(Right, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury and left, Droupadi Murmu)
When Pratibha Patil was elected the first woman president of India in 2007, there was some discussion on whether the word rashtrapati could apply to a woman. Some felt that the word pati, literally a husband but also used in a larger sense of lord or head, was gendered.
Would a more appropriate title for a woman president then be rashtrapatni?
Fortunately, the offensive idea was tossed almost as soon as it was suggested. And Patil continued to be known as the rashtrapati throughout her tenure.
Now, nearly 15 years later, with the election of India’s second woman president, Droupadi Murmu, the old question has emerged again albeit as a political flashpoint between the BJP and Congress after Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury referred to President Murmu with the epithet, ‘rashtrapatni’.
The BJP led by women MPs Smriti Irani, minister for women and child development and Nirmala Sitharaman, the finance minister, erupted in an uproar, accusing the Congress of demeaning the president and demanding an apology from Congress party president Sonia Gandhi.
Chowdhury has written to President Murmu and apologised. He claims the term was ‘a slip of the tongue’.
The word ‘president’ comes from the Latin praesidere which literally means to ‘sit before’, linguist Ben Zimmer told National Public Radio in 2016.
The problem arises when you translate the word into Hindi that assigns genders to nouns.
“When the word rashtrapati was adopted after Independence, it was in the abstract to mean a governor or ruler, not literally the husband of a nation,” Ali Taqi, Hindi language teacher and director-founder of Zabaan.com told me.
In fact, rashtrapati was already in use, to describe the head of the Congress party, now known in Hindi as adhyaksh, regardless of gender. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru is widely credited for suggesting the term rashtrapati for president.
Hindi words for minister (mantri) and head (pradhan) are gender neutral. But the tendency especially in the early days, after earmarking 33% seats for women in village and council elections, the phenomena of husbands putting up their wives as proxies led to the coinage of pradhan patis, indicating where the real power lay.
But rashtrapati is unambiguously masculine, not just in its suffix but also in its assumption that the head of a household, or by extension a nation, with the attendant duties of protecting it is male. Equally clearly 75 years ago, our founding fathers (and mothers) did not envisage a woman as the country’s constitutional head.
Today there is a paradigm shift in how we use words and all over the world there is a move to change language to reflect greater equality.
Ironically, as a backlash to this movement for linguistic gender equality, the city government of Buenos Aires has recently banned teachers from using gender neutral words in the classroom saying that to do so mangles the Spanish language.
As more women enter public life, chairperson replaces chairman, your honour becomes the appropriate way to address a woman judge (my lady would just be crass), police personnel/officer and not policeman, firefighters not firemen.
I wrote on gendered language in a 2020 column for Hindustan Times.
If the male is no longer the default option for a host of professions, then should the head of the nation be exempt?
The political storm caused by Adhir Ranjan Choudhury’s inappropriate term will blow over. But will it lead to a debate for a new word to more appropriately describe the constitutional head of our nation?
So, what would be a more appropriate replacement for the times we live in? In 2007, Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray had suggested the gender neutral ‘rashtra adhyaksh’, but the suggestion was never taken up.
Is it time for India to consider replacing the word rashtrapati with a more gender neutral term? What do you think? Write to me at: email@example.com.
Rs 84,330 crore is the net worth of India’s wealthiest woman, HCL Technology’s Roshni Nadar Malhotra. The average wealth of the 100 richest Indian women is Rs 4,170 crore (against Rs 2,725 crore in 2020). The youngest on the list is 33-year-old Kanika Tekriwal of JetSetGo with a net worth of Rs 420 crore.
Source: Leading Wealthy Women List, 2021 by Hurun and Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd
WE SEE YOU
(courtesy: Khabar Lahariya)
One of my favourite websites, Khabar Lahariya reports from Chitrakoot on how Hasina who began her working life as a construction worker is now a skilled mason, a profession that is almost entirely dominated by men. So far, Hasina has built over 10 homes supervising large teams of workers at every site, sourcing material and negotiating charges with customers, reports Khabar Lahariya
WE HEAR YOU
“It’s just talk.”
Japan’s gender equality minister Noda Seiko blamed ‘indifference and ignorance’ in the 90% male-dominated parliament for the country’s low birth-rate, persistent gender bias and population decline.
STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
The naked truth
Ranveer Singh, the actor often known for his flamboyant personal style and no stranger to controversy, decided to dispense with his clothes altogether for a photo shoot. The apparently naked Mr Singh, sprawled on a Kashmiri carpet with his unmentionables tactfully out of sight led to a flurry of comment and at least one police complaint by a city lawyer who accused him of ‘crossing all limits of a cultured and gentleman person’.
Mumbai police has registered her complaint under various sections to do with obscenity.
This is not the first time obscenity laws have been invoked for nudity. It took 14 years for models Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre to be acquitted when they modelled in 1995 with apparently nothing on except for a pair of sneakers for a shoe brand. A year after his acquittal, on his 55th birthday, Soman was in trouble, again after uploaded a picture of himself running on the beach in his, well, birthday suit.
And actress Shilpa Shetty has only just been let off by a Mumbai court in a 2007 obscenity case filed against her for not protesting strongly enough when actor Richard Gere kissed her in public at an AIDS event.
What’s in a name? The courts weigh in for mothers
A mother has the ‘absolute right’ to decide her child’s surname and, should she remarry after the death of her husband, cannot be compelled to use his name in the child’s records, the Supreme Court has said.
In Kerala, Justice PV Kunhikrishnan said in a separate case that children have the right to use only their mothers’ name in identity documents including their birth certificate. “Children of unwed mothers and the children of rape victims can also live in this country with the fundamental rights of privacy, liberty and dignity,” the high court order said.
In the absence of a separate category in sporting events for transgender athletes to compete in, they must be allowed to participate in categories of their choice, the Kerala High Court has said.
AROUND THE WORLD
In France, a crash sparked by two cyclists colliding and setting off a chain reaction of dozens of competitors flying off their bikes marred the Tour de France Femmes, back after a gap of 33 years with 144 racers from 24 teams.
In Canada, stealthily removing a condom during sex, unless a partner has consented and given permission to do so, could amount to sexual assault, the Supreme Court has ruled, reports the National Post.
In Chile, voters will weigh in on a new constitution that would bring the most sweeping changes to the country since the end of the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship. The proposed changes include social rights, the environment and gender parity, reports Reuters.
That’s it for this week. If you have a tip or information on gender-related developments that you would like to share write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.