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Equity, Diversity & Inclusion

Department Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee Mission Statement

One of the questions at the core of humanistic inquiry is how we can name, understand, and mediate cultural and linguistic difference. The Middle East, the colonial imagining of the term notwithstanding, provides us with a particularly rich site for understanding and theorizing the notion of diversity. The faculty at MELC collectively cover several different families of languages and research and teach on cultures and societies of a region stretching across three continents, from ancient to modern times. We believe that the study of the Near East is deeply enriching and can foster greater understanding of cultural activity on a worldwide scale. It is with that belief that we help and animate our students learn Middle Eastern languages.

Diversity should not be limited to checking off boxes on an institutional form. We believe in helping our students cultivate a toolkit of methods that will empower them to analyze how the idea of cultural and linguistic difference is produced, the ways in which it serves and legitimatizes discourses of power and exploitation, and how we can celebrate the diversity within the Middle East without reproducing essentialistic and nationally-fabricated distinctions. Ultimately, celebrating diversity is the outcome of a never-ending process centered on language learning and humanistic inquiry with the ultimate goal of deepening our range of cultural understanding and empathy.

Gender Inclusion in Language Instruction

The Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures recognizes that the question of gender inclusion in language instruction is vital to the creation of classrooms that are free from prejudice and exclusion. We have prepared this document in an effort to better foreground this question with you, our students, on this important matter. Here, you will find 1) brief notes on the linguistics and politics of gender in the languages we teach at MELC, 2) our collective ideas on how to be more intentional about gender inclusion in our classrooms, and 3) a list of essential resources at the UW. Help us improve and expand this list. You can email members of our Diversity Committee or the Chair of MELC. We want to hear from you!

Arabic

Arabic has binary grammatical gender, meaning all parts of speech reflect either the masculine or feminine gender markers. Exceptions to this rule include the following pronouns: “Ana” (أنا) meaning “I,” “Nahnu” (نحن) meaning “we.” The dual of they or “huma” (هما) and the dual you or “antuma” (انتما) are also gender-neutral but are only used in formal settings, and spoken dialects do not utilize them. Moreover, even though these pronouns do not bear any marker of grammatical gender, they are still gendered by using separate masculine and feminine forms that accompany them. There are also notable exceptions in various spoken dialects of the Arabic language. Some speakers of Tunisian Arabic, for example, use the feminine pronoun “inti” (انتِ) meaning “you” for everyone. But note that inti is the only form to have survived into that dialect for phonological reasons.  Overall, Arabic functions through a binary gendered system that is used throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Recent efforts by linguists and social advocates have sought to provide gender-neutral options; however, since this movement is still in its infancy, such options remain in marginal use. For more information, please refer to the following content on gender in Arabic herehere, and here.

Turkish

Turkish is among gender-neutral languages, meaning it does not employ grammatical gender. For instance, the third person singular pronoun in Turkish, “o” [singular] and “onlar” [plural], denotes men, women, animals and things. Elite cadres in the Ottoman Empire utilized Arabic gender in possessive constructs in written classical Turkish. However, those constructions were dropped after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The alphabet reform of 1928 cleared any traces of grammatical gender from Turkish. Even though Turkish is a gender neutral language, there exist words and expressions that clearly display sexist attitudes stemming from historical, societal and cultural factors. Recently, in Turkey there have been movements against gender bias at universities, for example here is a guide book on how to avoid gender bias in writing from Kadir Has University in Istanbul. There are also constant calls by scholars to the Turkish Language Association (Türk Dil Kurumu, est. 1932) to mark certain vocabulary as ‘sexist usage’ in their dictionaries. It is important to raise awareness and propose ways of refraining from using sexist words and expressions. For more information on the question of gender in Turkish, please see here.

Turkic Languages

Turkic as a language family includes Kazak, Kirgiz, Tatar, Turkmen, Turkish, Uygur, and Uzbek which are generally considered to be genealogically related. Turkic languages are gender neutral, meaning they do not have gender marking for pronouns, nouns, verbs, adjectives and predicates. The third-personal pronoun in Kazak ol <ол> (‘he, she, it’), in Kirgiz al <aл> (‘he, she, it’), in Turkmen ol <ол> (‘he, she, it’), in Uygur u <ئۇ> (‘he, she, it’), and in Uzbek u (‘he, she, it’) is gender neutral and can refer not only to a person but also to animals and objects. Such gender neutrality in pronoun usage likely extends from historical conceptions of gender and ecological relations shared by many of these linguistic groups, as practices of nomadic pastoralism rendered men and women equally vital in day-to-day labor practices.

Hebrew

Modern Hebrew is a highly gendered language. Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives are all marked by gender: masculine or feminine. This is very much a binary system (though a few nouns can be either masculine or feminine, and some masculine nouns look like they’re feminine, but follow masculine behavior while some feminine nouns look like they’re masculine but follow feminine behavior). Very recently, some Hebrew speakers have experimented with nonbinary language, for instance, inventing new nouns that combine masculine and feminine markers or that function as a neutral gender. These are still marginal phenomena, but there’s a lot of energy and intellectual ferment in contemporary debate about such matters. For more information, please see here, here, and here.

Persian

Persian does not have grammatical or linguistic gender, meaning all words are gender neutral. However, there exists metaphorical gender and non-grammatically gendered nouns in Persian. For instance, all people are addressed either as āqā (sir), or, khānom (ma’am), a pervasive example of gender binary. In recent decades, certain Persian speakers have begun to challenge heteronormativity and gender binarism with neologisms such as degar-bāsh (queer) and nā-dogāneh (non-binary). But these terms have yet to gain currency outside of LGBTQ communities and social advocacy circles (for instance see here, here and here). The Academy of the Persian Language and Literature in Tehran, whose language policies and politics closely reflect the Islamic Republic’s gender and sexuality policies, has not offered or recognized such alternative categories. In the absence of institutional support or recognition, unfortunately, concepts such as gender non-conformity have not had a point of entry into Persian-speaking societies. As educators, it is important to put our minds together on how to address gender inclusion in all its forms. See our evolving thoughts here.

Suggestions

  • Let’s initiate pronoun introduction and share some of the emotional burden of inclusion during the first week of classes by:

    • Asking students in English and in the target language if they wish to share their pronoun. Taking a poll prior to class on how to share one’s pronoun would be even more welcome since many may not like being put on the spot. Encourage those who may not be comfortable to share their pronoun in class to email you.
    • Sharing your own pronoun when introducing yourself to class
    • Educating students on debates and discussions that are going on regarding gender in the linguistic communities that you teach about.
  • In general, consider:
    • The value of role play in the language classroom. Students can benefit from practicing the use of different pronouns and other gendered language. It is necessary to understand the standard gender markers of the target language and some languages rely on binaries, but individual students need not be restricted to either masculine or feminine vocabulary all of the time.
    • Displaying your pronouns in email signatures, UW web pages, syllabi, and/or Zoom screens.
    • Dedicating a section of your syllabus to inclusion. These are a few examples below:
      • From PRSAN 403: We are a colorful tapestry, like an Afghan rug. All are welcome in class. By all, I mean whoever may be reading this.
      • From MODHEB 101/521: This course is open to all UW students. The MELC Department welcomes you and your pronouns!
      • From ARAB 101/511: This course welcomes all students. We will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me early on.

In sum, we do not see the task of introducing gender-neutral language as just a matter of adding new or modifying existing lexical units in our languages. We recognize that such an effort should be part of a broader cultural and social rethinking regarding gender exclusion and stereotypes in our communities. Becoming more sensitive and intentional about our use of language is a vital first step toward that aim.  

Resources at the UW

Department Diversity/Equity Committee Members

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations. (More information available here.)

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