When this meme came up this morning on my newsfeed (posted by a renowned classical Indian dancer), I decided to add it to the short piece I had written a couple of days ago ...
The first time I heard the use of the prefix “Sir” was when I was taught Singapore history as a child in primary school. Sir Stamford Raffles – the founder of Singapore. Oh, the imposing statue.
Before that I had sung “yes Sir, yes Sir, three bags full.” In kindergarten.
“Sir” apparently found his way into the Asian context through our colonial masters. Our men subsequently assumed the title.
I was spared having to use the honorific term through my years of schooling as my teachers were all female. Mrs. Goh, Miss Ng, Madam Lim .... and I’m just being a bit random here.
In the Indian arts circle of Singapore, I would hear it used as a suffix to address male teachers and musicians. There would be a Manivannan Sir, for example, or a Muthukrishnan Sir (random names again that I’m pulling out of my hat). I have a feeling this culture seeped in from Chennai or Madras as it was fondly known then, because I seem to remember it being more commonly used by people who had strong links with that city. Later, when I based myself there, I found that the male secretaries of the performing arts organisations (or Sabhas, as they are known) were addressed that way too.
Dancers constantly fell at the feet of the various Sirs.
I found it odd then but would somehow manage to address them that way, just to conform. Sir Manivannan or Sir Muthukrishnan would sound even odder, I suppose. Now I simply cannot bring it to my lips. It would be impossible to even consider bestowing such titles on men while reducing women of similar or higher stature to the suffix - “Aunty” or “Akka” (elder sister). Why not Jayashree Dame or Revathy Dame ?!
I am aware that this sexism is not confined to Indian culture alone. Jennifer Coates, emeritus professor of English language and linguistics in the UK (and obviously a woman after my own heart) has been critical of the use of the title in the education sphere: "Sir is a knight. There weren't women knights, but 'Miss' is ridiculous: it doesn't match 'Sir' at all. It's just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman" … "It's a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status." [The Telegraph, 4th Feb 2014]
In India, I would receive invitation cards and pamphlets that would address respected male dance teachers as Guru followed by the person’s name, but would prefix the female teacher’s name with “Guru Smt”, “Smt” being short for “Srimathi” (or Mrs.).
A few years ago, a reporter from a Tamil newspaper called me up to ask me if I was married or not. When I asked him why he was posing this irrelevant question for an article about my involvement in organising a work-related event, he explained the norm of planting a prefix of either “Kumari” (Miss) or “Srimathi”. The prefix for males - “Sri” (Mr.), on the other hand, allows them to roam scot free. “Mrs.” is also a problematic title so thank goodness for “Ms.” It’s time to find the equivalent for “Ms.” … or how about progressing into gender neutrality?
Coming back to “Sir”, I am relieved to have moved away from having to use that term, unless a man has actually been knighted! But I was struck by the perpetuated use of this suffix when I came across a host of birthday messages on my facebook news feed recently, from dance students to a male teacher. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SIR!”
Young female dancers tell me they are comfortable with "Sir" as it is "very ingrained".
Some things just will not change. Not anytime soon.