Language is important. It’s why I use Police Officer over Policeman, Chair rather than Chairman and why I put my pronouns in my email signature. Language is also always evolving, and I hope that even when I’m 70 years old I will continue to learn and change my language to ensure people around me feel included and supported. That’s why when I received a kind WhatsApp from a friend and colleague questioning a word I used in an email my stomach dropped.
But, every day is a school day, and the experience taught me some things, which I want to share with you too…
I work in Public Affairs for Anglian Water, so when we were 6 weeks out from the local elections I circulated some guidance internally about impartiality rules during the run up to the local elections. This “pre-election” period means that there are limits on what prospective political candidates can do and therefore how we, as Anglian Water, should interact with them. As far as I knew, this pre-election period was known as “purdah”. I’ve heard this word used in water and political circles on a semi regular basis. When you google it, purdah is defined as: The pre-election period is the period in the United Kingdom between the announcement of an election and the formation of the new elected government.
However, it has another meaning which I was unaware of. It describes the religious and social practice of female seclusion and segregation prevalent among some Muslim and Hindu communities. Looking into it further I learnt that purdah takes two forms: physical segregation of the sexes and the requirement that women cover their bodies so as to cover their skin and conceal their form. The word itself is derived from the Hindi-Urdu and before that Persian word “Pardeh” meaning to cover up, wrap or hide.
It turns out that some organisations have stopped using the term to describe the pre-election period, as they feel comparing the experience of women who choose to or are forced to carry out physical and social separation is by no means the same as the very small limitations put on prospective parliamentary nominees.
I have subsequently changed the wording of the guidance to simply say “pre-election period” and have had some really interesting conversations with colleagues as a result. I have spoken to a Muslim friend, who reminded me that of course, not all Muslims will have the same view on whether or not the term should be used in the political context, or whether it could be deemed as insensitive.
What this experience has reminded me though, is about the importance of language in DEI. I am sure there are other words and phrases which have origins we would be uncomfortable with if we fully understood them.
Please share some with me if you know of any!
-Lydia Dareheath CEnv, Public Affairs Manager, Anglian Water Services Limited