Rightly so, Filipino academicians like to boast that Philippine languages are generally gender-neutral, meaning we don’t differentiate males from females in our pronouns (siya in Tagalog), and in some of our nouns (kapatid for brothers and sisters, asawa for husband or wife; but note that in Cebuano, asawa is the wife and bana is the husband).
Contrast the relative neutrality in English, which makes male/female distinctions all the time, and which has given rise to more conscious efforts for gender inclusive terms like businessperson, chairperson, food server (instead of waiters and waitresses), fisherfolk.
More than political correctness, these efforts toward a gender-inclusive language are based on the premise that language plays an important role in shaping our perceptions of the world around us. A child growing up hearing terms like “fireman” and “spaceman” (as I did) visualizes these professions as reserved for men. The more neutral terms like firefighter and astronaut send strong social signals that women can enter these professions.
Gender-inclusive language has caught on, but it will not be enough if we talk about the larger issues of language and sexism—meaning, the way languages can reinforce ideas that women are inferior to men, or that women should be subjected to moral standards differently (read: more strictly) from men.
Some of the sexism in language is so common we don’t think twice about it. The term “babe,” used both in English and Filipino to refer to a woman, can be interpreted by feminists as sexist, in the way that it reduces a woman to an infant.
The term “chick,” again used both in English and Filipino, was actually a mutation of the Spanish chica (girl), but was also resented by some Filipino feminists: “I’m not a chick, or a chicken.” Tell that to men who are quick at getting girlfriends: The term “chick boy” is still in use.
Think, too, of how a woman might elicit an exclamation from men—“Hayop!” may seem innocent, but, really, when you think of the loose English translation (What an animal!), you’ll think twice before using it.
Or you could soften the term, as many men do, into hanep, but I’m not sure how acceptable that works out when you think of hanip, which means chicken fleas.
That’s the way they are
When we see a car going too fast or too slow, and discover that the driver is a woman, we go babae kasi,” a full English translation being, “Oh, no wonder, it’s a woman driver.” Babae kasi tends to highlight some weakness, deficiency, even “craziness” in women. Furthermore, the phrase tends to “essentialize,” suggesting that women are born that way.
In contrast lalake kasi is used to justify male behavior as “normal,” even desirable. So when a man’s polyamorous interests are discussed, people say, lalake kasi, almost to absolve him. I’ve heard the phrase being used even to comfort a woman who discovers her husband is having an extramarital affair—lalake kasi again suggesting that’s the way men are made. . . try to be more understanding.
If a woman’s “extracurricular activities” are exposed, no one says babae kasi. Instead, you might hear a barrage of expletives, profanities and judgmental exclamations about her character and morals.
Language reinforces double standards. A widower who begins dating, or remarries, is congratulated and admired for his prowess. A widow who does that faces ostracism, or the label byuda alegre,” which is said in a condescending tone so different from its English equivalent, “merry widow.”
‘Anak ng tatay’
Then we get to the curse words. There are references to women’s genitals in several Philippine languages, the terms used as an exclamation. Sometimes the references are made more personal XXXX mo! (your XXXX!), or, worse, XXXX ng ina mo! (your mother’s XXXX!).
We’ve also been exposed to our President’s frequent references to someone else’s mother being a whore. That is sexist too, in an extreme form, and we should begin to think about its impact on our children. How can we tell them not use such curse phrases when the President of the country uses them?
Ask young people how they would feel if someone’s father is called a man-whore (sorry, the term seems almost funny, as does puto). And despite the verbal battering mothers have suffered, an attempt at a polite repartee by my feminist friends—anak ka ng tatay mo (you are your father’s child—falls flat).
The links between words and sexism should be recognized—and made part of life skills and sexuality training in homes and in schools. Sexuality education should include references to the genitals by their polite as well as profane names, with some discussion about the terms not being bastos (rude) in themselves, but in the way they are used.
If you are watching television with a child and profane sexist terms are used, you will find the children themselves will sit up, sometimes laughing. That presents an opportunity to talk about sexism and language.
Sometimes, the kids themselves will ask you about certain terms and the last thing you should do is to dismiss them: “When you’re older, I’ll explain.”
Recently my son asked me if women had libog (lust), a question for which I was totally unprepared. I quickly threw back the question: “What do you think?”
He was silent a bit, then said, “No, only men have libog. Women are landi (flirtatiousness).” You can imagine the discussion we had about women with libog and malandi, even as I brought in the double standards reflected in an action movie some years back—“Si Kembot at si Kilabot—” kilabot being a male stereotype for some guy oozing macho-ness, and kembot being the way women sway when they walk. . . and flirt.
Sexism is most insidious when it is not as apparent. As with our gender-neutral pronouns, we like to boast of our nonsexist folk tale about the first man and first woman. Unlike the Genesis account where Eve was created after Adam, almost as an afterthought, we say with pride that we had Malakas, the first man, and Maganda, the first woman, emerging simultaneously from a bamboo that splits open.
Ah, but we forget that their names still reflect sexist stereotypes: man being full of strength and woman being beautiful. In day-to-day conversations, we are actually less sexist, talking about malakas na babae and magandang lalake.
No need to be grim and determined in all this. I love one version of “Malakas and Maganda,” where after the bamboo splits, Malakas is the first to step out. Male chauvinists will rejoice: See, it’s still the men first! But here’s the punch line: Malakas was the first one to step out because Maganda ordered him to: “Sige, mauna ka na.”
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