Language, Gender, and Power: The politics of hegemony and control in South Asia

Review by

Jahan Ara Shams

PhD Schoalar, UMT

Shahid Siddiqui, the author of this book is working as Vice Chancellor at Allama Iqbal Open University Islamabad.  He has his PhD in Language Education from University of Toronto, Canada. His areas of interest are socio-cultural aspects of language, gender, freedom, educational change, and critical pedagogy.  His books provide a comprehensive, compact and comprehendible reading and are widely read and quoted in educational circles.

The book in hand, “Language, Gender and Power”, is a scholarly work in which the author skillfully incorporated the proverbs, fairytales, jokes, songs, advertisement, and nursery rhymes using both conventional and unconventional sources. Dictionary definitions are given with contextual explanations of the terms. The author analyzed the interrelationship of language, gender and power. Language is defined as power to change which influences the role of gender in society. Gender is explained as a social construct which determines the roles, expectations and opportunities for women and men. The author has given the history of language and its relationship with gender while discussing works of Jesperson (1922), Lakoff (1975), Spender (1998), and Judith Butler (1990) as a base and starting point of this discussion.

The book comprised of twenty chapters which are categorized into six parts. Some glimpses and highlights of all six parts are given below. In the first part of the book language is defined as social phenomena. Fairclough (2001) is quoted to show how language is related to society. According to him:

“…..there is not an external relationship ‘between’ language and society, but an internal and dialectical relationship. Language is a part of society; linguistic phenomena are social phenomena of a special sort, and social phenomena are (in part) linguistic phenomena” (p.19).

Power is defined as a complex concept and Gramchi’s point of view about power is given as base to start the talk about power and then the explanation of power by others and Foucault are discussed, as according to Foucault

“…it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practices bodies, ‘docile’ bodies” (1995; p. 138).

Foucault was a philosopher, historian of ideassocial theoristphilologist and literary critic. The theme of this work is the relationship between knowledge and power; and how the latter is used to control and define the former.

The term hegemony is used by the author to explain how the women accept anti-female stereotypes. This term was coined by Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, who had to die in prison for his views. He was an Italian writer, politician, political theorist, philosopher, sociologist, and linguist of the 20th century. The notion of hegemony is elaborated as a combination of two approaches. A coercive approach and discursive approach, in which the latter is more dominant and effective as it related to language and perform as an instrument of hegemony. Then there are discussions about the use of language for representation and hegemonic purposes, like talking about English language in 1832 parliamentary Report on language and employment it was recommended that

‘…the general cultivation of the English language is most highly desirable, both with a view to the means of operating favorably on their habits and character…..’(Rehman, 2004,p.10)

In part two the difference between gender and sex is highlighted and it is discussed how gender is linked to socially constructed notions of muscularity and femininity. The lists of some of the terms, traits and attributes assigned to males and females are given to show how stereotypes about gendered notions of society are constructed. For example strong is used for males and weak for females, similarly independent vs. dependent, Wizard vs. Witch, Governor vs. Governess and Mister vs. Mistress, are some of the attributes or terms which clearly show that the words used for women are inferior. The author has gradually and very beautifully discussed the titles used for males and females and how they grow up with those titles and they set their roles in the society. Then different models like Deficit Model, Dominance Model and Difference Model and approaches are described to highlight the language and gender as important researchable phenomena.

In part three of this book the author has discussed how females are made silent beings and ignored. This idea is supported by examples from literature where females are found to be suppressed. Proverbs, saying, jokes, and societal expectations are very artistically used to show the politics of representation and hegemony in South Asia. Some of the proverbs like “Teesra beta raj rajae-tesri beti bheek mungwae”, “Aayee bee aaqila, sb kamon main dakhla” and “Aurat ki aqal gudi peechay”, etc., and some of the gendered stereotypes like “Women are less intelligent”, “Women are cowardly”, and “Women are confused”, etc. are common in our society. The main point is that women are represented as unintelligent, boring, chattering, emotional and capricious in our public discourses. The author has given a comparison of different attributes given in matrimonial advertisements and the difference of demands with reference to male and females. The author has further strengthened his argument by telling us that this is true of India and Sri Lanka also. In part four the author has discussed how politics of representation is found be prevalent in the education of females. Gender stereotypes are working in specifying their roles, expectations and opportunities. The author has also discussed gender representation in nursery rhymes and fairy tales to further highlight the phenomena. The exposure of students to these nursery rhymes and fairy tales in their formal system of education is made clear by giving examples of some of the rhymes, like

There was an old woman, and what do you think?

She lived upon nothing but victuals, and drink;

Victuals and drink what the chief of her diet,

and yet this old woman could never be quiet


In this rhyme it is depicted that females have domestic responsibility and male has to work outside the home. Here, gender is treated as a social construct and responsibilities are specified.

The dove say coo, coo, what shall I do?

I can scarce maintain two,

Pooh! says the wren, I’ve get ten,

and keep them all like gentleman


Here, in this rhyme it is shown that males are better in taking care of their offspring and that they have better resources and physically strong.

Part five shows language as a powerful tool of representation; and hegemony is found to be playful in media, televisions, plays, films and song. It is emphasized that media as gender socializer affects the societal thought pattern in a subtle manner. It portrays female as being wrong. In the words of Kuntjara (2001, p.98) the image of the women as portrayed in this book is that

“Conventional beauty is her only attribute. She has no lines of wrinkles, is young, no scars, pores or blemishes. She is thin, generally tall and long legged. All ‘beautiful’ women in ads conform to this norm. Women are constantly exhorted to achieve this ideal, to feel ashamed and guilty if they fail, to feel that their desirability and lovability are contingent upon physical perfection.”


The author has further emphasized it by elaborating the language situation used in Indo-Pak films. For example,

Gore rang ka zamana kbhi hoga na purana

Gore dr tujay kiska hai

Tera to rang gora hai


Lrki kyun na janay larkon si nahi hoti

Sochti hai zyada

kam wo samajti hai

Dil kuch kehta hai

Kuch or hi krti hai


In part six the author has highlighted the need for language reform and some initiatives in this direction cited by Goddard and Patterson (2000); and Sunderland (2006) are also discussed. Like replacement of house manager with housewife, using chairperson instead of chairman, and flight attendant instead of air hostess, etc. At the end the author has shown how resistance to hegemony can be achieved through language.

This book is a good attempt to identify the missing link of discourse in a very easy and simple manner. No background knowledge of social sciences is needed to read and understand this book. As one starts to read the book, the reader develops interest in reading more for knowing more. One important feature of this book is that it is interdisciplinary. As there are discussion on the issues related to sociology, politics, literature, linguistics, gender studies and feminism, etc. So it should appeal the students, teachers, researchers, administrators, policy makers, and curriculum planers as well as lay persons for reducing gender gap. It should make them aware of the power of language and being careful while using language. It is the first time that any Pakistani scholar has taken this topic into consideration and given a start of thinking in this direction. This effort of the author will ultimately take towards reduction of gender imbalance.

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