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Tea Leaves

No swearing please, we're Indian (women)

Insults are okay, but sexism and bigotry are not, language campaigners say

A conversation between a mother and daughter about online trolls who are "Bhakkua" meaning Supreme Fool. (All photos courtesy of The Gaali Project)

For Tamanna Mishra and Neha Thakur, friends who grew up in India, the proliferation of misogynistic swearwords always felt like a slap on the face. They noticed with rising dismay how some viewing platforms in India have been normalizing the use of swearwords with stories of violence from the hinterlands. In parallel, the apparent anonymity provided by social media was fueling a brutal backlash, complete with threats and insults, against women who voiced their opposition.

Emperor Akbar is asked by his son Salim's lover Anarkali why he is being a "Bawaseer ka naasoor" meaning a pain in the wrong places.

As urban professional women in their 30s -- Mishra is a public relations professional in Bangalore and Thakur an Airbnb host in Mumbai -- they knew that swearing is a natural response to stress and exasperation. But they found it unacceptable that most local swear words are degrading to women, or to specific Indian castes and communities. "There are so many frustrating things to deal with on a daily basis, so we knew that not swearing is not an option for most of us. But even when two men fight, their language is so misogynistic," says Mishra.

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