Student calls on Georgetown University to ‘begin the conversation’ about ‘gender-neutral' version of Arabic

A first year student at Georgetown University has published an article about gender-neutral language in Arabic after he “realized the lack of gender-inclusive Arabic pronouns excludes nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students.”

The author of the article, Donovan Barnes, stated that “beginning the conversation on gender inclusivity in Arabic would significantly benefit the LGBTQ+ community.”

Donovan Barnes, a first year student at Georgetown University, recently published a “viewpoint” article in the school’s student newspaper titled “Develop Gender-Neutral Language in Arabic.”

Barnes’ March 25 op-ed in The Hoya expresses the opinion that “to aid the fight for gender inclusivity in the Arabic language, Georgetown students and instructors have the responsibility to work toward language that includes all gender identities, not just identities within the cisnormative male and female binary.”

The student explained that he is studying Arabic at Georgetown and had “valid concerns” coming into the program because he is learning a language that is “radically different from [his] first language, English.”

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“I never thought about how the language intersected with a person’s gender identity, however, until I began taking courses,” wrote Barnes. “I realized the lack of gender-inclusive Arabic pronouns excludes nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students interested in learning the language.”

According to Barnes’ personal experiences, Georgetown does not teach gender-neutral pronouns very extensively in their Arabic courses. He believes that the university should play a larger role in this issue by incorporating gender-neutral language into these classes. “The push for gender inclusivity in Arabic is ongoing, and the Georgetown community must facilitate the conversation on gender inclusivity within Arabic courses.”

According to an article from the BBC, “the world’s four most spoken gendered languages are Hindi, Spanish, French and Arabic.” The World Bank has collected research that shows “38 percent of the world’s population speaks a gendered language.”

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In many gendered languages including Spanish and Arabic, masculine pronouns are used to describe groups of people and feminine versions are used only when referring to women as individuals or as a group. However, in Arabic all words have a masculine origin and feminine endings are added.

Babbel Magazine has found that over 20 countries use Arabic as an “official or co-official language,” with over 310 million individuals in the world speaking this language. The article further explained that “knowing Modern Standard Arabic will help you converse with the hundreds of millions of speakers around the globe.”

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Barnes acknowledged in his article that “Arabic has historical and contemporary ties with Islam and religious tradition, and it may be challenging to deviate from the language’s norms.” However, he further stated that “Arabic speakers whose gender identities do not align with the norms of the language should not have to compromise their identity. They deserve representation.” 

The Arabic language does include the pronouns he, she, they, them, his, hers, theirs, etc. But there are many Middle Eastern countries that do not allow transgender or homosexual behavior and some even have laws prohibiting it.

Barnes expressed that he believes “creating gender-inclusive pronouns in all languages is a significant step in achieving equality.”

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Georgetown’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies offers courses in “Modern Standard Arabic,” which is the official language of 22 Arab Countries and the modern counterpart of “Classical Arabic.” The department also offers classes titled “Women and Gender in Islam” and “The Syntax of Arabic.”

“Beginning the conversation on gender inclusivity in Arabic would significantly benefit the LGBTQ+ community. Arabic speakers and learners who identify with gender-neutral language would feel less ostracized when learning and speaking the language.” Barnes concluded, “I call on Georgetown to begin the conversation, for it is long overdue.”

Youseff Haddad, Professor of Arabic Language and Linguistics at the University of Florida, told Campus Reform that “gender neutral” words in Arabic are not possible.

He also emphasized that similar to Spanish there are no nouns that are not masculine or feminine. In the Arabic language you must mark whether an individual is male or female, there is no neutral version for these terms. Although the professor further mentioned that if an individual prefers the pronouns they/them, then they can also use those in Arabic similar to when used in English.

A few individuals commented on the article from Barnes, one person wrote “Thanks, but the region does not need your white-saviour complex.” Another reader wrote “please stop colonizing other languages. Leave Arabic and Arab culture to the Arabs.”

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Barnes responded to one of the comments and explained that his piece “was written so nonbinary students don’t have to switch languages due to lack of gender-neutral options.”

Campus Reform reached out to Donovan Barnes regarding the story and he refused to comment.

Georgetown University has not responded to requests for comment.