Gender Neutral Language in Arabic

*Intro Disclaimer:
This article is a collective piece of work, written on behalf of Nassawiyat, to serve as an account for the adaptations that Arab queer communities use, in an attempt to make the Arabic language a more gender neutral language. This is an evolutionary process and is a work in process. Accordingly, this article cannot be seen as an anthropological exploration of gender inclusive writing in Arabic. The focus mores o lies on personal accounts of individuals and groups to accumulate the gender fluid pronouns that have been adopted by queer communities.

Arabic is a gendered language in which every noun, pronoun, and adjective has an assigned gender. This applies to the plural forms of nouns and pronouns, which are by default “male” when referring to a mixed group of people. The absence of a standardized, gender-neutral language within Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) could contribute to the further perpetuation of a pattern of marginalization of womxn and LGBTQI+ communities.

Is there a need for a UN approach to the standardization of gender neutral language in Arabic? The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA) has a published guideline on gender sensitive language. The guideline explicitly acknowledges the lack of existing guidelines on gender sesitive language in the Arabic language. While some believe that the UN approach to standardization of gender neutral language in Arabic could lead to the imposition of Western criteria on the constantly shifting (gender) identities and to the erasure of local identities, others see the presence of this toolkit as a necessary step that would ease their day-to-day interactions.

Despite the presence of a standardized, gender-neutral language toolkit, communities have mobilized to normalize the use of dual pronouns هما and أنتما, which are used for both male and female groups. Others choose to go by the plural pronoun هم. However, using dual or plural pronouns in the Arabic language is complex given the grammatical context and the verb conjugations for the respective pronouns.

Nevertheless, the dual pronouns are commonly used for nonbinary individuals, whilst others choose to use the he/she pronouns interchangeablyinterchcnagably. Another alternative and less patriarchal use of gender in the Arabic language can be observed in the Tunisian dialect. In the Tunisian dialect of Arabic, female pronouns are used for everyone as a form of linguistic reorganization. This provides more space to womxn, nonbinary people, and the LGBTQI+ community in general.

A similar trend can be observed in Morocco. In recent years the queer commuinty in Morcco has adopted and relatively normalized the usage of certain gender fluid pronouns. In Northern Morocco, the use of ‘ntina نتینا’ is common and accordingly adopted as a more gender fluid pronoun for nonbinary individuals. In other parts of the country, the masculine pronoun, ‘nta َإنت,’ is used by the queer community, while addressing all genders, in an attempt to render a more gender neutral pronoun out of
the masculine ‘nta َإنت.’ Other Arab countries, such as Lebanon, use the pronoun ‘ent’ as a gender neutral pronoun. The normalization of using dual and plural pronouns for nonbinary individuals has not been achieved, yet, in the Arabic speaking countries.

Discussions around the use of neopronouns is a new addition to the debate on the evolution of MSA towards a more gender-neutral language.

There also are twitter threads that encourage people to experiment with different pronouns within personal circles, until they are normalized.
[add screenshots of the thread/embed the twitter links on website]

Dima Ayoub argues that Arabic is “over-masculinized” and is not as inherently patriarchal as it is seen to be. ُThe “over-masculinized” factor of the language comes from how it is used by people in the society. There is room for creativity and evolution to render a more gender inclusive version of Arabic.

“َArabic as a language is not inherently patriarchal or exclusionary of alternative gender norms. Dima says people tend to ‘over-masculinize’ Arabic, meaning that with new formations and effort, we can stop the perpetuation of this pattern.”

In the discourse that surrounds the future of Modern Standard Arabic, there is often talk of the percentage of people that actually are fluent in it and rarely mention of the communities that are not represented in MSA. MSA’s need for evolving has to acknowledge the groups of people that are trying not to rely on Western lexicon to make themselves visible in their own language.

There is an ongoing struggle to make gender visible when it is important for communication, and to have a non-discriminatory language is an ongoing one. Projects such as Wiki Gender ويكي الجندر are contributing towards making Arabic a more gender inclusive language, through their glossary and multimedia curations and translations.

With the absence of gender fluid pronouns in a language, the inclination towards imposing the English language’s queer terminology and gender fluid pronouns onto Arabic. This is viewed by certain individuals as a process of Westernizing the Arabic language. A reverse westernization attempt to detach the gender exclusive language from English and replace English words with ones drawn from Arabic literature, poetry and history is one that could more significantly contribute to the linguistic
reform of MSA.

Linguistic reforms do not occur in isolation. Reforms towards a more gender inclusive Modern Arabic language also serve as mobilizing factors towards societal reorganizations. Cultures affect the formation of gender identities, so the relationship between language and gender is a reflection of the socio-cultural context and reality of the region. A language that accommodates and visualizes the identities of its speakers reflects a society that is less prone to marginalize its minority groups too.

There are two common practiced methods used to make Arabic more gender inclusive. One is writing the pronoun, or the noun and its adjective in both female and male forms. The second method is the creation of a hybrid ending for the noun that would be gender inclusive, by combining both female and male endings. This is a more gender inclusive format that takes into account non-binary individuals who would not feel represented if being addressed by the male/female nouns.

We conducted an interview with members of the LGBTQI+ community and feminist activists in Morocco regarding the development and use of gender neutral language in Arabic. According to the people interviewed, the use of gender inclusive language is burdened by the size of the circles in which it is spoken. It was reported that they mostly use gender inclusive language with other people that also use it. The main limit is the time and effort it takes to individually explain and debate over the use of gender inclusive language in new circles.

“Gender inclusive language is an invitation to know and celebrate one’s identity; to not let the oppressor occult or obscure us. This language is not customized and exclusive to a single group or individual; or else it would have the same quality as the language of the patriarchy. Domination is the ability to constantly create and let create, in order to evolve the language as our collective conscience evolves.”

Aida Kheireddine

Are there gender inclusive pronouns that you use in your social circles that have not been mentioned in this article? Contribute to this article by sharing them with us.
Normalizing the use of gender inclusive pronouns is a process that requires collective engagement. The adoption of gender inclusive language in Arabic is a recent phenomenon that is still in its early days. It is with continuous experimentation that an inclusive language can be normalized and ultimately standardized within the Arabic language.

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