Patriarchy in the Culture and Language of the Subcontinent

By Rizwan Saeed

Patriarchy is an established informal system. It has clear hierarchy of power and authority that is transferred from one generation to other. As it is an informal system, its roots are embedded deep in cultural settings and social fabric of societies.

There are certain rituals and cultural practices that protect and strengthen this patriarchal system in the subcontinent. One key component of culture is language. Here I explore patriarchy in the culture of the subcontinent through the lens of language.

In Urdu, there are names for each relationship that falls under the line of authority. To understand authority lines we will have to understand some basic family structures prevailing in the subcontinent.

In the subcontinent, joint and extended family systems exist in which husband, wife, husband’s brothers and their families (spouses and children), parents of husband, and unmarried sisters of husband live together under one roof. In this arrangement, the grandfather is the ultimate authority as he owns all the property and wealth of the family. If we unpack this family structure further, we clearly find a hierarchy in the family. This hierarchy is translated into language and names are assigned to each relationship. Let’s take an example of a man (who is a son and unmarried). Brothers of his father are titled as Taya (elder brother of father) and chacha (young brother of father). The sister of father is called phupho irrespective of where she sits in the family hierarchy and there are no separate words for elder or younger sisters of father. Going further when this son gets married, his wife becomes part of his family and starts living with her in-laws. Now see the hierarchical system for the wife. The husband’s father is considered supreme head of family. Next to him power lies with elder brother of husband who is titled as Jaith. Then comes the husband. After the husband, his younger brother joins the power line, and he is titled Dewar. On the other hand, there is no segregation among elder or younger sisters of husband. They are simply called Nands. Similarly, if we see relationships from the husband’s perspective we find that there are no separate titles for brothers and sisters of the wife. The former are called Salas (singular is sala) and the latter are called Salis (without segregating elder or younger ones).

It is noteworthy that this entitlement is not simply giving specific names to one male relation. It actually indicates power and authority line both within the husband’s household which specifies the elder male who has more authority over both younger men and all sisters as well as how the wife experiences relations once she is married, where her own brothers and sisters are less important than the husbands. Taya (elder brother of father) can scold the father. Similarly, Jaith (elder brother of husband) can scold the husband. On the other hand, male member of wife’s family have no importance, no separate entitlement, and no hierarchy. All are dealt with the same stick.

Beside relationships, proverbs are another aspect of Urdu language that promotes certain patriarchal and hierarchical thoughts, and even make these thoughts the norms of society. Let’s explore how certain proverbs reflect patriarchal thoughts implicitly. For instance, Sali adhi ghar wali (sister of wife is half wife) is a renowned proverb in India and Pakistan. This proverb implicitly gives the message that husband has authority to seduce his wife’s sister. This is not an uncommon occurrence. This proverb is not simply a proverb. It actually reflects society’s thinking towards these relationships. In the subcontinent, there are numerous examples where Jeeja is married to his Sali.

On the other hand, terms denoting the wife’s relatives such as the brother (sala) and the maternal uncle (mamo) have derogatory sexual connotation and are often used between men to belittle or tease one another. The term sala (brother of wife) is used to hurt or challenge ‘masculinity’ of a man in the society. The abuser implicitly says that he has sexual relationship with the sister of abused, and the latter is not a man who could have protected his sister. The word mamo (wife’s maternal uncle) contains the message that a man was not smart enough to protect his interests, and was looted because of his naïveté.  If we interpret this in the language of masculinity and sexuality, it means the mamo was not man enough to protect his “property” (sister’s daughter). This might be the reason that Mamo of Munna Bhai MBBS got popularity while Amir Khan’s Chachu (3 Idiots) couldn’t. Young boys often challenge their peers’ masculinity and sexuality by commenting, “If you are not gonna ‘take’ her, then be ready to be called maternal uncle (mamo) of her children”. Here the connotation is that you become her brother, one that cannot have sexual relationship with her, in other words impotent.

Contrary to this, the husband’s younger brother is portrayed as friend of his brother’s wife. Culturally, wives cover their heads and/or faces with veil while facing elder brother of husband but they do not do so while interacting with younger brother of husband. In India and Pakistan, marriages between dewar (younger brother of husband) and (former) bhabi (wife of older brother) are very common. Rather, in case of death of husband, it is preferred that his wife should marry to her deceased husband’s brother (usually the younger one). Often hidden behind such marriages is a need to protect division of assets.

Another aspect of Urdu language that promotes patriarchal thinking unconsciously is its linguistic structure of feminine and masculine relations/things. Last two alphabets of Urdu are called “choti ye” (sounds like ee in English) and “bari ye” (sounds like yea in English). In Urdu most of feminine things/relations end with ee sound. It basically connotes their smallness/less value. For example, dadee (paternal grandmother), nanee (maternal grandmother), chachee (wife of uncle), tayee (wife of father’s elder brother), jaithanee (wife of husband’s elder brother).

Ironically, the word Aunt has been adopted and modified by Urdu speakers as Auntee. This “ee” phenomenon is not just limited to relationships, most of the things that are meant to be portrayed as smaller are titled with words ending with “ee” sound. For example, daigchee word is used for small pot, and daigcha word is used for bigger pot. More examples include chamacha (bigger spoon) and chamchee (smaller spoon), register (for a bigger notebook) and capee (for smaller notebook), maize (table) and kursee (chair) is used to connote smaller size of chair as compared to table.

Language is a strong vehicle that allows patriarchal norms and values to become part of our everyday life. Language discriminates and creates difference and is reflective of existing patriarchal norms in society and often we internalize this language without realizing how we have become blind to its inherent unfairness. Challenging patriarchy must involve a review of language and a search for more equal ways of relating to each gender. The fact that patriarchal values are embedded in the very ways we communicate with each other through language and through our most important kinship relations makes it all the more harder to ‘see’ the gender imbalance that exists around us and that we promote.

Rizwan Saeed is an anthropologist. He conducts trainings and writes on the issues of gender, patriarchy, and masculinity.

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7 Responses to “Patriarchy in the Culture and Language of the Subcontinent”

  1. Kabir Altaf Says:

    Interesting article. It is certainly noteworthy that in Urdu, there are specific titles for one’s father’s siblings based not only on gender but also on age. In contrast, one’s mother’s brother is simply “mamu” and mother’s sister is “khala”. This does seem to correspond to the greater importance of the father/husband’s family as compared to that of the mother/wife’s.

    One could question however if cultures such as those of Western Europe where the family titles are much less specific (for example “aunt” can refer to the sister of either parent as well as to the wife of the brother of either parent) are any less patriarchal than those of South Asia. Or at any rate, whether those cultures were less patriarchal in earlier eras prior to feminism and the advent of the nuclear family. In other words, does the greater linguistic specificity of family relations correspond to more patriarchal social structures?

    On the issue of Urdu being a gendered language, the Romance languages are gendered as well with different vowel endings corresponding to gender. For example, in French “cousin” is (male) cousin while “cousine” is (female) cousin. This could simply be seen as a linguistic feature to denote gender rather than as having great significance in terms of social structures.

    • rizwanzblog Says:

      Kabir, western cultures are also patriarchal, there might be difference of degrees. However, patriarchy has its shades in each culture. In sub-continent language is being used by the patriarchal culture as a vehicle.

      As far as Romance languages are concerned especially French, the use of ‘e’ is to express feminine. But in Urdu the ‘e’ is used for feminine (what I mentioned in the article) and for expressing ‘smallness’ of something. To me, it’s like conditioning. Urdu conditioned our minds in a way that whenever we listen a word ending with “ee”, an image/thought of something smaller appears in our mind (it is not necessarily done at conscious level).

      In French, ‘e’ isn’t used to show ‘smallness’, rather e is really important in French. When a consonant (at the end of a word) is followed by ‘e’, it gets a sound. Otherwise it remains silent.

  2. ramblinginthecity Says:

    Very interesting observations on linguistic expressions of ingrained patriarchy. A young man who cleans my car works under his “uncle” who he refuses to call “mamu”. In fact, he got very angry when I asked him about their relation one day. Anglicising the relationships in India and Pakistan is a way to put some distance and confuse the patriarchy as well!
    Conversely, when my kids were born, all our female friends were busy choosing whether to be maasi or bua, that is whether to be my sister or that of my husband! the male friends were not too bothered interestingly, though chacha and mama happened to them as well as time went along! This is a desperate way the urban middle classes to hang onto traditional family nomenclature, completely oblivious of the aspect of patriarchy! Thanks for this, A good read!

  3. Vikram Says:

    It is interesting to note how deeply revelatory simple words can be. In virtually all the Indo-Aryan languages (certainly for Bengali, Hindi and Punjabi) the word for occupation or job, is ‘naukri’, which ultimately derives from Farsi and means servitude.

    It appears that Gujarati is the only language in which the natural word for occupation is still derives from Sanskrit ‘vyavasya’. Words derived from ‘vyvasaya’ are still used in South Indian languages to refer to independent farmers.

    It is interesting to connect the position of Gujaratis as independent traders in both the Mughal and British systems to their social and economic culture today.

    Another interesting word is ‘saala’, used derisively in most Indic languages today, but it derives from Sanskrit, where in the Mahabharata it is the name of a very noble character.

    Would be interesting to speculate when and how it acquired a more negative connotation that it has today.

    Lastly, Pakistanis call their mother’s sister Arabic ‘khala’ rather than Sanskrit derived ‘maa-si or mausi’ (literally mother like), reserving the latter word for maids.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Vikram: Naukri does not mean servitude; it refers to service in return for payment and is not used to connote occupation. Therefore there is nothing revelatory about it. Also, I don’t see any basis for considering some words ‘natural’ compared to others unless you are saying that only derivation from Sanskrit makes a word natural.

      I don’t know about the other two words. If you find out anything let us know.

      • Vikram Says:

        Naukri might refer to service in return from payment, but it derives from the same Farsi root as naukar, which means servant.

        I am surprised that you are not aware of the mausi/maasi -> khala transition.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          Vikram: What is wrong with being a servant? The most senior officers in the British Civil Service are known as civil servants. Could it be your own social attitude that is being reflected in considering servant a derogatory term?

          I am aware of the transition/difference, I just don’t know how and why it happened.

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