EARLIER this week in the Sindh Assembly, amidst the heated debate engaged in by both male and female legislators on the budget and law and order issues, gender stereotyping remained alive and well. Even though, in a society tone-deaf to sexist language, it raised barely an eyebrow. The incident in question took place when MPA Sharmila Farooqui, vehemently objecting to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s “ultimatum” to the provincial government to bring law and order under control within a month, said, “Hum nein choorian nahin pehen rakhin” — an expression in Urdu that equates femininity with ‘weakness’ — implying that the PPP, the ruling party in Sindh, was not so feeble, ie ‘feminine’, as to be unable to counter such directives.
While gender-biased language is scarcely exclusive to this part of the world, when it occurs in an unabashedly patriarchal culture such as ours, it perpetuates the lower status of women within it and justifies men’s dominion over them in many aspects of life. That in turn forms the basis for much violation of women’s rights — the right to education, to work, to reproductive health, to choose a life partner, among others. One could make the case that in such societies the responsibility to consider the impact of one’s words is greater than usual. The fact that gender-biased expressions unthinkingly slip off the tongue even in the case of an educated woman such as Ms Farooqui illustrates the extent to which such language, along with its subliminal messages, has been internalised by society and become part of everyday lexicon. As the peoples’ representatives, legislators — particularly female ones — must serve as role models and actively eschew language that serves to denigrate women while reinforcing the culture of machismo that prevails in Pakistan.