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Women, the power of language, and the language of power

Haji Mohamed Dawjee

Differences between the sexes must be defined to be accepted – but should the language defining these differences be changed?

Differences between the sexes must be defined to be accepted – but should the language defining these differences be changed?

I have been paying a lot of attention recently to the use of language when it comes to talking about women – whether it’s by men or by women themselves.

I started to wonder how much attention we actually pay to the influence of the language used when talking about subject matter pertaining to women. It seems that so much of the language used is dictated by a patriarchal society – and not enough attention is paid to this.

There is power in words, in what they mean, how they are delivered and the type of reaction they incite and perhaps, albeit with the best of intentions, we’re not always aware of the consequences of this power. Language also has a way of assigning power, whether it be intentional or unintentional.

Two things struck me in particular. First: I saw a show not too long ago by famed and respected women’s rights activist and author of The Vagina Monologues Eve Ensler. The play, I am an Emotional Creature – The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, was framed by monologues regarding the plight of different women around the world. In one scene, a single sentence is repeated: “Do not rape us. Do not rape us.” It occurred to me almost immediately that the use of that language, even in activism, was colouring the speaker as a victim.

When we ask men not to rape us, don’t we give them the power of being able to do so? Does it not make women into victims-in-waiting, at the mercy of men? It seemed so to me. I felt like the statement was an acceptance that men were superior and women were weaker. That men were entitled to behave in certain ways because of an innate superiority and that as women, if we wanted them to not exercise this superiority, we had to ask.

The second thing that sparked similar considerations in my mind about the power of language was when I thought about Women’s Day and the coverage of it in the media. The profile pieces, the articles that highlight women in particularly senior positions – inspirations, if you must. The “look how well these women are doing and you can too” narrative. Because it is still necessary. We are not yet beyond this being news. South Africa is still a highly patriarchal society.

Patronising nature
But what purpose does such coverage serve if these pieces are themselves composed in patriarchal language? The very patriarchy we are trying to overcome. And how much attention is paid to this language? Do we think about the power of influence this language has? For example … no man ever gets asked, “So … what is it really like to be a man in your top position?” But certainly many, many women do.

To claim that the question should be phrased in a neutral and humanist way would be naive. We can hope for that. But we are not there yet. So the point is not that the question is insignificant.

The fact still remains that the workplace is dominated by men, and all the conditioning that entails will and does burden women with injustices and hurdles that men do not have to face. Women often need to prove themselves in top positions in ways men don’t have to. Men in the same positions get to be average where women have to be exceptional.

These differences need to be highlighted to be accepted. And if we don’t ask, “What challenges have you encountered as a woman at the top?” then perhaps we steal away from the discourse of these differences. And it’s only after accepting them that we can move past questions like these and towards a more humanist line of engagement.

But the use of language in asking that question needs to be re-looked at. You know she’s a woman. I know she’s a woman. Her answer does not need to be predetermined because you have certain expectations of it owing to the fact that she is a woman. When we ask questions like this we remove the power of the woman to answer as a woman – because we have already made assumptions about what being a woman looks or feels like. Why not then instead say, “What is it like for you at the top” or “Have you encountered any challenges at the top?” She will answer as a woman. I promise.

Clarifying differences
It is far more empowering to answer a question when you are afforded the opportunity to speak as a woman because you know you are one, rather than have someone pre-empt what being a woman means or should mean for you. That way you speak in reference to yourself, and you don’t have to think about the rest of that question.

“What is it like for a woman at the top instead of a man?” How could you possibly know? You have never been a man. Also, who said that being one is the ultimate measure of a pleasurable experience or any other?

Again, to accept the differences between sexes, we must define them. But there is massive power in the language we use to explain and question these differences. And this language needs to change because it is the difference between those who seek to benefit from the politics of division and achieving a stage of understanding. In striving for equality, should that power not rest then with the latter of those two options?

“There is power and there is difference and whoever holds the power determines the meaning of the difference.” – Source unknown.


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