Sir, madam please be kind enough to stand aside. Teacher is taking centrestage

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Students attend a class after authorities allowed schools to conduct classes for students of 1st to 5th standard as part of easing of COVID-19 induced restrictions, in Gurugram, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. PTI

Thiruvananthapuram: If honorifics had a hierarchy, the word to address males in positions of power, 'sir', is historically placed many notches above 'madam', the honorific used to address women who are to be officially granted respect.

Sir comes from the French word 'sieur', meaning 'Lord'. Madam but is a patriarchal coinage that is condescending towards women and, like sir, is derived from the French 'madame', which means 'my lady'. In male-dominated France, Lords have always shown the ladies their place. When the English adapted these words, they kept the hierarchy intact.

So when teachers are identified on a gender basis in schools as 'sir' and 'madam', it becomes the first lesson in gender discrimination.

Sensing the injustice, the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights has ordered the use of these honorifics be done away with. Instead, the Commission wants the gender-neutral word teacher to be used for both males and females.

"People who teach in schools should be called teachers without any gender discrimination," the Child Rights Commission said in its latest order. "Teacher is the most suitable word to address teachers with the utmost respect and without gender discrimination," the Commission said.

The two-member bench of the Commission - chairperson K V Manoj Kumar and member C Vijayakumar - instructed the director of the General Education Department to take the necessary steps to pass on the order to all schools in the state. The director has been asked to submit an action taken report within two months.

"The honorifics 'sir' and 'madam' do not match up to the idea of a teacher. Adopting the word 'teacher' would not only ensure gender equality but it would also bring students and teachers closer," the Commission said.

The Commission's order was issued on a petition filed by social activist Boban Mattumantha who argued that the use of 'sir' and 'madam' was a violation of Articles 14 (equality before law), 15 (non-discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth) and 19(1) (freedom of speech and expression).

"There are already concerns about how to address transgender teachers," Boban said in his petition. Boban argued that schools play a primary role in creating unnecessary gender divides in children. "Addressing teachers as 'sir' and 'madam' is one way of reinforcing such differences," he said. Boban also termed these honorifics as "colonial remnants".

Boban has also written to Governor Arif Mohammed Khan to put an end to the use of 'sir' and 'madam' in higher education institutions.

In the West, students do not even use 'teacher' but more formal honorifics like Ms, Mrs and Mr to address their teachers. It is widely held that Mr and Mrs are equal in perception. 

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