The language of oppression

September 20, 2020

Even if the results of linguistic engineering are mixed, we should try to end or reduce the oppression inherent in certain words or assemblages in everyday use

In the recent rape case on a road (whether Ring Road or the Lahore-Sialkot Motorway is not relevant), many commentators are guilty of committing what I can only describe as ‘verbal oppression’, that is, the use of words, or rather a discourse, which cause a person(s) to feel belittled, disgraced, humiliated or endangered. Let us begin with the terms used for rape: ‘izzat lut gayi’ (honour was robbed), ‘izzat loot li’ (robbed her of her honour), ‘be izzat kiya’ (made her bereft of respect) etc.

In this linguistic assemblage, it is always the woman who loses her honour not the man who is the one who robs it. It should have been the other way around with the society reserving the opprobrium of being dishonoured for the rapist, not his victim. Why we do not have it this way is because women were considered — or so my limited reading of medieval history suggests — goods property belonging to their male relatives. So, the crime of rape was considered a transgression against a man whose property was taken away by force. Women’s bodies were repositories of the clan or family’s honour so they could neither make any decision about these bodies themselves nor, indeed, could other men use their bodies without disgracing the males who were supposed to defend their honour.

This worldview dominates our society even now so that such words are used for women in matters pertaining to their choice of marriage partners and the clothes they choose to wear. In this discourse evil or anything negative is associated with the colour black. Thus the word for a woman who is alleged to have sexual relations with a man outside marriage arranged by her family is kari (black). Given the prejudice South Asian societies have for dark complexions, such vocabulary reinforces all negative things with blackness. In the same way phrases with ‘asmat’ (honour, prestige, respect) used with the conduct of women — like asmat baakhta (one who has lost her honour) and asmat dari (the “taking away” of honour, that is, rape) — are all about men’s control of women’s sexuality.

Promiscuous men are not called asmat baskhta but women “of this type” are. Similarly, though the term karo is used for promiscuous men in Sindhi, men are let off more easily than women in such matters. Women are generally killed. In Urdu, the term kale kartoot (black deeds) can refer to both sexes, but if the deeds are sexual in nature the “blackness” sticks to women far more than men.

The language of punishment in this and similar cases is also part of verbal aggression and comes out of the medieval, patriarchal worldview. For instance, the deterrent punishments (ibrat naak saza) which are suggested, like castration and public hanging, come out of medieval chronicles. Let us consider both these suggested punishments. For castration, the Urdu term is “na mard karna”, that is, to unman somebody, to deprive someone of his identity as a male. The idea which lies behind this phrase is that a proper man is a male who can procreate. All other things a person can do — be compassionate, artistic, productive, brave, companionable, intelligent etc — are simply dismissed and one is measured by the yardstick of the ability to procreate. However, a male person remains very much a male whether he can produce children or not. To assume otherwise creates the Pakistani male attitude of refusing to see a doctor if he does not have children. For him, the fault must lie with his wife and not himself. Human beings are not defined by their sexual abilities, conduct or orientation. They are too complex to be reduced to just one factor in life — and that too one over which they have no control.

Hanging publicly (on a city square or chowk as the TV informs me) for instance, if witnessed by people, makes them callous and insensitive. In any case capital punishment has not deterred criminals in the countries which still have it. And, thirdly, a large number of innocent people have been put to death by mistake. What does work is the certainty and speed of justice, not its heinousness and public exhibition. This is possible if forensic evidence, like the DNA testing is given legal cover. And, as rape survivors are traumatised, the law should not insist that they should appear in public in the court. Police women could record their statement in camera, away from the media. But these changes in the law are not being debated while the ibrat nak saza and na mard karna are. The whole language of the public discourse needs to change and the legal changes should go together with it.

While we are on the subject of verbal oppression, let us consider one which, while not connected with the debates around rape, is otherwise highly relevant. Consider the Urdu translation of secular. It is la deen which literally means ‘without religion’. You can well imagine that if a liberal humanist political scientist only wants to separate the church and the state in governance and uses the term secular for the proposed constitution, what will the Urdu press call him? He will be dubbed ‘la deen’ with the implication that he is an atheist and this is enough to put him out of the debate for good. So, is there an alternative equivalent in Urdu. The term mundane — worldly, pertaining to non-religious domains — could be daher in Urdu but dahiriya is already in use for materialist (in philosophy) which is also taken as equivalent to atheist. So, we are left with the word alam (the world) which would suggest that the term alamiya should be used for secular. Unfortunately, the word alami is in use for international so this slightly changed word will take time to come in currency but it is worth giving it a try.

This brings me to the final section of this article. Can changing words change mindsets? The answer is that it sometimes does. For instance, when the words for males (androcentric generics) were replaced by those which would be applicable to both males and females, at least some care for women’s feelings was injected into linguistic usage. So, we no longer use mankind, we use humankind and ‘he’ no longer stands for both men and women but we use she or he, or s/ he, or they.

On the other hand, there are cases for failures too. For instance, birangona, which means brave woman or heroine in Bengali was the term chosen for women survivors of rape in the 1971 war by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. However, the term soon came to be associated with the history of rape and shame. The term mehtar, which means exalted, came to be used for sweepers and lavatory cleaners but it was the term which lost its meaning while the sweepers remained as despised as a group as they were before. Similarly, the term jamadar (a high-ranking officer under the Mughals, and a military officer below commissioned rank in the Indian army under the British) was used for the same group. The same thing happened to this term also and the jamadars in the Pakistan army were much relieved when they came to be renamed naib-subedars.

Even if the results of linguistic engineering are mixed, this does not mean we should not deliberately try to end or reduce the oppression inherent in certain words we use. The media can help by never calling women dishonoured or kari (black). Also, the press should translate secular as alamiya rather than la deen. The term na mard can also be shunned. However, the root of the matter is the patriarchal, medieval, misogynist mindset we have not only inherited but have also actively promoted through our mindless parroting of the medieval discourse of punishment, blaming and shaming the victim. This will take some time and effort to change which only means that we need to start out by changing what we can immediately, and keep trying to bring about fundamental changes along with it.

The author is an occasional contributor.

The language of oppression