Malini Gopalakrishnan explains how the language of oppression is ingrained into our collective psyche
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” – Angela Carter
A couple of months ago, I attended a small event – the culmination of a campaign on safety in public spaces for girls and women. The event began with one of the guests – a television presenter from a leading local channel – taking the stage to explain why he was endorsing the cause. He began earnestly, “I am here for three people: my mother, my wife, and my daughter. As men we should respect women, and protect our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.”
Here we were, a large majority of ‘educated’ adults supporting a poignant cause for our times and this is the best we can come up with? A rendition of the quip that I un-fondly refer to as the Ma-Behen rule – ‘Ghar pe maa behen nahi hai kya?’ (Do you not have a mother or a sister?)
It irks me every time someone takes that tack to condemn violence. What does that dog-eared argument imply? It implies that a woman deserves to not be violated only because of being a female relative – someone whose protection and ‘honor’ is a man’s responsibility. It assigns a value to a woman, a set of traits that deem whether or not she is worthy someone’s respect. Just their sense of proprietorship.
The other problem with this line of thought is dare she digress from those traits, she is clearly inviting whatever trouble befalls her. Her dressing, her lifestyle, her opinions, her choices are all indicators of this template. This argument takes away from any talk of rights such as freedom, equality, dignity, and safety; it takes away from a woman being treated as a human being. Standing atop a floodlit stage and speaking those words into his microphone, looking straight into the whirring cameras, the presenter was not advocating women’s rights. He sent out an incredibly sexist message that despite its glittery packaging, reeked of oppression. It got me thinking about how much the language of oppression is ingrained into our collective psyche. We speak this language, we trivialize the magnitude of its effect, and yet it perpetuates the cycle of discrimination, inequality and violence.
Sexism in Language
Do you remember your first brush with sexist language? For me, it was when I was about 6 years old. My father had taken my sister me and me for a haircut. He firmly told the barber to cut our hair short, clear of the nape of the neck and ears. It was our usual – low on maintenance and high on comfort. My father was trying to explain, when the barber suddenly interjected – “You mean a ‘boy cut’? Why didn’t you say so before?”
It was my first introduction to gender norms; I am privileged to come from a family where my parents were equal partners, shared the workload, and had equal say in the big decisions. It was years before I realised the significance of my father asking my mother to back up his Ambassador. She was better at reversing, he always said.
The world outside of home however, was packed with gendered speak. Analogies such as – ‘crying like a girl’, ‘throwing like a girl’, ‘sitting like a boy’, ‘boy-cut’, ‘girly voice’, ‘tomboy’, ‘be a man’ were scattered recklessly . These analogies created a template for what is deemed acceptable behaviour for girls and boys – a clear distinction between masculine and feminine. The dichotomy was all too well-defined.
The language of the education system itself was loaded with fermentations of sexism: In his study, Women and Sexism: Language of Indian School Textbooks, Narendra Nath Kalia analysed both English and Hindi textbooks prescribed to over 13 lakh students, and found textbooks to be ‘male-entered’ with ‘token attempts to include women’. In the article, he remarks upon the use of ‘man’ as a generic term as well as the ascendants of the word – ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ to represent humans at large. There are of course several gems to pick out: ‘A great step for mankind’, ‘man’s best friend’, ‘man-made’, ‘all men are mortal’, ‘meet death like a man’ are a few that made it to the top of the list.
This problem also extends to the sexist classification of occupations where the suffix ‘man’ is used to define an occupation– ‘businessman’, ‘congressman’, ‘sportsman’, ‘chairman’, ‘cameraman’, ‘fireman’ or ‘policeman’. Roles that do not already carry this marker are often assigned markers – male nurse, lady doctor, lady constable, and so on.
Gender collocations–The language of oppression
It has always struck me how we talk differently to boys and girls. Why is it that our voices take a higher pitch and a sing song when we talk to toddling little girls – “Pretty baby” we say, “She’s such a doll!” we coo, “Little princess,” we christen, “Isn’t that a pretty dress?”we gush, “She is such a sweet child”, we decide. Yes we decide that when we speak to girls, we treat her like a piece of fine china. Lovely to look at, delicate, and quite frankly, made to serve
These girls grow up into women, those words don’t leave her. I can attest that in my twenties, I spent so much energy and time trying not to look like a bitch. Softening my words, being polite, not seeming ‘too aggressive’ – I can’t remember anyone telling me to behave a certain way. But there it was, a message etched into my psyche. In the adult world there are new words – words ‘nasty women’ all over the world hear.
Simply voicing one’s opinion could earn you anything from a – ‘bossy’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘feisty’ to ‘ball-buster’, ‘bitch’, or even ‘dominatrix’. And honestly, being a woman is only part of an identity. Why then does it have to be constantly highlighted – ‘women-leader’, ‘lady driver’, ‘working mother’, ‘mompreneur’?
What about boys? Waiting for a cab outside an airport one day, I overhead a young mother yelling at her pre-teen son, asking him to jump over an open drain. She bellowed, “Just jump! Don’t stand there cowering like a little girl!” She was hassled no doubt and rushing to get home with her children. The boy, now red-faced with embarrassment, jumped across without further ado.
There are versions of this that boys grow up with – “Don’t be a pussy!”, “Grow a pair!”, “balls of steel”, “Be a man!” “Boys don’t cry!” Empathy and sensitivity are ironed right out of boys and men. They are shamed for feeling anything except rage and anger – those ‘manly’ emotions. So wherever there should be space to process natural emotions such as sadness, grief, anxiety, nervousness, fear, jealousy, it is replaced by anger – the emotion made masculine.
Language and Rape Culture
The problem with sexist language is that it perpetuates a system of already deeply-rooted patriarchy and gender-based discrimination while also trivialising the connotation of oppression it bears. Let’s take the example of the Ma-Behen rule. While on the surface of it, the phrase might seem innocent enough, it perpetuates an idea of women as an extension of a man’s property. The only way to talk about ending gender-based violence (or any sort of violence really) is to define actions as violence – the criminal act of defiling a human being’s basic rights.
What if a girl/woman looks nothing like a man’s idea of what his female relative should look like? What if she is wearing a short dress, paints her lips a hot red, traipses along in high heels and is almost always in the company of male friends. Indeed, what an outrage if she also smokes and drinks! What then? What if a man, looking at a woman, sees no likeliness to a relative? Does he then get a free pass to be inhumane? She is after all acting like a ‘slut’ and ‘asking for it’. Isn’t she? Can he be blamed to think that she’s ‘desperate’ or a ‘tease’.
The problem with this line of thinking and this language is – it keeps this oppressive line of thinking alive. It is everywhere shining down upon the masses from glittering screens which toss ‘consent’ out of the window. Lyrics that through the ages have gone from ‘Tu haan kar yaa naa kar… tu hai meri Kiran” (Whether you say yes or no, you are mine, Kiran), to “Mat tadpa aise tu… Na kar na insaafi… Jo galti karne wala hu uske liye… Pehle se hi mangta hu maafi…” (Don’t torture me like this, don’t be so unfair, I am going to make a mistake, I ask for forgiveness beforehand.)
Some time back, there was a huge controversy surrounding an ‘A-list’ actor, in an interview, compared the exhaustion he feels after shooting physically challenging stunts to feeling ‘like a raped woman’. An acquaintance argued with me about how big a deal it was, saying that the actor should be appreciated for his work as an artist and not everything that comes out of his mouth.
What this person failed to understand is that the offhand and casual reference to a vicious crime that is debilitating to its victims was a big enough deal; to top it off, such statements and jokes by a celebrity with as large a following as this actor had enormous implications for society. It was nothing short of an endorsement of flippant disregard for violence.
Now that it has passed, I can safely remark (one does worry these days) that the month of August has a tendency to stir us all up. An Independence Day in the offing does tend to spark up some dormant patriotism, some zealous albeit unmerited pride at being born an Indian.
The tricolour flies high and is plastered onto all manner of novelty items. Each year, the festivities seem a little more riotous and get a lot more commercial – the near century’s worth of the ‘freedom struggle’ that effectively ended the British Raj making for no more than cameo material for schools’ festivities.
But, freedom – that elusive right – slips out of focus just as the lens zooms in. How often do we introspect the meaning of that right? Have we become so complacent that we forget that our struggle against oppression isn’t over?
In Hyderabad, a voice of dissent seemingly rose out of the tricolour-lit run up to I-Day – a campaign advocating safety as a right for girls and women. It was something I had been thinking about for months. I was frustrated, livid, and exhausted – of constantly watching over my shoulder, keeping my guard up, worrying about taking the secluded road home at night. I’d had enough of worrying about my daughter going to the park alone, of sending and receiving ‘I’m home safe’ texts, of letting place and time dictate how ‘modestly’ I could dress.
More than anything, I was tired of the climate of apathy, oppression, intolerance, violence. Statistics alone should to be enough to wipe out denial – according to a survey conducted by ActionAid in 2014, majority of women in India have experienced harassment and violence in public spaces – ranging from staring, catcalling, lewd comments to groping, flashing, molestation and rape.
How does it affect a society when half of its stakeholders are not at liberty to exist without fear – go to school/college, go to work, go shopping, have social engagements, partake in recreational activities –without constantly watching over their shoulders? Does a culture where violence is a given and fear is woven into armour by practised fingers, trumpet freedom?
Artist Ashley Fairbanks created a poignant graphic of how language lays the foundation for violence. Every ‘Fuck you’, ‘Suck it’, ‘Son-of-a-bitch’ is strengthening this foundation. The truth is this – if we are to hope to achieve equality and fight long-standing social challenges like early marriage, gender-based violence, dowry, or female infanticide, we need to weed out our collective language of this deep-rooted sexism, apathy and oppression. Let our language reflect the gender-equitable, symbiotic and progressive society that we all wish to be a part of.
Malini Gopalakrishnan is a development communication professional currently working with VOICE 4 Girls, a Hyderabad-based NGO. This article was originally published on Feminism In India and re-published here with their permission.