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France's attempt to scrap gendered language in school forms raises questions

Is the move, termed 'pseudo-progressive' by some conservatives, really disrespectful to heterosexual couples?

By The Editorial Board

  • Published 24.02.19, 9:00 AM
  • Updated 24.02.19, 9:56 AM
The French National Assembly has proposed that schools should replace the terms ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ on administrative forms with the labels ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’
The French National Assembly has proposed that schools should replace the terms ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ on administrative forms with the labels ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’ Shutterstock

In this age of exclusions, the French National Assembly is trying out a policy of inclusiveness. It has proposed that schools should replace the terms ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ on administrative forms with the labels ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’. This is a logical step in a country where same-sex marriage is legal. La République En Marche, the party of the French president, is behind this proposed amendment to the Schools of Trust law. By erasing the gender markers of parents, the diversity of families with children will be included — or such is the faith driving the proposal. All kinds of families, especially same-sex units, can thus find recognition. The family model assumed by current school forms is rather outdated, as one member of parliament has remarked.

In this imperfect world, there is no pleasing everybody. Even in France, which is not India, one of the objections from conservative politicians is that the change would be disrespectful to heterosexual couples who make up 95 per cent of marriages in the country. In other words, conserve the gendered roles; there is no need to implement what one politician calls a “frightening ideology”. Although France is not trying to ‘return’ to a mythical past created by the religion-based rhetoric of the ruling dispensation, its conservative, religious and rightwing segments have reacted to the government’s proposal with a virulence only too familiar to Indians. The ‘pseudo-progressive’ — first cousin of pseudo-secular? — move, in its frenzy of limitless egalitarianism, say critics, will destroy all points of reference, even within the family.

The real problem with the proposal lies elsewhere. Having Parent 1 and Parent 2 on the school form does not mean that the child will lose the reference points at home. But the numbering on the form creates an unavoidable hierarchy of its own; even supporters of the move are asking which parent shall be which. In heterosexual couples, this may replicate the old gendered structure, and in same-sex couples it may cause a power struggle — the television series “Modern Family” suggests this possibility, however comically. So, with the best intentions of following the principle of non-discrimination, the amendment, if passed by the Senate, might bring in a different kind of discrimination by the back door.

It has been suggested that to correct the balance, the word ‘parent’ be done away with altogether on school forms and a list saying ‘legal representative’ be put in instead. Critics who have found the use of ‘Parent’ dehumanising will then have a field day, of course. But the proposal has brought up an intriguing issue. Can gender neutrality be achieved in official discourse without apparent ‘dehumanisation’? Alternatively, does the current idea of the ‘human’, and the words allied with it, assume inequality of the sexes and, more specifically, fixed gender roles? Then the progressive camp-follower, pseudo or otherwise, must go much further than changing headings on a school form.

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