The underlying sexism in swearing and slursThe etymology of many of today’s curse words reveals their patriarchal origins and their continued, casual use could reinforce the very values that birthed them.
When Kabita was on her way home from the office, a group of strangers started verbally harassing her. The stares and comments made her uncomfortable, and so she confronted them. She then yelled at them to stop, but they didn’t, she says.
“I couldn’t control myself and I snapped at them. Later the situation got heated and we got into a verbal brawl where we exchanged a series of expletives,” says Kabita, who asked that she only be identified by her first name.
Later when she returned home, after cooling down, she started thinking about the fight.
“I didn’t regret fighting with those men, as they had to be held accountable for their misbehaviour. However, I regretted using the same curse words they used on me. I realised how some of the words I used were directed towards their female family members, which I felt was wrong,” says Kabita.
Swearing in public is often seen as something that is outside the moral decorum of how a ‘civil’ person should behave, particularly in the Nepali context. But the issue with swearing is deeper than its morality, believe sociologists the Post spoke to. The etymological origin of many words reflect the patriarchal nature of our society and their casual use could lead to the promotion of sexist and misogynist behaviour and attitudes, they say.
“Most of the curse words that are spoken in our daily lives are sexist and misogynist in nature,” says Babita Rai, a feminist writer and activist. According to Rai, as such words are filled with abuses that are directed towards women, its use in common parlance is a matter of concern, and that is something that shouldn’t be ignored.
“Even if it’s a man who is at the receiving end of the abuses, it’s the women of their family who are slut-shamed by the abuser,” says Rai. "Verbal violence is the starting point of any violence that is targeted towards women. If thoughts themselves are problematic, then they will reflect in one’s behaviour as well," she says.
From the Nepali language to Nepal Bhasa, from Hindi to English, and Maithili to Bhojpuri, all of these languages that are spoken in Nepal have their own set of slang and cuss words. While all these languages are diverse, the underlying misogyny and sexism that is present in their swear words is common among them. Take for instance the Nepali curse word ma*ch***e or the Hindi word for the same m*d*****d, a swear word used derogatorily at one’s mother. From the threat of rape and sexual violence to slut-shaming, such swear words are often targeted towards a female member of another party involved in the fight, even when they have nothing to do with the fight.
According to Lalita Bashyal, a sociologist, such words are intentionally used by the patriarchal society. “This is because they believe that by using these kinds of language they can show women their place—which should be lower than men—and to remind them that they are always powerless and should act as subordinates,” says Bashyal.
However, Bashyal believes that since patriarchy is so deeply embedded in society that many do not even acknowledge what the word actually means, treating it as a mere expression of anger. “People treat it lightly because patriarchal values are so deeply rooted in us that sometimes people resort to using such words unconsciously as well, without grasping the meaning behind it,” she says. There could be others who could argue that swear words are something that shouldn’t be taken seriously and in a literal sense.
However, Tara Mani Rai, a linguist, strongly believes that language and words cannot exist in a vacuum and they mirror the realities of society. “Language is an important component of society. It is a direct reflection of how society functions and the kind of socio-cultural values it has,” says Tara Mani Rai.
Since cuss words are filled with expletives that are always targeted towards women, to tarnish their character and integrity, its use is rather functional to degrade and dehumanise women than to communicate anger—which is a commonly agreed notion among sociologists. “These cuss words are used to propagate patriarchy. Even though they aren’t uttered every single day, they are an internalised act of the society to remind women of how the society will view them as, if they do not follow the patriarchal norms,” says Bashyal, teaching faculty at Madan Memorial College.
Most swear words have transgressive connotations, and often compare or deem women as sex workers. Rai believes that this happens as society views women who freely exercise their sexuality and have autonomy over their bodies as 'immoral'. “Society feels challenged if a woman owns her sexuality. They resort to slut-shaming women, believing that women who freely exercise their sexuality are immoral or bad,” she says, leading them to think that owning one’s sexuality is a wrong thing to do.
But the meaning behind such cuss words is not only to tarnish women who do not act as per the patriarchal norms. It also perpetuates the ‘male saviour’ complex.
According to Rai, curse words reinforce the belief that men can control and regulate women as women, under the veil of protecting them. “A woman is never taken as an individual of their own. Rather her ‘honour’ is tied with the ‘family honour’ leading people to use such cuss words thinking that it will make men feel weaker or inferior, for not being able to safeguard their female members,” says Rai.
Another underlying issue with the use of such words is also how these words desensitise sexual violence. Rape threats are given by abusers in such a causal way that Bashyal believes that the use of such language leads to the normalisation of sexual violence and also reflects how people view this issue. “When we are using such explicit language we are promoting a culture of normalising sexual violence as an issue that is not a big deal or to be taken seriously,” she says.
While amalgamation and globalisation has led to an exposure to more cuss words in Nepal, most indigenous language spoken in Nepal, beside of those who belong to the Indo-European family, lack gender biases in their language leading to less specific availability of cuss words that are directed towards women, according to Tara Mani Rai, assistant professor at the Central Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University.
“Most of the verbal abuses in the Indo-European languages like Nepali, Maithili, and Bhojpuri start with ‘Ma’ which means mother. Since the patriarchal society is dominated by men, using women’s names for insulting someone becomes common,” says Tara Mani Rai.
However, he believes that the common use of such sexist and misogynist cuss words is due to the process of language contact, meaning when speakers of various languages interact and influence each other.
“As more people started being exposed to various languages, many sexist swear words started entering the vocabulary of those people even if their mother tongue lacked such terminologies,” says Tara Mani Rai.
Many women believe reclaiming curse words like ‘slut’ or ‘cunt’ is the best way to take power from them. One such woman is Rai. “Before when I was slut-shamed, I used to feel offended. The way the words were thrown at me astonished me,” says Rai. “But now I have come to the terms on whom such words are used as it's mostly on women who are strong and do not adhere to patriarchal norms. If I own my sexuality, there’s nothing wrong with it. And if I don’t take such words seriously and do not get offended by them, then I will be least offended as well as those words will lose its power to control women,” she says.