The misconception that language and culture march in lockstep fashion is so prevalent that pronouncements about grammar can often be used as a sort of Rorschach test to reveal how people really feel about a particular culture. I suspect it's more socially acceptable to vent indirectly about a culture by denouncing its grammar than it is to comment bluntly on the culture itself. Ergo, innocent grammar ends up shouldering the blame for the sins of its speakers.
Journalist Christie Blatchford indulged recently in a bit of linguistic finger-pointing while covering the trial of Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan-born Montreal resident. Shafia, together with his wife (Tooba Mohammad Yahya) and son (Hamed Shafia), has been charged with murdering his three daughters and first wife in an alleged "honor" killing. Blatchford reports the following from the testimony of a relative of the slain wife (Ms. Amir):
[The witness] also said in the last months of her life, Ms. Amir was unhappy, often calling to complain about her life, and that she told her she'd overheard a conversation among the parents and Hamed, during which Mr. Shafia threatened to kill Zainab, who in April of 2009 had run away to a women's shelter, and "the other one," which Ms. Amir took to mean her.
But because the Dari/Farsi languages have no separate male and female pronouns – essentially, everyone is referred to as male, it apparently being the only worthy sex – she can't be sure if it was Ms. Yahya who asked about "the other one" or Hamed.
This matter was settled only after the witness had nattered on over the protestations of the lawyers and judge, as she did many times.
Dari/Farsi are sufficiently imprecise languages, the witness's speaking speed so breakneck, and the interpreter so overwhelmed that several times, references to her maternal uncle were translated as "my maternal ankle."
Ms. Blatchford must be in the throes of that all-too-common maxim to "say about language that for which you have no evidence" in order to have been willing to commit to print the claim that Farsi and its dialectal variant Dari are "imprecise languages". Other than her observation about the ambiguity of pronouns, no supporting facts are forthcoming—surely, whatever caused the mistranslation of "uncle" as "ankle" has less to do with the inability of Dari or Farsi to linguistically differentiate between the two concepts than it does with the fact that the two words differ phonetically in English only by a measly vowel. (Honestly, whoever's in charge of English ought to look into that troublesome little speech trap.) Of course, if you believe that language is cut whole from the cloth of cultural practices, actual linguistic evidence is optional. It should only stand to reason that a community that permits brutality to its women and children should also be so primitive as to allow rampant ambiguity in its grammar.
I have to wonder though—if Dari/Farsi have only one pronoun for both genders (and, as it turns out, no grammatical gender marking at all), how do we know that this pronoun is masculine? I also have to wonder if Christie Blatchford has managed to live her entire life as a native English speaker and professional writer without ever having had the need to use an English pronoun to refer to either a group of females or a group of males—otherwise, she surely would have been troubled by the fact that the same pronoun is used for both genders. But no, in her article alone, there are numerous instances of they or their being used to refer to males only (Mr. Shafia and his son), females only (the murdered women), or the collection of siblings belonging to the testifying witness (genders not specified). Clearly, the gender politics of English pronouns has somehow bypassed her radar.
Naturally, in lieu of misogynistic pronouns, Farsi and Dari simply have a garden-variety pronominal system in which gender happens not to be linguistically expressed at all—much like the English pronominal system, in which we neglect to mark gender on any pronouns other than the third person singular. English, as it happens, is at least as sludgy a language as Farsi, failing to not only disambiguate pronouns by gender, but even by number in the case of the second person pronoun you, which we slatternly speakers of English use to address a party of one or one million alike. And to follow the thread of Ms. Blatchford's theory of pronominal gender oppression: we might have to conclude that while English acknowledges the equality of women when they're referred to as single individuals in the third person (he/she), the same respect is not accorded them when they're referred to in groups (they), or when directly addressed in conversation (you).
The Shafia trial is disturbing, and as it unfolds, there appears to be plenty of incriminating evidence suggesting systematic abuse of the four women prior to their deaths. If the accused are found guilty, they should naturally be held accountable. But that's no reason to convict the pronouns, or indeed, the entire Farsi and Dari languages along with them.