Reviews, Vol. I, Issue III
Sexist Terminology in Varied Spheres of Assamese Life: Women in Dictionary
Karabi Hazarika’s recently published book Women in Dictionary is a scholarly attempt to find ‘a room of one’s own’. The study of dictionary never before emerges as a feminist discourse as it occurs in her book. A dictionary is the confluence of both language and literature. In her book Women in Dictionary Prof. Hazarika attempts to analyse some women-related words from a few selected English and Assamese Dictionaries to find out how women have been presented in a male-dominated society over the centuries. She has included in her discourse Dr. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), The Oxford English Dictionary (1989), Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (2010), Hemkosh(1900) , Hemkosh(2011) and Asomiya Jatiyo Abhidhan (2010-12).
In her perceptive study of the impact of sexist terminology in various spheres of life, she excellently observes: “Though it is claimed that the status of women in the Assamese society is quite high in comparison to the other societies of India, the language itself is not out of the influence of sexist terminology which are totally biased and dominated by the male folk.” Karabi Hazarika’s book is a kind of challenge to the patriarchal society and is more than a mere feministic reading of lexical presentation of women and female life in varied dimensions. “Rich in details, extremely well documented and argued, Women in Dictionary makes a challenging and pleasant reading, as well as an engaging travel through the universe of patriarchy, where language betrays the imposition of male supremacy”- observes Professor Elisabetta Marino of the University of Rome, Tor Vergata, in her foreword to Women in Dictionary which is going to be one of the literary milestones of Assamese –English literature and as well as of women literature. Her simplicity is deceptive as she focuses on a number of complicated issues in her study of these dictionaries. As a human being both men and women share the same natural resources, geographical space , but unfortunately as a being they live in two different worlds. The comparative study of Hemkosh 1st and 14th edition along with Asomiya Jatiyo Abhidhan is quite interesting and scholarly. In every Assamese dictionary, there are many words to explain the beauty of a woman – Aparupa, Dhowola , Priyadarshini, Bamura, Manjurani, Romoni, Rupoi, Lilawati, Sushismita, Shuni, Shromona Anupama and Sundari. The detailed descriptions of all these words reveal the deep analytical perception of the author who probes deeper into their nuances and connotation. She observes that Assamese language is not free from the influence of sexist terminology in various spheres of life. She claims, ‘Though it is claimed that the status of women in the Assamese society is quite high in comparison to the other societies of India, the language itself is not out of the influence of sexist terminology which are totally biased and dominated by the male folk “. She has given some examples daini, o’soti, beisya, ardhangini, mahimak, sotini, contrasted with words used for men, satampurushia, uttarpurush, baapatisatisaahon, jubasakti, dekasakti, chhatrasakti, natun purush. What emerges from the study of the terms in the dictionaries, is that cultural ideas, symbols, norms, and values play a significant role in the creation of women’s images and the differentiation of gender roles. Prof. Karabi in a lighter vein commented: “Like other parts of India, Assam also followed the law prescribed by Manu.” Women have to devote their lives from early girlhood to find a husband and to bear children for him. Hoggs and Abrams clearly describe how the power and status relation between groups bear on social identity: the dominant groups in society have the power and the status to impose the dominant value system and ideology which serves to legitimize and perpetuate the status quo. Prof. Karabi establishes successfully that “dictionary definitions are full of notions reflecting the culture and social climate of the time in which they were written."
Dr. Rinita Mazumder, Asst. Prof of Philosophy & Cultural Studies, Central New Mexico Community College, University of New Mexico, in her blurb wrote justifiably: “ This book explores the way women are depicted in the lexical discourse , which in turn shows the negative position of women in culture and society”. The book has eight valuable chapters in which two are devoted to Hemkosh (1900) and (2011). Hemkosh is believed to the first Assamese dictionary and here we get a brief history of the Dictionaries in Assamese language. What is interesting is the feminist approach to Hemkosh. Word choices often reflect unconscious assumptions about gender roles. Words related in this dictionary make it clear how women were placed or treated during the 19th century in the Assamese society. All social interaction is gender oriented, and gendered social interaction is guided by status and positions people occupy and roles, the behavior associated with a status. In Assamese society women enjoy considerable freedom compared to the women of the other parts of the country, but here also they are denied their deserving positions, dignity and equality. Words like Angana, Anugaman, Opeswara, Kutni, Akuti, Gabhoru or Osati reveal this impact of inequality. At a time when “Assam was dominated by medieval conservatism, women generally remained confined to their homes, while their spouses were free to enjoy life without any hindrance” (P.120). Prof. Hazarika points out: “In pre-independent Assam, all they had to do was to devote their lives from early girlhood to find a husband and bearing children for him. There was no way she could even dream about herself except as her children’s mother or her husband’s wife.” Here the study of dictionary becomes a veritable social document on gender discrimination. Elsewhere we find Prof Hazarika’s observation: “Going through the words related to women in this latest edition of the Hemkosh, it is found that this dictionary has included some words which are obsolete and are not used any more. The inclusion of these gender sensitive words like Bondhura, Bare Bhotori, Bare Motori, Bondhoki, Bonsura , Sopola or Manjika without referring to them as outdated definitely reflects the chauvinistic attitude of the compiler who represents a section of Assamese population who are yet to develop a positive attitude towards women.” Thus we find that cultural ideas, symbols, norms and values play a significant role in the creation of women’s images and the differentiation of gender roles.”(P.145).
Many feminists argue that the language rules are rigged and need to be reorganized and reinvigorated. Every year new words are added to standard dictionaries, but the initial deficit of language, it is argued, still haunts women today. Prof. Hazarika focuses beautifully on linguistic sexism which is rooted in the real life social inequality between men and women. It may be social in origin rather than linguistic. In India as well as in Assam, there is hardly any debate so far insisting on gender-neutral language. This is due to lack of gender consciousness and awareness. It is an integral part of global problem of gender inequality. Dictionary definitions are full of notions reflecting the culture and social climate of the time in which they were written. According to Roland Barthes, a myth is a part of language, a type of speech. The myth of ‘potibrata’ or ‘modesty’ reflects the interweaving of culture and ideology. Barthes says that language is a form of action, a performance that creates and moulds in diverse ways. This cultural attitude towards women indicates male sexist prejudices about women and thus the language tends to reflect this. Prof. Hazarika rightly points out that ‘it is necessary for the lexicographer to warn the dictionary user of the sensitivity of such words.” (P.214)
Dictionaries of modern day with modern outlook like the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and the Asomiya Jatiyo Abhidhan vow to eliminate any sexist bias in their vocabulary. Every word is under the hammer and on anvil. The great African writer Ngugi Wa Thiongo to whom Prof. Hazarika made a reference, says in his book Decolonizing the Mind: “ language carries culture and culture carries, particularly through orator, the entire bodies of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. “ We live in a patriarchal world that values men over women. Our language is a reflection of these values. Linguistic sexism is not only an ethical problem but primarily a violation of human rights. The book Women in Dictionary ends with the warning: “Thus vulgarisms and offensive words should not be entered in dictionaries and defined explicitly. We wait for a good reception of the book by the academicians and the researchers all over India and globally too. The book contains an impressive bibliography at the end which enriches the content of the book. The binding and cover page deserves all kudos and Jayant Bormudoi commands respect for his art work on the cover page. The readers and researchers will be immensely benefitted by the publication of this valuable book on language and literature and credit goes to the publisher Purbanchal Prakash, Guwahati. Finally we may agree with Professor Kausik Gupta , Ex-Vice Chancellor, West Bengal State University and Social Scientist that: “ Prof. Karabi Hazarika’s magnificently comprehensive book Women in Dictionary provides an authoritative overview of the major ideas, periods and movements iconised in the words as well as images of women over the years in Assamese literature vis a vis English literature.”
Reviewed by Dr.Ratan Bhattacharjee, Associate Professor and Chairperson, Post Graduate Dept of English, Dum Dum Motijheel College, West Bengal State University, Kolkata. He is a Freelancer and regular contributor of The Eastern Chronicle, The Statesman, guest columnist of The Assam Tribune and few other national newspapers and journals. He is an Editor of few International Journals and a poet as well.