we discuss where various statutes carried forward from the British colonists. The professor was explaining who is competent to contract under Indian Contract Act, 1872 – “Every person is competent to contract…according to the law to which he is subject.”
If I agree with my wise friend, then here ‘He’ includes me. But look around, it is not only me confused by the missing pronouns. Isn’t this reflected in the common perception that women lack business acumen and financial IQ.
Do you know why? Because in this Statute which has been amended so many times, there is not a single illustration where a woman is entering into a contract.
This becomes further complicated when you read Indian Constitution.
Let me come straight to the Right to Equality, the very foundation of our democracy. It declares that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen. And when you trace who is a citizen, then Article 5 clearly words – ‘….every person who has his domicile in the territory of India….’ The list is endless, you open any statute or Act, it is always ‘he’ perched on the dais.
I am not doubting the intent and prudence of our legislators, after all ‘rest of us’ got the right to vote along with the mankind at the same time in new India, didn’t we, unlike other democracies. Maybe it was the printing cost that compelled to keep the word-limit under control. But if that were so, then now when we are digitally cheap, the new Acts, like the Mental Healthcare Act passed in 2017, should have gone spendthrift with words and let ‘she’ stand along with ‘he’.
So, not waiting for the drafters to amend these errors, I took the matters in my hand during a lecture I was attending last week on the powers of the President of India.
‘He is the supreme commander of the armed forces,’ the professor explains.
‘Can she apply her discretion in declaring war?’ I interrupt him with pretended query.
‘No, he can only declare on the advice of Council of Ministers.’ The professor answers in calm voice joining this ping-pong of pronouns.
Do you see the complexity in this whole thing. Despite having a woman President in chair presently, we choose to define things as per the words written in the law.
Thus, even if women get equal space, they will still stay invisible because we are invisible in texts. Secondly, by interpreting ‘he’ as both she and he, it brings the social conditioning that women cannot have identity independent of men.
The irony is that this social conditioning is so smooth that even we, women, are hesitant to claim that space even if it is given to us. It is like entering the hall and occupying the corner-most seat even if you are the only one in the room.
Let me demonstrate this through the snippet of a conversation, which I prefer to call a social experiment. On a hot summery day, I conspiringly told my mother-in-law, ‘You know, if we two stick together, they won’t have their way.’
I was a young bride then, perhaps that’s why exhibited this foolish bravery to instigate a gentle woman who was both constitution and God fearing. She looked up at me with a start, ‘Stick together? For what?’
We had just got back from the vegetable market and then entered the kitchen to prepare the lunch, while our husbands were cooling down under the AC.
‘For reciprocity. Didn’t you see, they did not even bother to take the bags or offer a glass of water.’
‘They were sitting, why to bother them?’
That’s how many of us are hesitant to claim what is equally ours because we don’t want to bother them.
Not many people know about pioneering role of women of Manipur, an Indian State, in social and economic sphere. You will find the markets run by women in almost all the districts. They are popularly called Ima (mother) markets. The Ima market of Imphal, the capital of the State, is the world’s only market run entirely by women. Another interesting feature is the Meira Paibis group. Literally it means torch-bearer. These are community groups of women who keep a neighborhood watch on drug abuse and other social issues. Drug trafficking is a major evil that has stunted the growth of this beautiful state. Another issue that plagued Manipur for more many decades was the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a kind of martial law, enacted by the Parliament in 1958 after the region was declared ‘disturbed.’ Instead of getting lost in the political labyrinth, I will come straight to the ‘feminist’ movement of Manipur.
In the year 2000, Irom Sharmila, a civil rights activist from Manipur began her hunger strike against the atrocities committed under the security law. According to BBC, this was the world’s longest hunger strike. For 16 long years she was force-fed, kept chained to her bed on the charges of ‘attempt to commit suicide.’ She was joined in this show of defiance by Meira Paibi who staged their naked protest. The combined efforts of these brave women finally shook the conscious of the World and country. The landmark judgment of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in 2016, finally ‘acknowledged’ the misuse of the Act. The same year, Irom Sharmila announced ending of her fast and contesting the State elections scheduled next year. Interestingly, despite having majority of women voters in the State, she got only 90 votes against the winning around 11,000 votes, the lowest among the five candidates.
As one of the female voters said: ‘Politics is not the place for Women,’ it summarizes how we have ourselves marked our lines. The paradox doesn’t end here.
If we look at the Government’s National Family Health Survey – 4 records, Manipur tops in spousal violence in India. This brings back the core issue that the seen equality at social and economic level is illusionary till the time we do not claim the rights in letter and spirit.
It is as important as putting a nameplate outside your house despite having the legal papers, documents as proof of your ownership.
This reasoning stirs another question – whether the use of gender-binary pronouns will make the law inclusive and accessible to all or the switching over to the gender-neutral pronouns? Is this only ‘she’ hiding behind the shadow of ‘he’ or a large part of our population that comes under gender fluid part of the gender spectrum.
Seeing the speed, the world is spreading, the “mankind” has already began marking its territory on other planets. So, before they forget, let the rest of us prepare the plaque with our distinct pronoun for the next space mission ready, announcing to the Universe that ‘We came in Peace for All.’
Vartika Sharma Lekhak is a published author based in India who enjoys writing on social issues, travel tales and short stories. She is an alumnus of JNU and currently studying law at Symbiosis Law School, read more...
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