“Estimados estudiantes” – Gender and equality in the Spanish language

It was on my very first day I arrived in Granada that I encountered this topic. I’d heard so much about it back in Switzerland and didn’t really give it more thought when I read the words: “Por un feminismo de clase” (For a feminism of social classes) on the wall of the Facultad de Filosfía y Letras which is where I was going to be studying for the next four months. Feminism. Despite being a woman myself I hadn’t considered myself a feminist and honestly, I hadn’t ever really got involved in it. However, I had started to get used to and appreciate the way in which gender equality is handled in the German language, especially at my university. Language is such an essential part of people’s culture that it is a good starting point for gender equalization. In my linguistic classes we even spent quite some time discussing how to correctly use language in a non-discriminatory manner. To break it down in a few words: Always use gender neutral forms to address people and if not possible, always mention both genders. If you follow these steps it is a sure way that women don’t feel left out.

In fact, if I go through my emails from our university I can’t find a single message where these rules aren’t applied : “Sehr geehrte Studierende”, “Liebe_r Student_in”, “Liebe Studentin*, lieber Student*”, just to mention a few. Both the professors and the students take it very seriously and make a conscious effort to use a non-sexist and gender-neutral language.

So, one day here in Granada I had to write an email to a bus company because they didn’t send me the tickets which I had paid for. Given my experience about the way of how you should address an unknown person I wrote: “Estimad@s señoras y señores”. By saying this, it includes both women and men – the ‘@’ in this case represents both estimados (male) and estimadas (female). The response I got surprised, shocked and even annoyed me a little bit: “Estimado cliente” (Dear ‘male’ client). Obviously, I ended the mail with my name, which is clearly a female name. So not only did they forget to mention the female form, like for example when you write to an unknown person, but they essentially ignored that I am a woman and addressed their message to a man.

This incident made me curious about how other people here in Spain handle this and I found many emails in my university account where the generic masculine has been used, (“Estimados estudiantes”). By saying and only using the masculine form, it’s supposed to also include women. However, women are not directly addressed and are subsequently made invisible. What struck me was the letter a female (!), and otherwise in my eyes, really great professor, had prepared for the students who wanted to take her class and weren’t officially registered yet: It read as follows: “‘Nombre de la profesora’ da su permiso para que el alumno ‘…’ se matricule en la asignatura.” (The professor gives her permission to the ‘male’ student – that’s where you were supposed to insert your name – to get registered in this class.) While I don’t want to say that I feel insulted by that, it really took me by surprise.

However, there were a lot of emails in my mailbox where the language was also used in a non-sexist way, perhaps more than those with gender discriminatory language. For example, I’ve seen the frequent use of the phrase, “Estimados miembros de la comunidad universitaria” (Dear members of the university community) or “Estimada comunidad universitaria” (Dear university community), where the writer just avoided addressing individuals. There’s even a guide written by the university on how to correctly use non-discriminatory language.

While I don’t want to accuse or judge Spaniards of being anti-feminist or anything of that nature, it is simply something that struck me since arriving in Granada because it would be a big faux pas in Switzerland if anyone, especially a professor, wrote in that way. In any case I want to try to find out more about this and feminism in general in Spain during my following months here in Granada.

Anja Kaufmann


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