Why Pronouns Matter: Director Faraz Arif Ansari On The Importance of ‘They’ - Homegrown

Why Pronouns Matter: Director Faraz Arif Ansari On The Importance of ‘They’

Towards the end of our 40-minute-chat, when I asked writer and director Faraz Arif Ansari if they had any closing comments, they said, “Just don’t address me as ‘he’, please. My best friend and I have a ‘he-he-he-he’ game wherein every time I am in the press, we sit down with the article together and count the number of times they have addressed me as ‘he’. Makes for a great round of guffaw!”

 Faraz Arif Ansari 's picture
Faraz Arif Ansari

Bye Bye, Binaries!

It’s not all laughs and gags though. How we address people is how we identify them. Since a person’s pronouns convey their gender identity, using the correct pronouns to address them is a way towards identifying and affirming their identity and social location in the world.

Put simply, gender identity is the internal sense of self which is different from gender expression or the gender a person is assigned at birth. In a free world, everyone should have the option to determine who or what they feel or don’t feel like on the inside and that option is afforded by the right to choose one’s gender identity.

One of the most damaging social misconceptions is that we exist in binaries. More specifically, gender binaries. Non-binary personal pronouns, that is, personal pronouns other than the heteronormative ‘he/him/his’ and ‘she/her/hers’ open up the space for one to identify and express themselves fully without being compelled to be boxed within a certain category.

34-year-old Faraz, who came out as non-binary earlier this year in January, had been out as a queer person since they were 21. However, it took them 13 years to explore their true identity and expand their vision of themselves.

This only goes on to say that gender identities are complicated, diverse and transient and while it might look overwhelming, it’s really not. The first step towards opening up the aforementioned space is by dissolving binaries and accepting the fact that we do live in a rainbow and beyond.

Non-binary is both a gender identity and a catch-all term to describe gender identities other than strictly male or female. While there are many types of non-binary/ non-heteronormative gender, some are more commonly discussed than others. These include:

  • Agender: Having no specific gender identity or having a gender identity that is neutral. Sometimes used interchangeably with gender-neutral, genderless, or neutrois.
  • Bigender: Having two distinct gender identities or expressions, either simultaneously, at different times, or in different situations.
  • Genderfluid: Moving between two or more gender identities or expressions.
  • Genderqueer: A catch-all term for individuals with non-binary gender identities.
  • Non-Binary: The umbrella term covering all gender identities and expressions outside the gender binary. Also referred to as NB or enby.
  • Third Gender: Having a gender identity or expression that is not defined in terms of the binary options (male/female, masculine/feminine). May also be referred to as third sex or othergender.
— Source: Elizabeth Boskey, 'What Does It Mean to Be Non-Binary or Have Non-Binary Gender?', Very Well Mind, September 28, 2019. Content based on: Richards C, Bouman WP, Seal L, Barker MJ, Nieder TO, T'sjoen G. Non-binary or genderqueer genders. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2016;28(1):95-102. doi:10.3109/09540261.2015.1106446

“There is a perception that non-binary is also a binary. Criticism from the queer community also flows in occasionally because a lot of people don’t understand that the very point of being non-binary is not belonging to a binary,” comments Faraz.

Faraz says that they had always been comfortable with their sexuality. Growing up in a liberal family, they had the space to be themselves. They explain that their family warranted them the freedom to explore their own skies, and that is why there was never an internal dissonance.

About the external transgressions, Faraz affirms, “People feel very insecure about themselves when they see other people vibing in a different league. Rhythm can be perceived in different ways. The word called ‘love’ can also be interpreted in so many different ways. Everything lives in such different, beautiful ways. Why put it into a box and let it die? We are so much more.”

Faraz recalls being reached out by a non-binary-identifying person who asked them why did they have a beard if they identified as non-binary. Faraz has also been slighted for not looking like gender activist Alok Vaid Menon in the past as if there is only one way to ‘be’ non-binary! Exasperatedly yet mildly amused, Faraz talks about folx’s obsession of aligning with depiction persuaded by the West.

Excusez Moi, Your Pronouns Are Grammatically Incorrect!

It’s actually not that way.

If anything, the singular ‘they’ as a pronoun is only epistemologically coherent when it comes to the greats of English literature.

The Guardian explains, “It is normal in the English language to use they/them pronouns when we don’t know the gender of the person to which we’re referring, or if we want our sentence to be applicable to all genders. This isn’t new – the saying “Everybody loves their own mother” has been used since around late 1300. Both Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer – who died in 1400 – used pronouns that way.”

Going back to their childhood, Faraz remembers that the Urdu they spoke at home was equally respectful of everyone. With salutations like ‘aap’ and ‘voh’, there was never the need to imply the gender of the person and so, everyone was equal and everyone was themselves, no matter what gender identity they aligned with.

Recalls Faraz, “Back at school, we were taught that the only valid personal pronouns were ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’. Now, the so-called ‘neutral’ ‘it’ always reminded me of a clown and I was no clown. I was also neither he nor she. Why were they making a clown out of me?”

Lexicon and grammar must evolve with culture. Faraz emphasises, “If a pronoun makes someone’s world safer and makes them come closer to their identity if it tries to create a safer, more inclusive world, more power to that apparent grammatical error.”

How To Use Pronouns Chart Guide
Source: How To Use Pronouns. Credit: Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Insert <Name> <Pronoun>; Unlearn; Learn

Personal pronouns are not easy and it’s understandable. This was once difficult even for Faraz who made the journey of 13 years to identify as a queer non-binary person. When they started going to different film festivals with Sisak (2017), India’s first Indian silent LGBTQ love story, they got the opportunity to meet different kinds of people from the community. Interaction bore learning. At one point, when they unknowingly misgendered someone, the person took them to a pub and explained why they didn’t identify as ‘she’ – the pronoun Faraz had accidentally used for them. They explained the concept of gender-fluidity and gender non-binary to Faraz.

“Being queer and Brown is as it is a massive struggle and, therefore, in our endeavour to make the world a more inclusive place, it is imperative that we listen to one another.”

They continue, “Everyone who goes against the herd is left behind. They are made fun of and abandoned. However, being different also makes you Freddie Mercury. It makes you Madonna. It makes you Elton John. Following the footsteps of such brave people who chose to stand out of the crowd, we need to celebrate who we are.”

In ways more than one, pronouns open up the world for people and make them feel embraced and accepted. They give them the courage to come closer to who they are and more than anything, they relay the message that the world is for everyone and not a select few who choose to align with its set ways.

In their personal life, it was only after much suffering that Faraz was finally able to find their true self. Reiterates Faraz, “It takes a lot of time to become who you are and it never really stops. Now, I identify as non-binary. I don’t know what the future holds for me. Imagine a person holding themselves back because they are not able to tell the world about who they really are.”

A Non-Binary Dessert

Parallel to their identity is their voice as a filmmaker. The kind of films Faraz makes also don’t really fit into a particular genre. “They are not artsy enough”, people have accused. Faraz, however, wants their art to be accessible to all.

Sighs Faraz, “This is my voice. Why can’t you just embrace that?”

With their most recent film, Sheer Qorma, Faraz has become the first-ever director in India to make a film with a non-binary character. The film, starring greats of the Hindi film industry like Shabana Azmi, Divya Dutta, and Swara Bhaskar, has been delayed due to the pandemic but is charted to release at a film festival soon.

When the trailer of the film, wherein Divya Dutta’s character identifies as non-binary, came out, Faraz was inundated with messages and calls. Some of the most special messages were those of people who had seen this two-minute-trailer and had received the courage to come out to their families. “They came out because they saw themselves represented in the mainstream. They felt that someone had the courage to tell their story.”

One of the people told them, “32 years of my life have been so intricately represented in the two-minute trailer of Sheer Qorma. It gave me the courage to come out to my mother. I watched the trailer over 100 times.”

“ Lives transform when you tell the story right. I am thrilled to think that so many people found the courage to be themselves upon watching my work,” said Faraz as I noted their quote down with goosebumps up my arm and what was certainly a thin film of tears in my eyes.

While filming Sheer Qorma, it was an established rule for all the cast crew members to introduce themselves along with their pronouns. This, says Faraz, enabled the creation of a space that was safe for all. “The atmosphere became so much more inclusive. Everyone knew that they would be accepted for who they were. We felt safe and embraced.”

LOVE ONLY

Art moves and art inspires. In a world that is bent on teaching hatred, we need people who will go an extra mile and teach love.

It’s not like Faraz doesn’t get their share of hatred. Hatred comes from different quarters — from Islamophobic fundamentalists, from religious fundamentalists, and sometimes, even from people who would otherwise be allies. Sometimes, hate gets so vicious, it seeps into death threats and one wonders if the world is really broken enough to hate someone who would profess love in their work.

Says Faraz, “No matter what the world does to you, you need to do justice to yourself. The greatest romance you will ever have will be with yourself.”

Faraz, therefore, thinks about the legacies we are going to be leaving behind. Faraz considers it a matter of moral alignment and internal strength. They are grateful to have been raised by strong womxn like their aunt whom they lost 10 years back to cancer and who used to teach them that every time we take a stand, we make enemies by default, and therefore, it is upon us to believe in ourselves and carry on anyway.

The world has become more cosmopolitan than before and accepting and loving without reservation should be the only way to be. The key to this is unlearning our deeply-ingrained prejudices. “You have to seek. If you don’t seek, you will never find it,” says Faraz.

We need to stop assuming and start asking. Also, start telling and start listening more closely. Using gender-neutral pronouns would only mean that we are able to see the person beyond any artificial social constructs.

David Rose from Schitt’s Creek would probably say, “Into the wine, not the label.” That, and also, let’s look beyond the red and the white, stop hardlining labels, and call the wine by one it prefers to be identified as.

Watch the trailer of Faraz’s upcoming film, Sheer Qorma, here.

Follow Faraz on Twitter here.

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