Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Women Rights Start with the Right Language

Written by on . Published in International women's day

I believe that sometimes language is sexist, and vocabulary non-inclusive. In Spanish, recent years have seen an ample debate on how to eliminate gender issues when speaking or writing, with a camp promoting the use of “inclusive” language, and others touting it as unnecessary and cumbersome.

In English, when a person wishes to discuss boys and girls, they have the option to use the word children or kids: both are words that are gender neutral and inclusive, and everyone assumes that both girls AND boys are included in the discussion. In Spanish, however, we have “niños” for boys, and “niñas” for girls, but when people discuss boys AND girls, they just use the word “niños” to refer to both. There is no equivalent to “children” or “kids” that is gender neutral. So when discussing children, it becomes confusing to define when girls are being included or not. For example, in a school handbook you might read that the “niños” are supposed to arrive at school at 8am, and you’d assume it regards both boys and girls. But another rule might state that “Niños” can’t have long hair if they wish to comply with uniform regulations, and you’d have to assume from context that this only includes boys. If there is a soccer team open for “niños”, would it be gender segregated or mixed? If a girl showed up, she could be turned down because they’d assume it is obvious it is only for boys: women are left guessing when rules, laws and rights protect them, and when they should assume that it doesn’t. Inclusive language proponents ask for people to write down “niños y niñas” when discussing children but it is a struggle against long-held tradition to just use that one word.

As we grow up, we face this repeatedly. In Spanish “doctor” only refers to men, “doctora” would be for a female doctor. A group of female doctors is “doctoras” and male doctors are “doctores”: the same word used to refer to a group of both male and female doctors. If a document states that “doctores” make X amount of money, and the next reads that “doctoras” have maternity leaves: are women included in the first statement at all? It could, and is, argued both ways, and usually, women find that when it costs more money or goes against status quo to include women, it is assumed that the term meant only the males.

For many men and even some women, they don’t understand what the big deal is. They argue that it is cumbersome to use “doctores y doctoras” when just one word was good enough in the past. But it is a big deal. Because language forms our way of thinking, it is the right place to start change, so that when we talk about doctors, scientists, presidents, writers, there is no doubt that women are also included in the group, and when we discuss human rights, no-one is able to forget that the rights of men, are also the rights of women.

Tags: , , , ,