A Feminized Language is More Democratic

I was honored to be asked to write the foreword to Quelle feminization pour l’Afrique francophone, a book about the feminization of language — namely French — in the Maghreb states. This book is authored by Czech academics Dr. Martin Plesko and Jan Holes. It will be published in early 2018. 

After having served on the Executive Committee of the Alliance Francaise de Karachi for two years, I was elected President at the end of 2016. The election results were announced, and the Director of the Alliance Francaise said, “Felicitations, Madame La President.”

I’ll never forget being addressed, for the first time, as “Madame La Presidente.”  As I rose to take my seat at the head of the table, I felt very emotional. Hillary Clinton had just lost the US Election a month previously to Donald Trump. She would have been the first female president of the United States, and many women, not just in the United States, had taken her defeat as a sign that the world’s biggest glass ceiling could not yet be broken, even in 2017. Had she won she would have been known as President Clinton in English but most certainly “Madame La Presidente” in French.

Hearing myself addressed as Madame La Presidente, in that instant, unlocked something powerful inside me: a sense of strength and of belonging. I was being recognized for my position, but my identity as a woman was also being acknowledged in a significant way.  In Pakistan, where the position of women is perilous – Pakistan ranked second to last in the 2017 Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum – women struggle to be accepted as equal to men in all facets of society.

The Alliance Francaise does not discriminate on the basis of gender, and there is equal representation of women to men on the Executive Committee, and there have been women presidents before, but this equality is not the norm for Pakistan, the country in which the Alliance Francaise, and so many others in different parts of the world, operates. Indeed, it is not even the norm for the French language, as one of the authors of this work, Dr. Martin Plesko, demonstrates so clearly in his previous book, (The Feminization of French in France, Belgium, Switzerland).

The default gender in the French language has been male, and it is only with great effort and debate, that European Francophone countries have begun to change this in favor of a more egalitarian form of the language. And still there are challenges, such as the Academie Francaise’s rejection of what they term “gender revisionism” –  a charged phrase, used politically, as opposed to “modification” or the concepts of a “gender-neutral” or “feminized” French, to indicate hearty disapproval of a rebellious insanity that will end in the destruction of the French language.

I had many conversations with Dr. Plesko when he taught at the Alliance Francaise, about women’s rights in Muslim countries. His area of research — the presence and visibility of women, as embodied by the feminine, in the French language – was fascinating to me, not the least because he is a man. Why would a man choose to disrupt the privilege, even of language, that he as a man enjoys? But as I read through Quelle feminization pour l’Afrique francophone, co-authored with Jan Holes, I realized that the authors, members of the millennial generation willing to challenge their own privilege, firmly believe that when a language does not accommodate the female in its structure, it reflects a world in which women’s presence is seen as unnecessary.

The efforts to feminize French in the countries of the Maghreb take on particular significance in light of the political upheavals of the Arab Spring, where young people in particular agitated for women’s rights and the better treatment of women as citizens, not just as mothers or daughters or sisters of the men of these countries. Similarly, we could say that the feminization of French in the Maghreb reflects making a linguistic space for women that did not previously exist, just as the youth of Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritius and Algeria are fighting for women to enter into spaces where they were previously non-existent, or at the very least, invisible.

As a writer, I grapple with issues of women’s visibility when I write. In Urdu or Sindhi, the national and local languages of Pakistan, I must indicate whether a group of people are all male, all female, or mixed, which affects noun form, verb form, adjective form, and so on. In English, do I write about a doctor and “his” patients, or a doctor and “her” patients (in English, nouns are genderless but possessive pronouns are not)?  It seems obvious that the more gender-specific the language, the more it reflects the divisions between the sexes among the people who speak that language. But how do you make language more fair to women, while retaining its elegance?

This is not so much the authors’ concern here, as the work concerns itself with the visibility of women as reflected in a specific use of the French language: matters of administration – official forms, visa applications, employment records, and the like. Through careful analysis of these forms, they have discovered a language that is in transition, caught between the rigid gender roles of the past, and working towards a more egalitarian form of the present and future.  Without judgment, Plesko and Holes prove that a feminized language is a more democratic one.

It is a valuable exercise, not just for its academic purpose, but because in concrete terms the authors indicate that women and men have equal rights to the instruments of citizenship and that they can perform, interchangeably, all functions of a modern society. In doing so, they have provided a roadmap for a better, more equitable world for us all.

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