The Supreme Court of India has taken a significant step towards promoting gender equality by releasing a handbook that advocates for the use of gender-neutral language in the judiciary system. The handbook provides new English equivalents to replace prejudicial stereotypes and aims to promote unbiased language.
This decision raises questions whether it can truly bring about change in society or merely alters society's perception of women.
Advocate Jai Vaidya questions the effectiveness of solely changing words and phrases, emphasising the need for a more favourable interpretation of laws through judgments.
She argued, “What is necessary is the more favourable interpretation of laws through judgements,” and added that neutral terminology alone cannot ensure gender justice or create a just social environment for women.
“Certain stereotypes work ostensibly in the favour of women. For instance, if a husband assaults his wife, it may not make headlines because it's common and accepted, but if the reverse happens, it immediately attracts attention. If the husband files a case of assault against his wife, the social stereotype may make it difficult for him to prove so. Hence, breaking stereotypes is beneficial for men as well,” said advocate Vaidya.
Steps towards achieving true justice and equality
She suggested that overcoming patriarchal mindsets, assessing cases based on individual circumstances, and reinterpreting laws are crucial steps towards achieving true justice and equality. The use of gender-neutral language in the judiciary system marks the beginning of a challenging process. While it has just been initiated in the Judiciary system, it is not mandatory to use these new words when filing First Information Reports (FIR), so acceptance and change in perception will require time and effort.
Jyoti Mhapasekar, President of the Women's Liberation Organisation (Sri Mukti Sanghatana), acknowledges the prevalence of abusive words and derogatory language related to women in society and said, “Through language, women are not only given a secondary status but even a lower one. In every language related to women, abusive words exist. The use of words related to women's body parts is also very common in our society. Even small boys use these words.”
Awareness about importance of respectful language
She stressed that creating awareness and educating people about the importance of respectful language is crucial. Mhapasekar welcomes the steps taken by the Chief Justice of India, Chandrachud, and emphasises that awareness should be created at every level, including schools, homes, and the media.
“It's just the beginning, and how society accepts it depends on working at various levels, not only by women's organisations but also by men at their level. The government should mandate the use of specific words for women by government employees. Some words recognise women's marital status, but there are no equivalent words for men that reveal their marital status. So, why do specific words exist that indicate women's marital status? Some things are natural, and rights should be equal as per the constitution, but women have had to fight for them every time to receive them,” she said.
Significance of language
Language plays a crucial role in shaping perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes towards women. The handbook's purpose is to encourage sensitivity among legal professionals and establish a more respectful environment within the legal process. By adopting gender-neutral language, the judiciary can create a more inclusive atmosphere that treats individuals based on their merits, rather than preconceived notions about their gender. The handbook has the potential to pave the way for meaningful change, challenging gender-stereotypical language and reshaping societal perceptions.