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gender

Is Arabic a gender-inclusive language?

“The students are lazy” – how do we express that in gender-inclusive Arabic? It’s not that difficult, writes Lisa Schor who has specialized in this topic

Last updated: August 30, 2021

Gender-neutral language has sparked a fierce battle in many societies. It is the old debate whether the role of language is to shape a society or to reflect it. For languages with grammatical gender such as Arabic, using and establishing gender-neutral structures is taking more effort and time than in English.

What about gender-neutral language in Arabic? What is the current status, and how could gender-neutral language be applied in practice?

Lisa Schor from Germany has dealt with the topic for several months and wrote her master’s thesis on gender-inclusive Arabic. In this very interesting guest article, she describes the current status, her research results and gives valuable tips on how to use gender-neutral language in Arabic.

Lisa Schor studied Arabic at the University of Bamberg, the German-Jordanian University and the University of Vienna. She recently received her master’s degree in Arabic studies with the focus of her thesis on gender-inclusive language in Arabic. Lisa is currently pursuing a second master’s degree in German as a foreign language.

Why do we need it?

Gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language is a non-sexist language. It means avoiding word choices that may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory, or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. An example is using the terms “police officer” or “chairperson” instead of “policeman” or “chairman”.

“In general, the Arabic language has the appropriate means to fulfill all the requirements to be gender-inclusive.”

Lisa Schor

Arabic-speaking countries rank last on the Global Gender Gap Report and there seem to be more pressing issues to overcome than to change one’s habits of language use.

Nevertheless, using gender-inclusive language is more than a matter of political correctness. Language powerfully reflects and influences attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions. By choosing to write and speak gender-fair we can help reduce gender stereotyping, promote social change, and contribute to achieving gender equality.

Is Arabic androcentric?

In Arabic, the main criticism is that women are not adequately represented in the language. Think about the grammar rules you learned during your studies. You probably learned to use masculine agreement forms when referring to a mixed group of women and men, even when the female referents outnumber the male ones.

Three women and a man are tired.
.ثلاثة نساء ورجل متعبون (*متعبات)

Another example:

A thousand women and a boy came.
.ألف امرأة وصبي أتوا (*أَتَيْنَ)

One of the rationales for this rule is that one man trumps an infinite number of women. This is why some scholars argue that Arabic grammar is inherently androcentric (i.e., focused or centered on men).

Grammatical androcentricity is attested in the so-called Derivation Hypothesis put forward by traditional, as well as modern, grammarians. They interpret the fact that the feminine gender morphemes contain one sound/letter more than the masculine gender forms as evidence that the feminine gender is morphologically, and hence historically, derived from the masculine.

Thus, the masculine is seen as the origin (أصل), the “norm”, whereas the feminine is regarded as the marked form. Many grammarians don’t differ between grammatical and social gender. They see a social origin in this grammatical divide and justify the hierarchization with the fact that the social category of femaleness has a lower status in the Arabic-speaking society and culture.

Another indication of formal androcentricity in Arabic is the use of the generic masculine. When referring to persons of unknown or indeterminate gender, the masculine is used, thus excluding feminine forms from the construction of generic reference.

  • An example of this is مَرْء, which can mean both “man” and, in the generic sense, “person” or “human being“. [1]Fatima Sadiqi: Women, Gender, and Language in Morocco (2003): “The fact that the generic usually doubles as the masculine in grammatical form or word choice makes it the social norm from which … Continue reading
  • مرأة (“woman”), on the other hand, can only refer to women and is considered to be derived from مرء.

Similarly, nouns in plural and singular referring to humans such as المواطنون (“the citizens”) or العامل (“the worker”) are used generically in the sense that they either apply to males or a mixed group of males and females. The feminine counterparts of these words refer only to females. Feminists claim that using only the masculine as a generic form makes women invisible and implies that the masculine has a higher social symbolic value.

Consider this example and think about if a woman will feel addressed by this statement:

Any citizen who wishes to run for elections has the freedom to do so.
.أي مواطن لديه حرية الترشح للانتخابات إذا أراد

Now let’s take grammar aside and take a look at the everyday usage of Arabic. Linguistic sexism becomes even more operational in this context. The social meanings of gender-related words, phrases, and sentences often reflect a patriarchal thinking.

This becomes apparent, for instance, in the process of naming women. In the Arabic-speaking society, mentioning a woman’s name in public is considered a social taboo, so people tend to replace it with euphemisms such as

  • الجماعة (“the group”) or
  • أهل البيت (“the people of the house”).

Another common practice is using kinship terms which relate women to a male member of the family, such as:

  • أم فلان (“mother of so-and-so”)[2]Note that this is also used for men:أبو فلان or
  • حرم فلان (“wife of so-and-so”)[3]Note: The Arabic word حَرَم can be used as a synonym for زَوْجة. For example: حَرَم الرَئيسِ which can be translated as “the first lady”..

Although some of these terms are viewed as honorific, they still depict women not as independent individuals but as dependent on men.

Expressions, proverbs, and jokes also provide information about social attitudes towards women. Just to name a few examples:

Egyptacting like a woman/girl (e.g., showing emotional weakness)عامل زي النسوان/البنات
Iraq[4]Woman Stereotypes and Patriarchal Hegemony: A Feminist Stylistics Analysis of Iraqi Folk Proverbs, Nassier A. G. Al-Zubaid, 2019Trust a snake but not a woman.امن بحية ولا تأمن بمرية
MoroccoOnly death can control girls.البنات ما كيسترهم غير تراب

This was only a glimpse of how sexism is deeply ingrained into the Arabic language. There are many more aspects to the problem. The first step towards change is to become aware and reflect about other people’s way of speaking while also reflecting on oneself.

Is the Qur’an gender-neutral?

The Arabic Language is subject to the rules of a tradition that holds the language of the Holy Qur’an sacred. Qur’anic Arabic is considered the guideline for the correctness of linguistic expression. Changing away from current patterns of gender distinction is therefore often discouraged. That is why the language of the Qur’an is a pivotal point in the discussion around gender-inclusive language in Arabic.

“Reports indicate that even in the early days of Islam, Arabic-speaking women may not have felt addressed by masculine forms.”

Lisa Schor

Some feminist and gender-sensitive approaches to Qur’anic studies start from the hermeneutical[5]Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of religious (holy) texts.. The word hermeneutical relates to Greek hermēneutikos, from hermēneuein to … Continue reading premise, that the Qur’an’s statements reveal overarching ethical principles that are timeless, and address all of humanity.

Based on the assumption that gender equality is among these principles, some people argue that the language of the Qur’an is also gender-inclusive. However, Qur’anic discourse, largely formulated as an oral address by a divine speaker, primarily addresses a male target audience. This is evident when masculine forms are used in the 2nd person and female forms are used in the 3rd person.

It has been made lawful for you to go in to your wives during the night of the fast. They are your garment, and you are theirs.
اُحِلَّ لَـکُمۡ لَيۡلَةَ الصِّيَامِ الرَّفَثُ اِلٰى نِسَآئِكُمۡ هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُنَّ
Sura Al-Baqara (2:187)

Another argument against the gender-inclusivity of the many masculine forms in the Qur’an are the few verses that explicitly use both masculine and feminine forms:

Surely the men who submit (to Allah) and the women who submit (to Allah), the men who have faith and the women who have faith […] for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and a mighty reward.
اِنَّ الۡمُسۡلِمِيۡنَ وَالۡمُسۡلِمٰتِ وَالۡمُؤۡمِنِيۡنَ وَالۡمُؤۡمِنٰتِ (…) لَهُمۡ مَّغۡفِرَةً وَّاَجۡرًا عَظِيۡمًا
Sura al-Ahzab (33:35)

It is believed that the occasion for the revelation of this sura was the complaint of a group of women and/or Umm Salama, the sixth wife of the Prophet Mohammad, who criticized the lack of addressing women directly in the revelations.

There are three different versions of the story, all passed on by Ibn Saʿd in “The Book of the Major Classes” (Book 8):

Version 1

قالت (أم سلمة) يا رسول الله ما يذكر النساء فأنزل الله إن المسلمين والمسلمات

Version 2

لما ذكر أزواج النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم قال النساء لو كان فينا خير لذكرنا فأنزل الله إن المسلمين والمسلمات

Version 3

فقال النساء للرجال أسلمنا كما أسلمتم وفعلنا كما فعلتم فتذكرون في القرآن ولا نذكر وكان الناسيسمون المسلمين فلما هاجروا سموا المؤمنين فأنزل الله إن المسلمين والمسلمات

These reports indicate that even in the early days of Islam, Arabic-speaking women may not have felt addressed by masculine forms.

The hermeneutic premise of the supposedly gender-neutral language in the Qur’an as a foundation of the normative principle of gender justice is challenged by the factual existence of androcentric speech and thus remains an exegetical point of contention.

How to be gender-inclusive in Arabic

In general, the Arabic language has the appropriate means to fulfill all the requirements to be gender-inclusive. We should keep in mind though that Arabic is a highly inflected language and its agreement rules are much more complex than that of other languages.

If we want to use the strategy of pairing; i.e. using feminine and masculine forms to make both genders visible, we must consider that it is associated with great effort.

  • Pairing not only affects nouns but also pronouns, adjectives, and verbs.
  • The repercussions on the comprehensibility, readability and length of the texts are thus significantly greater compared to English or German.

So, what can we do to be more gender-inclusive and still maintain a good style?

To my knowledge, only the United Nations has published official guidelines for their staff on how to use gender-inclusive language in Arabic. They present three different strategies that can also help you with improving your gender-fairness skills.

Let’s see some options.

Use non-discriminatory language

Try to avoid gender-biased expressions or expressions that reinforce stereotypes like:

  • الجنس اللطيف (“the nice gender”) or
  • امرأة بألف رجل (“a woman like a thousand men”).

Regardless of marital status, it is more respectful to use سيدة (“Mrs.”) instead of آنسة (“Ms.”) as a form of address.

More inclusiveLess inclusive
السيدة نجوى كريم والسيد سمير كريم
Mrs. Najwa Karim and Mr. Samir Karim
السيد كريم وحرمه
Mr. Karim and his wife [6]The word حرم is used in Modern Standard Arabic (written and spoken) in almost all regions of the Arab world when one wants to be particularly formal.
صاحبات وأصحاب الأعمال
businessmen and businesswomen
رجال الأعمال
businessmen
Some examples of how to address men and women.

Make gender visible when it’s relevant for communication

When referring to females, always use feminine nouns like:

  • رئيسة
  • نائبة or
  • أستاذة

When you want to address a mixed sex group and you can’t find a neutral alternative, you can either use pairing or add one of the following phrases to the masculine plural:

  • النساءَ والرجالَ
  • نساءً ورجالًا
  • إناثًا وذكورًا
  • فَتَياتٍ وفِتْيانًا

Examples:

Female and male employees in the ministries have equal opportunities.
.لدى العاملات والعاملينَ في الوزارات فرص متساوية
An example of pairing.
There are equal opportunities for the employees in the ministries, women and men.
.تتوافر للعاملين في الوزارات، نساءً ورجالًا، فرص متساوية
An example of adding one of the above-mentioned phrases.

Do not make gender visible when it’s not relevant for communication

Whenever possible, try to use gender-neutral terms like:

  • أوساط أكاديمية (“academic circles”) instead of أكاديميون (“academics”) or
  • قائمة الترشيحات (“panel of nominations”) instead of قائمة المرشحين (“panel of nominees”).

The terms جهة (“side”) and طرف (“party”) allow for the omission of a specific gender in various contexts. For example:

  • جهة مانحة (“giving side”) instead of مانح (“donor, giver”) or
  • طرف مشتر (“buying party”) instead of مشتر (“buyer”).

Using nouns or nominal sentences can help to avoid gender-specific pronouns, adjectives, participles, or verbs. Here are some examples of what the UN (United Nations) suggests [7]https://www.un.org/ar/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml:

More inclusiveLess inclusive
.يثمر النقاش لدى إسهام الجميع بالأفكار
Discussion is fruitful when everyone contributes ideas.
.يثمر النقاش عندما يسهم الجميع بأفكارهم
Discussion is fruitful when everyone contributes their ideas.
الشعب الصومالي في الوطن وفي الخارج في لَهْفة لرؤية سلام
The Somali people at home and abroad are eager to see peace.
الصوماليون في الوطن وفي الخارج مُتَعَطِّشون إلى أن يروا سلامًا
Somalis at home and abroad are thirsty for peace.
النشأة في بيئة أُسَريّة شرط أساسيّ لِنَماء شخصية الطفلة والطفل بشكل كامل ومتناغم
Growing up in a family environment is a basic requirement for the full and harmonious development of the personality of girls and boys.
يجب أن ينشأ الطفلة والطفل في بيئة أسرية لنماء شخصيتهما بشكل كامل ومتناغم
Girls and boys must grow up in a family environment for the full and harmonious development of their personality.
Using the مصدر instead of an interpreted infinitive can help.

Passive constructions or impersonal expressions are suitable for avoiding awkward sentences like this one:

passive constructionsactive constructions
المطلوب إعداد الواجب البيتي
Preparation of the homework is required.
على الطالب / الطالبة أن يعد / تعد واجبه / واجبها البيتي
The male student / female student should prepare his / her homework.

If you want to know more, you can find the guidelines here (in Arabic):

Current developments

The use of gender-inclusive language is not very widespread in the Arab world. However, we can witness some indications of slow change.

There are two examples that I’d like to bring to your attention.

Protests in Lebanon

First of all, let’s take a look at Lebanon. During the protests in October 2019 [8]The 2019–2021 Lebanese protests, also known locally as the October Revolution (ثورة 17 تشرين الأول‎, lit. ”17 October revolution”), are a series of civil protests … Continue reading, many people sang the national anthem in the streets. Interestingly, some people added a respectful addition to the original text (seen in red color on the picture below) to include women. However, there has not yet been an official change to the national anthem.

gender nahar
Front page of a special edition of the Lebanese newspaper النهار.
Source: https://anbaaonline.com/news/35952

Language settings on websites, e.g., Twitter

The latest development related to gender-inclusive language is the implementation of a new language setting on websites and social media platforms. The first step was taken by the companies Aramex and Twitter.

They introduced the option “Arabic (feminine)” in their language settings. For those who opt in, the setting will address and acknowledge people in the feminine form.

In addition, Twitter MENA also rolled out a campaign titled #FeminineArabic (أتحدث_بالمؤنث#) to share their approach and to partner up with several well-established brands who wish to join the conversation.

gender twitter
https://twitter.com/TwitterMENA/status/1404680499080138757
Tweets about the campaign #FeminineArabic (أتحدث_بالمؤنث#)

So far, language reform does not seem to be a pressing issue among Arab feminists, and it is questionable whether the Arab world would adopt this Western feminist approach or not. Nevertheless, campaigns like the recent Twitter hashtag #FeminineArabic show that awareness for linguistic equality is growing.

Final thoughts

Today, the use of the generic masculine is still the norm when writing or speaking Arabic. It is not yet clear how gender-inclusive language is conceived in the Arabic-speaking society. Extensive research must be done to find out about people’s attitude towards a possible language reform. We can all look forward to what is to come in this field.

The use of gender-inclusive language requires creativity, linguistic intuition and, above all, the willingness to change one’s habits. However, I would like to point out that the purpose of this article is not to dictate a change in the usage of the language. Everyone is free to decide for themselves what feels right for them.

Master Thesis (in German)

If you feel like you still don’t know enough about the topic to form your own opinion, you can check out my Master thesis (in German) here for free:

It outlines the current state of research on gender bias and gender-inclusive language in Arabic. It also includes a case study in which 15 official texts of Bavarian state ministries and their Arabic translations are subjected to a qualitative content analysis.

Through a system of categorization, the study analyzes which strategies are currently used in translating gender-inclusive phrases into Arabic.


Photo credit: Magda Ehlers by Pexels; screenshots twitter and al-nahar

References

References
1 Fatima Sadiqi: Women, Gender, and Language in Morocco (2003): “The fact that the generic usually doubles as the masculine in grammatical form or word choice makes it the social norm from which the feminine derives. This view excludes the feminine from the generic. Thus, the word ?imra?ah ‘woman’ in Standard Arabic is said to derive from mar? ‘person’, but only mar? is used generically.”
2 Note that this is also used for men:أبو فلان
3 Note: The Arabic word حَرَم can be used as a synonym for زَوْجة. For example: حَرَم الرَئيسِ which can be translated as “the first lady”.
4 Woman Stereotypes and Patriarchal Hegemony: A Feminist Stylistics Analysis of Iraqi Folk Proverbs, Nassier A. G. Al-Zubaid, 2019
5 Hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of religious (holy) texts.. The word hermeneutical relates to Greek hermēneutikos, from hermēneuein to interpret, from hermēneus interpreter
6 The word حرم is used in Modern Standard Arabic (written and spoken) in almost all regions of the Arab world when one wants to be particularly formal.
7 https://www.un.org/ar/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml
8 The 2019–2021 Lebanese protests, also known locally as the October Revolution (ثورة 17 تشرين الأول‎, lit. ”17 October revolution”), are a series of civil protests taking place in Lebanon. These national protests were triggered by planned taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and VoIP calls on applications such as WhatsApp.

They became a country-wide condemnation of sectarian rule, weak economy, unemployment that reached 46% in 2018, endemic corruption in the public sector, legislation that was perceived to shield the ruling class from accountability (such as banking secrecy) and failures of the government to provide basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation.

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