“How are the boys?” is a question that I am asked in Arabic all the time even though I am a proud mother of girls! Arabic like many other languages is a “gendered” language where all nouns are either masculine or feminine, and the grammatical gender of all other elements of the sentence structure is based on the gender of the nouns. In such languages, gender-neutrality is much more difficult to achieve than in an inherently gender-neutral language such as English, where there are gendered pronouns, but the nouns themselves do not have gender.
Obviously, in this case, the word “boys” is considered a “neutral” word that is used in reference to boys and girls just like it is the case in other social and sometimes even formal references to women or a mixed audience in Saudi Arabia as well as other Arabic-speaking countries where the masculine tone is considered the “neutral” form. Our words reflect our convictions, values, and beliefs and in this simple example, they convey to girls from their early childhood that they live in a man’s world where they not only do not matter, but also do not even count.
To some, this might seem trivial and a waste of time and effort, which is partly true had our objective been to turn a gendered language into a completely gender-neutral one. In addition to being an impossible mission, even if people did not mind the redundancy and the tediousness that would result from such an attempt, we have more substantial issues in Saudi Arabia regarding women’s rights to deal with than to dwell on linguistics.
It is a legitimate claim for women to demand inclusion in language that not only conveys the acknowledgement and respect that they deserve, but is also a way to regain the sense of empowerment of early women in Islam that was robbed by traditions and social norms dominated by menNawar Fakhry Ezzi
This is not the intended objective though, but rather it is about simple alterations in order to acknowledge and respect the existence of women in society. In similar situations as the one mentioned earlier, is it really difficult to say “girls” where there is a complete absence of boys? It would not be too much to ask to address women with their appropriate feminine form when men are absent from the whole equation, to include them when addressing a mixed gender audience, or better yet to even alternate between the masculine and the feminine form whenever possible. This is not impossible to achieve and is already being practiced by Saudi men and women who care enough to do so.
To those who think that this sounds too foreign and is an echo of Western feminism, it is not. The issue was brought up 1,400 years ago more than once to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about the Almighty’s holy words. Practically and eloquently as it was commonly used among Arabs, most of the verses in the Holy Quran use the masculine “neutral” tone to address both men and women. Nonetheless, women still voiced their objection to the Prophet (pbuh) more than once despite the fact that they were very much aware that the masculine tone was meant to address both sexes. The first of which was after the Hijrah, migration from Mecca to Madinah, when Umm Salama, one of the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) asked: “Why are the men being praised for their sacrifices in the Hijrah and not the women?” Her question was followed by verse 195 in Surat Al-Imran: “So their Lord accepted their prayer: That I will not allow the deeds of any of you to be lost, whether you are male or female.”
The identity of women
This was not the only incident, but in this one there is uncertainty regarding the identity of the women or woman who spoke out, but all narratives are in consensus of her/their objection to the Prophet (pbuh) that men were mentioned in the Holy Quran more than women were.
The response was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) on the same day in the following verse: “Surely the Muslim men and the Muslim women, the believing men and the believing women, the obedient men and the obedient women, the truthful men and the truthful women, the steadfast men and the steadfast women, the humble men and the humble women, the charitable men and the charitable women, the fasting men and the fasting women, the chaste men and the chaste women, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember Allah much – Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward” (33:35).
Some of the teachings of the Holy Quran followed an interactive learning approach where incidents prompted some verses to be revealed to further emphasize the importance of a certain issue that is usually deeply rooted in the culture and value system of Arabs. In this situation, these verses were to legitimize women’s claim of equality in the revered Holy Quran and assert the feeling of empowerment that Islam gave them, which prompted them to make such an objection after they were considered property in Arab culture.
Words convey more power than they seem. It is a legitimate claim for women to demand inclusion in language that not only conveys the acknowledgement and respect that they deserve, but is also a way to regain the sense of empowerment of early women in Islam that was robbed by traditions and social norms dominated by men.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on April 27, 2017.
Nawar Fakhry Ezzi is a Jeddah-based contributor to Saudi Gazette newspaper. She is interested in human rrights, Islam, interfaith relations and the environment. The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweets @nawarezzi.