Patriarchy in Language

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As a student of literary and cultural theory, I have often wondered about the actual connection between theory and practical life. Often we are rigorously discussing concepts and terms that have very little application in the real world. However, most theory, I believe has a very strong practical basis. Theory often helps us re evaluate and question age old conventions that have become an inseparable part of our lives.

Patriarchy and sexism manifest themselves in the subtlest of ways. It is an ideology, whose physical tangible versions are limited but as a theory, a ‘thought’ it plagues entire cultures, and keeps on recreating itself in many forms throughout the ages. For example, our language. Since its very inception, while speaking of the entire human race, the word ‘mankind’ has been used without any hesitation. Similarly, the pronoun ‘he’ is used as default in language. If we investigate, further into the etymology of words, we will find ample shocking examples of stereotyping women and anything feminine as base and inferior. The word “seminal” for example, which means very important or significant, derives from the root word “semen”. “Hysteria”, which means an exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement, was a popular technical term for a psychological disorder from which transgressive monstrous women suffered. Unfettered sexual desire, insomnia, bouts of insanity and swooning were taken to be symptoms of this disease. This was called the “widow’s disease” because its source was the pathological womb that was thought to wander through the body. Later on, the disease was also associated with witchcraft and black magic. “Hystera” happens to be the Greek word for womb.

Hysteric woman's treatment
Feminist theory refers to this as phallogocentrism. It is a combined neologism( phallus+ logos+centrism) which implies the supremacy of the phallus in the construction of meaning. “Logos” in Greek means “word” or “speech”. Logocentrism would mean the centrality of speech, or word of mouth in generating meaning. So phallogocentrism refers to the centrality of the phallus, and symbolically patriarchy, in language to generate meaning.

If we look at the entire canon of Western Literature, up until the late eighteenth century, a woman writer was quite obsolete. Those who dared to write, used pseudonyms otherwise the publishers would reject their works straight away. For example, the famous Bronte sisters, authors of classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights wrote under the pen names Currer Bell and Ellis Bell. All the great western epics have a similar plotline- glorification of a male warrior figure who would have to rescue the helpless female. There is thus a constant marginalisation of the woman figure, and a perpetual attempt to silence the female voice. It is always the man who represents the woman. In almost all patriarchal culture women are categorised into binaries. They are either to be seen as an epitome of moral and physical purity- the “Angel in the House” or as demonic, beastly, unruly and savage( like Medusa).

The ideal image of masculinity ( the muscular warrior, the man of reason and enlightenment) have been the cause of both men and women’s suffering. While keeping women ostracized as the inferior species, it has terrorized men with the fear of turning into women. Men who show effeminate gestures are often jeered at and bullied, but a girl who has cropped hair and likes sports, in other words, things particularly masculine, is applauded for being a “tom-boy”. The categorisation into the male-female binary is constantly going on in conscious and unconscious levels, while individual identities are seldom acknowledged.
This is also the reason why the female body and sexuality is tabooed and associated with shame and guilt while the male body is often worshipped as a symbol for strength and virility. The worship of the phallus( Shiva Lingam) in Hinduism, the use of the female body as coveted desirable objects in advertisements follows the patriarchal logic. The myth, that sustains this logic, is that the female body is a mystery- an exotic unfathomable object, which satisfies the man’ sexual desire. Rape is a direct result of this, since anything forbidden and tabooed immediately makes it desirable.

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For the same reason, women’s pre marital virginity is such an important and hence political issue in society. In many families in India, one of the conditions of marriage still is a virgin female body. It means that the body is yet to be possessed by the husband, who will then become the owner of his wife’s body. Sometimes a white sheet would be laid on the marriage bed, which can capture the drops of blood as a proof of the loss of the bride’s virginity.

The point is that there can be no ONE typical woman. Every woman, and every man is different with different histories, different lives, different, multiple identities. The preconceived categories that make society judge individuals should be realised as fallible and unethical on many levels. Conventions should no longer be accepted blindly as natural an unquestionable. Literature and culture should focus on these differences- the pluralities that constitute a person. And instead of writing mankind, for all humanity, writers and start making a conscious effort to write exactly what they mean- humankind.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Microsoft word incorporate the change. “Mankind” produced a grammatical error, waiting to be replaced with humankind.

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