On referring to female officers as ‘madam sir’

ET Lifestyle published a Twitter thread this morning about police officers referring to female superior officers as “sir” or as “madam sir”.

I do find the practice offensive, because it signals an inability to imagine anyone but a (cis)man in the position currently occupied by a woman. That calcification – of the masculine identity of occupants of certain roles – is often the root of sexism. It being inadvertent, as some have said, is to my mind all the more reason to get rid of it, because that means we are passively allowing sexisms to cement themselves in our collective psyche.

All this said, some of the officers’ comments highlighted on Twitter also refer to an aspect of the English language that I find endlessly fascinating: a combination of Whorfianism and Indians’ modification of the language according to their more immediate needs. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that the way people think is shaped by elements of their spoken language. This idea is also known as linguistic relativity and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Indians’ modification refers to the way people in India use and relate to English. This is obviously a highly heterogenous group, divided along caste, wealth, religion and geographic lines. A simple and familliar (to me) example is one I described in a 2020 interview:

… in India, English is – among other things – the language you learn to be employable, especially with MNCs or such. And because of its historical relationships, English is taught only in certain schools, schools that typically have mostly students from upper-caste/upper-class families. English is also spoken only by certain groups of people who may wish to secret it as a class symbol, etc. I’m speaking very broadly here. My point is that English is reserved typically for people who can afford it, both financially and socio-culturally. Not everyone speaks ‘good’ English (as defined by one particular lexicon or whatever) nor can they be expected to. So what you may see as mistakes in [an article] may just be a product of people not being fluent in English, and composing sentences in ways other than you might as a result.

If a poorly edited article is impossible to read or uses words and ideas carelessly, or twists facts, that is just bad. But if a poorly composed article is able to get its points across without misrepresenting anyone, whom does that affect? No one, in my opinion, so that is okay. (It could also be the case that the person whose work you’re editing sees the way they write as a political act of sorts, and if you think such an issue might be in play, it becomes important to discuss it with them.) … My job as the editor is to ensure that people are understood, but in order to help them be understood better and better, I must be aware of my own privileges and keep subtracting them from the editorial equation (in my personal case: my proficiency with the English language, which includes many Americanisms and Britishisms). I can’t impose my voice on my writers in the name of helping them.

The use of English in India is implicitly political. Its appearance on government forms, such as to avail compensation for the death of a loved one due to COVID-19 or to provide informed consent for the forest department to cut down a forest, has often served to exclude people from the rights to which they are entitled. At the same time English is very necessary and important to secure good jobs and to effectively navigate the bureaucracy. In this tension, my role as an editor requires me to strike a fine balance – between letting people express themselves the way they will, ensuring what they’re thinking matches perfectly with what they’re saying, and not – in the process of making clarifying edits – making their text sound like me instead. The second point here, of words matching one’s thoughts, is particularly important in the context of junior male officers referring to their female superiors as “sir” or “madam sir”. As she is quoted as saying in the following tweet…

Durga Shakti Nagpal, and presumably others as well, countenance “madam sir” or “sir” as another manifestation of a gender-neutral term along the likes of ‘janab‘ in Punjab, ‘hukum‘ in Rajasthan, etc. Here, “madam sir” is taken to be another gender-neutral term, and this to my mind is an Indian modification of an originally English term that is decidedly masculine. This is the sort of issue I was referring to in the context of the ways in which we – the people of a post-colonial state – have adapted our former hegemon’s language. It is quite possible, as it already seems to Durga Shakti Nagpal, that “madam sir” means something else in India, especially in one, some or all of the demographic groups that regularly use this term, than it might in the UK or elsewhere. Here, it may be possible that its users employ it as an extension of more gender-neutral terms that already exist in Punjabi, Rajasthani, etc.

To be clear, this is not an attempted justification but an exploration of possibilities, albeit an admittedly superficial one.

At the same time, “madam sir” is not gender-neutral, as Durga Shakti Nagpal vaguely suggests it might be, because officers don’t use the same term to address their male superiors. With the latter, it is but “sir”. In India, and to someone fluent in English (like me), it may often seem like other, non-fluent speakers translate into the language in careless fashion. I encountered many examples of this when covering clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines in India, where trial investigators were obviously more fluent in Hindi, were forced in some contexts to use English (such in official reports and in interviews to the press), and subsequently turned technical terms into vagueries, respectful terms into casual ones and appeared to admit inaccuracies where things were much more accurate. In such situations, there isn’t only a potential mismatch between thoughts and words but also actions and words. So it is possible in theory that when people for whom English isn’t the first language translate into the language, something is being lost in translation – and which could include a non-sexist sentiment. In theory.

In practice, of course, this is tremendously unlikely to be manifesting in the context of the male members of a male-dominated workforce in which women’s enrollment is perceived to be an exception, rather than as a herald of change, and in which the identity of the chair – no matter its occupant – is vouchsafed to cis-het men. As director-general of police Renuka Mishra said, police training should reflect the fact that words matter very much and – taking a cue from Whorfianism – force trainees to think closely about how their perceptions of certain roles in the police force are coloured by their perceptions of gender.