THE SUPREME COURT of India has just released a handbook meant to guide judges across the country on the use of appropriate language so as to be “gender-just”. No one can obviously quibble against it considering prevailing attitudes, especially at the lower courts. And yet, it is based on the premise that because language shows mentality, fixing language can change it. It usually does not do that. Language is a mirror to how people think and feel, and mere bandaging will lead to more clever and cunning ways for the mindset to express itself. The book, for instance, according to a Times of India report, says that “mistress” should be replaced by “woman with whom a man has had romantic or sexual relations outside of marriage”. It will do nothing to change the image that comes up in the mind of any judge who thinks of such a woman with derision. And it is not even a clear substitute, because a “mistress” is not just the consequence of an affair. Isn’t such a woman also placed in a powerless position by the man she is having a continuing relationship with? You could put it any other way which defines this equation but the particular line of the book about “mistress” seems to have underwhelmed the point.
This is an elemental issue in any such project which bases language as a tool of reform. To ringfence vast nebulous areas of relationships and culture using rigid definitions ultimately end up being more or less arbitrary. It does not mean that it is not necessary, just that it might not do too much for the ends it seeks. Or the book wades into territory that is so woke and Western that it might just about be completely inexplicable to its audience. If you have to inform a judge that a “prostitute” must be referred to as a “sex worker”, then how much can he or she grasp another idea spelled out that gender is a construct? This is a hot potato issue in the US, especially in academia and liberal professions, and is premised on transgender rights activism. It doesn’t really have much resonance here. Maybe in the future, it will, but as of now, to say—“Gender identity is not limited to a binary (girl/woman and boy/man) but rather exists on a spectrum and can evolve over time. Further, gender is a social construct and includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with a particular gender identity”—is probably going to lead to a few puzzled readers. As a signal of the progressiveness of the Supreme Court to a wider world, it might be good but can it do anything more than that? And when so many Indian criminal laws are predicated on whether it is committed by a man or a woman, there might even be some confusion such a concept leads to. The intent of the handbook is to break prevailing harmful stereotypes, and those are only broken through long chipping away of the stone. This handbook is not the magic bullet because there are none.