December Issue 2013

By | Bookmark | Published 10 years ago

Shahid siddiquiDr Shahid Siddiqui is a well-known name in the field of educational linguistics in Pakistan. His book of articles concerning the themes of education, medium of instruction, gender and language entitled Rethinking Education in Pakistan and Education, Inequalities and Freedom are landmark publications on these subjects. He has also written an Urdu novel, Adhe Adhhore Khwab (Half Completed Dreams). But his latest book, Language, Gender and Power: the Politics of Representation and Hegemony in South Asia, tackles the theme of how the gender discourse in South Asia has been demeaning and discriminatory to women.

The book comprises six sections and 20 chapters, with a bibliography and an index. The first two sections are about what may be called the theories of language, representation and hegemony and the relationship between gender and language. The following three parts of the book are specific illustrations of gender-construction and the representation of women in South Asia through an analysis of sayings, jokes, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, songs, films and advertisement. The final section is about possible attempts to reform our gender discourse to make it less discriminatory and demeaning for women.


The author begins by debunking the idea that language is a neutral and passive means of communication. Instead, he claims that language actually constructs social reality. This means that it is a highly loaded, ideologically motivated device for creating and reinforcing the way we categorise reality, the values and ways we perceive human beings, social processes and even the physical world. The author has rightly emphasised this view because, though it has been the subject of several treatises and innumerable academic work in the last half a century, it has not sunk into the perceptions of Pakistani academia, let alone students and other readers. In these theoretical parts the author has referred to the ideas of Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Gramsci and Foucault for the basic framework of his book. Sapir and Whorf are known for being the pioneers of the view that language constructs and reflects social reality. Gramsci gave the idea that the powerful classes create a discourse which is accepted by the subordinate classes, although it is not in their interest. Thus, the powerful classes do not have to exercise control by physical coercion since the values of the subordinate classes keep them subordinated. This is called hegemony and, of course, language is the major device for constructing discourses and narratives which create and reinforce the value and belief system justifying the domination of the elite. Foucault also wrote about the link between knowledge and power, claiming that discourses produced by the powerful function to control others, although he pointed out that power is also fluid and contested, and it is possible to create counter-discourses to resist the dominant ones.

These theoretical preliminaries clear the ground for the main arguments of the book which concern the perception and construction of gender in Pakistan, which is the subject of Chapter 4 and subsequent chapters. Here, too, given the lack of understanding about gender in our society, the author has to make it clear that biological sex is distinct from gender. Whereas the former is about physical and psychological characteristics, the latter is about the way one is socialised to behave in a society. So, when we claim that women are ‘naturally’ modest and shy, we are incorrect, because they have been socialised to be so in certain societies. In other societies, or at other points in time, they would behave differently. In short, we act out the expectations of our society and consider them the essence of our being, our true nature. This is the gist of feminist understanding of gender and it is now a conventional idea, but in Pakistan it is not part of the accepted discourse. Hence the author is right in explaining it at great lengths, which would not have been required in the case of a more academically sophisticated readership.

The purported difference between male and female behaviour, the enactment of gender, is constructed through language which supplies us with supposedly essential or binary attributes. Males are perceived to be composed; women emotional and nervous; men are said to be strong while women are weak; men are brave and women cowardly. Even the terms used for representing women are based on their supposedly lower social status and the prejudices about them. Indeed, a term which begins as a neutral term acquires denigrating or negative undertones if used for women. For instance, the equivalent of the term ‘master’ i.e. ‘mistress’ has acquired sexual undertones. An unmarried woman is ‘spinster,’ which is much more negative than an unmarried man i.e ‘bachelor.’

Shahid Siddiqui then goes on to present evidence from Urdu and the context of North Indian Muslim civilisation about the denigration of women and the gender roles they are expected to fulfil. He quotes from Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s catalogue of terms assumed by address to be used by husbands and wives writing in Urdu. Of course, as expected, the language used here reinforces the role of the superiority of the husband. This brings us to Womens’ Language (WL) which has been a subject of inquiry among feminist and other scholars for a long time. The theories to explain the distinctive features of WL have been the deficit model, the dominance model and the difference model. The first, associated with Robin Lakoff, is that women are weaker partners in conversation and, therefore, their language is hesitant, polite and tentative i.e it reflects their deficits. The dominance model is based on Dale Spender’s influential book entitled Man Made Language (1998), which argues that men are dominant and that they have constructed language which reflects their world view. The third theory is based on Deborah Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand (1992), which is based on the view that men and women are socialised in two sub-cultures which are different, and the language reflects these differences.

The author’s greatest contribution to the debate about gender and language in Pakistan is the evidence he has presented from Urdu literature and other sources mentioned above. Referring to the silence of women, he goes on to elaborate upon the use of Urdu literature as an example. To begin with, women could not write since ‘respectable’ parents did not think of teaching their daughters to read and write in any language. Later, when this impediment was overcome, women wrote under male names and even now their work is pigeonholed as either feminine or protest (feminist) literature rather than just literature.

Dr Siddiqui then goes on to focus on sayings and proverbs in Chapter 8. He points out that our popular proverbs do not point out the wisdom of the people through centuries, but rather their prejudices, stereotypes and assumptions. And, as expected in a male-dominated society, these are not complimentary towards women. The proverbs serve to reinforce the notions that women are weak, cunning, manipulative, quarrelsome and unintelligent. While proverbs reinforce the dominant discourse about women in our society in the garb of folk wisdom, the same function is served by jokes which support the same worldview in the garb of humour (Chapter 9). Both these types of discursive formations are difficult to oppose or deconstruct since one would be called disrespectful towards one’s civilisation if one opposed the first, and humourless if one opposed the other. The same function is served by nursery rhymes and fairy tales to which children are exposed. The author’s examples of these two genres are from the West but there are North Indian equivalents too. The point, however, is well taken: both genres support the stereotypes about women already prevalent in male-dominated societies. One very important index of the hegemony (defined in Gramsci’s terms as acceptance of a discourse, values, attitudes and stereotypes even by those who are oppressed by them) of anti-women discourses are matrimonial advertisements (Chapter 10). Here, the conditions are those of a market, so an analysis of these advertisements indicates what sells better among candidates for marriage both in the case of boys and girls. And, in the latter case, it is good looks with a fair complexion as the major feature of attraction as well as docility and, in the urban areas, the capacity to earn an income to supplement the family income. The author has compared Pakistani advertisements with those of India and Sri Lanka and found many basic similarities at some levels, though there are differences as well.

The chapter on gender and the media (Chapter 14), the construction of women in advertisements — apart from those for the marriage market — (Chapter 15), television plays (Chapter 16), films (Chapter 17) and songs (Chapter 18) provide further evidence of the way language and imagery is used to construct the stereotypes about gender which put women at a disadvantage. The essence of these chapters is that they depict how woman are seen as objects of aesthetic or erotic gratification, and not fully functioning human beings. Men, on the other hand, are shown in various capacities and their physical attributes are consigned to the background, but for women, the role is reversed.

They may, of course, be shown as elderly women in which the mother- image or the witch image is exaggerated to the exclusion of the whole personality. In all cases, the role of language and imagery in reinforcing stereotypes and maintaining the prevalent discourses is emphasised. This calls for language reform on the model of the movement for the use of non-sexist language and the avoidance of androcentric generics i.e he or she for just he; human for just man; chairperson for chairman, etc. This is a step towards resisting hegemony of discourses which ignore or put down women, which is the gist of the last chapter as well as the book as a whole.

However, there are some shortcomings in this book which can be taken care in a future edition. Firstly, there is a lot of well-known theory which has been repeated with reference to the same authors in several chapters. While it is true that Pakistani students probably do not know even these fairly standard views, a scholarly book addresses itself to scholars. Perhaps a synoptic account, with brief references elsewhere, would have been adequate. Secondly, while the author mentions Pakistani scholars in the bibliography, he does not assimilate their work or refer to it, though there is research on the relationship of language and power in Pakistan. Neither does he refer to the work of any Pakistani or Indian author on language and gender (since there are cultural similarities as far as language and gender are concerned between the two countries), though there is some work on these issues. And, thirdly, in addition to Grimm’s fairy tales, there are childrens’ stories from the Punjab and lots of other works which are culturally relevant and as stereotypical as the ones the author mentions. These would have served as indigenous examples, at par with the other material used by the author.

But these are minor issues which need not detract from the real worth of the book which lies in its being a pioneering work on language and gender, delineating clearly how language constructs the discourse which maintains male domination in Pakistan as a worldview. It also points out how seemingly innocuous genres such as jokes, sayings, songs, films, advertisements and plays actually create and reinforce these prejudices and stereotypical ways of perceiving women. Besides its academic worth, the book is also a milestone in our society and academia which has never moved away from the hegemonic discourses of male domination so inimical to women. In that sense, it is also a passionate appeal to replace the conservative worldview, which dominates our society, with a more liberal one. This book is highly recommended to students of the social sciences, media persons and the general public.