The Apex Court of our country has taken a step in the right direction and has released “Handbook on Combating Gender Stereotypes”. In the said handbook, attempt has been made by the Supreme Court to identify words of common usage that reflect a gender-biased outlook, especially towards women, these words through their continuous usage had contributed in promoting detrimental gender stereotypes. The express instructions of the said handbook provide that these selected words would not be resorted to, keeping in mind the obsolete outlook these words showcase. Moreover, suggested words have also been provided by the Supreme Court which shall be employed by the lawyers in their draftings and pleadings and by judges and judicial officers while they are writing orders and judgments.
The said enumeration is based on the famous saying that language is not passive, but is an active being as it goes on to reflect the societal morality and the thinking of the user and can be used to inflict damage on a particular sect if it is used against them. Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, who was in the vanguard for the said proclamation, observed in the foreword of the handbook:
“Even when the use of stereotypes does not alter the outcome of a case, stereotypical language may reinforce ideas contrary to our constitutional ethos. Language is critical to the life of the law. Words are the vehicle through which the values of the law are communicated. Words transmit the ultimate intention of the lawmaker or the judge to the nation. However, the language a judge uses reflects not only their interpretation of the law but their perception of society as well. Where the language of judicial discourse reflects antiquated or incorrect ideas about women, it inhibits the transformative project of the law and the Constitution of India, which seek to secure equal rights to all persons, irrespective of gender.”
The words which the court has clamped down on are usually the words that objectify an individual. In place of usage of words like ‘career woman’; ‘chaste woman’; ‘woman of easy virtue’; ‘fallen woman’; ‘Indian woman’, ‘Western woman’; ‘seductress’; ‘woman of loose morals’; ‘promiscuous woman’; and ‘wanton woman’; the word ‘woman’ would be used. This in simpler terms means that from now on, during judicial proceedings these objectifying terms would not be used, and simply the word ‘woman’ would be used. Usage of these words cast a blot on the character of the woman in question and because of the type of society we live in, it would be nearly impossible to get rid of this said stigma even if the woman is proven to be innocent.
On similar lines, in place of referring to a wife as being dutiful, faithful, good or being obedient, the new mandates will require her to be simply called a ‘wife’, moreover, a mother would be simply addressed as a mother irrespective of her marital status, terms which showcase a biased outlook like ‘hormonal’ (used to describe a woman’s emotional state), ‘effeminate’ and ‘ladylike’ should be avoided and in place of these terms such terms would be used which gender neutral attributes.
Another set of words are those which are used very commonly in legal proceedings, the idea is to replace these antiquated words with more scientific and neutral words, like for instance, the word ‘adultress’ would be replaced with the phrase ‘woman who has engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage’, the word eve-teasing would be replaced by the phrase ‘street sexual harassment’, another landmark change in the usage of the word ‘sex worker’ in place of ‘prostitute’.
The said handbook also embarks on the survivor-victim dichotomy, said dichotomy relates to the question whether the word ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ should be used to describe a person who has experienced sexual assault, it provides that:
“Survivor or Victim? An individual who has been affected by sexual violence may identify themselves as either a “survivor” or “victim”. Both terms are applicable unless the individual has expressed a preference, in which case the individual’s preference should be respected.”
The said handbook is not a sudden genesis, it had been in development for several years, the same had been conceptualized during the times of COVID, with the appointment of D.Y. Chandrachud as the Chief Justice of India, impetuous was provided to this project and as had been referred by hon’ble Chief Justice during Women’s Day celebrations. The release of this handbook is significant because it is a step towards creating a more inclusive and equitable legal system. By guiding how to use language that is respectful of all genders, the Supreme Court is sending a message that discrimination based on gender will not be tolerated. The handbook is also significant because it can help to educate the public about the importance of using inclusive language. By making people aware of the harmful effects of gendered language, the handbook can help to create a more just and equitable society for all.
This article is written and submitted by Devam Krishnan during his course of internship at B&B Associates LLP. Devam is a B.A. LLB 4th year student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.