Why the battle for equality begins with the tongue

07Feb 2016
Anne Kiruku
Guardian On Sunday
Ea Wowen in Perspective
Why the battle for equality begins with the tongue

It is electioneering season once again across the region: A time when gender bias is made manifest without the slightest tinge of shame, especially by male politicians. This agenda is being pursued through the use of sexist language.

Fortunately, the rest of the world is changing its use of language that diminishes women and creates a power difference between them and men.  Increasingly, we are seeing the use of language that respects the dignity of both men and women as human beings. It will be sad for East Africa to be left behind as the world adopts new terms that ensure women are no longer  taken for granted in our linguistic discourse.Language is powerful. From time immemorial, women have been spoken of as home keepers  whose main job is housework and childcare, while men have been assumed to be the primary  providers and iconic trophies whose job is to provide for and protect the family. This mind-set must begin to change if the war against gender inequality is to be won any time soon.The beginning point must be curriculum developers and book authors, whose input into our children’s lives right from their most impressionable stages will need to take this new world view. The textbooks and novels that our children devour must begin telling a new narrative, one whose pedagogy acknowledges the equality of men and women.As innocent as some lessons may initially appear, they implant specific attitudes in learners. The use of certain pictures, words and phrases, especially in textbooks that children assume cannot possibly be wrong, have a devastating effect on the young ones.When a man is drawn in a textbook driving a bus or reading a newspaper comfortably in the sitting room after work, while the woman is drawn feeding a baby or preparing meals in the kitchen, there are clear signals being sent to the children about gender roles and distinctions.  Again, when the doctor or engineer in the textbook is always a man and the nurse or nursery school teacher a woman, we should not later turn around hypocritically and wonder why girlsperform poorly in the sciences and mathematics.While we innocently ask our boys to treat women and men as equals instead of asking them to treat all human beings equally, we innocently inculcate and introduce the existing difference between the two genders.While the use of “chairman” comes naturally to many people, “chairlady” is problematic, andso many people resort to “chairperson”. Women have had the experience of being called “chairman”, whereas nobody would dare to call a man “chairwoman”! In the same vein, “freshmen” is an acceptable reference to first-year university students, while “fresh women” would be taken as an insulting insinuation.  The trend where women have been made a linguistic subset of men – through terms such as “mankind”, “manmade”, “manpower” and “guys” – must now change. Words are the tools of our thoughts. They can and do reinforce current realities. We can use words to think in a new way or to maintain the status quo.It may seem trivial, but when words are used many times a day by millions of people across the world, they offer a cumulative reinforcement of the message that men are the world’s high standard; women, deceitfully, then become subsumed by the male category. It is obvious that when a group of people is made to accept and internalize language expressions that make them invisible, minor and inferior, this makes it easier for them to be dominated and oppressed.From slavery and colonialism to gender discrimination, the power of an oppressor’s language is always felt. If women are talked about as if they don’t deserve an equal place as human beings, how will they expect to be treated as people deserving of respect? Following from this argument, it is easy to see how women end up being paid lower wages than men for the same work. Both at home and at the workplace, they are treated as mere objects.The journey to be treated as equals responsible enough to make their own decisions about various issues affecting them and their countries must therefore begin with the way we engage each other linguistically.That change must be embraced first and foremost by the media, who must adhere to new patterns of communication that eschew gender bias and promote equality. Educationists, activists, and all of us can in our own small ways contribute to this new order, thus enhancing equality.East African News Agency