By Rahnuma Ahmed
November 13, 2015
01Sexually abusive language: Do words matter?
IT WOULD seem from news reports, that they do.
Rehtaeh Parsons, a Canadian girl in her teens, went to a small party where everyone soon began drinking, she was then allegedly gang-raped by four boys. Photos of the attack were distributed on the internet. According to Rehtaeh’s mother Leah Parsons, “She was never left alone. She had to leave the community. Her friends turned against her. People harassed her. Boys she didn’t know started texting her and Facebooking her, asking her to have sex with them. It just never stopped. People texted her all the time, saying ‘Will you have sex with me?’ Girls texting, saying, ‘You’re such a slut.’”
After 17 months, feeling “deeply depressed and rejected by her community” (Huff Post, September 4, 2013) unable to withstand the bullying any longer, Rehtaeh, then 17, took her life.
Fourteen-year-old Moushumi Akhter was abducted by 22-year-old Sujan Miah on December 14, 2014 (Dhaka Tribune, December 21, 2014). He had been stalking her for three years. She was rescued the next day. An arbitration meeting was held, two of the members called her a “prostitute,” she was punished and ordered to do fifty sit-ups while holding her ears. After the fifth, she ran away, went into her room and hanged herself. On being rushed to hospital, the doctors declared her dead.
If women are blamed for being raped, an ideology which finds resonance in cultures distant to each other, how can women, girls and (anti-sexist) men protest against victim-blaming, against “it’s her fault, she asked for it”? Do protestors reject the slut vs non-slut binary, or do they ‘reclaim’ the word slut? (Like “take back the night” marches of the 1970s, a counter to sexual assault).
SlutWalk: ‘Stop slut shame-ing’
The transnational movement named SlutWalk was sparked off by a police officer’s comment at York University, Canada. Constable Michael Sanguinetti told a group of students at a campus safety information session on January 24, 2011, “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this. However, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Students and student organisations were shocked, this was downright victim blaming, it would discourage victims from reporting sexual assault and rape, it would make crimes seem like they were not crimes.
Protests ensued, ‘SlutWalks’ were organised to end “sexual violence, slut shaming and victim blaming”; it became an annual event, and gradually spread to more than 200 cities in the world (Hillary Di Menna, July 14, 2014).
While women taking part in SlutWalks have often dressed up (or down) to press home the point that ‘her clothes (or behaviour) enticed me’ can never justify sexual assault or rape, there is no dress code for SlutWalk marches, since “people are bullied, harassed, assaulted and blamed” regardless of what they wear (Toronto SlutWalk FAQ). SlutWalk is not an NGO, nor does it have any headquarters, people have organised these marches independently according to the contextual demands and needs of the community. In some places, the marches have been rebranded: Solidarity Walk, ConsentFest, Walk of No Shame, Strutwalk.
When feminist theorist Judith Butler was asked about the Turkish SlutWalk in which she had participated, she said, the Ankara protest had been against “transgender women… being killed regularly on the streets…” The march had brought together “transgender women, queer activists, human rights workers and feminists, people who were both Muslim and secular,” all united in the idea that the streets should be free of violence and harassment, they should be safe for all (Truthout, December 15, 2011).
SlutWalk, New Delhi was localised to “match the country’s conservatism.” The Hindi word for “shameless” was added to the event’s title, and instead of focusing on clothes, the march focused more on gender stereotypes in Hindu epics, Bollywood cinema and matrimonial ads. Public debates and street theatre were organised in addition to the march (Rama Lakshmi, July 23, 2011).
But not all subscribe to the idea of SlutWalk, it encountered strong criticism from Black women. In An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk, more than a hundred black anti-violence activists, academics and community leaders while commending the organisers for their bold initiative and large scale mobilisation, expressed concern. As Black women and girls, they said, they find “no space” in participating in SlutWalk, no space for denouncing rape and sexual assaults which have been, and still are, experienced by Black women.
Black women are perceived not on the basis of their dress in the US, but instead by “slavery [which has] constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations,” and the recent struggles of Black female immigrants. For Black Women to re-appropriate the word “slut” validates “already historically entrenched ideology” which has constructed Black women’s bodies as “sexualized objects of property, spectacles of sexuality and deviant sexual desire.”
Self-identifying as “sluts” will set a bad “precedent” for young Black girls, also, for young men, Black fathers, sons and brothers as well. The trivialisation of rape and the absence of justice is interconnected with “race, gender, sexuality, poverty, immigration and community.” Black women cannot afford to chant “dehumanizing rhetoric” against themselves in any movement (issued in Black Women’s Blueprint on September 23, 2011).
Words which were “never ours to begin with,” said the letter-writers, can never be reclaimed.
There was some talk of holding a SlutWalk in Dhaka, but it never materialised (Faruq Hasan, “Sluts unite, but leave the rest of us out!,” Dhaka Courier, August 27, 2011. The article is no longer available on the website).
Maybe the organisers had felt Dhaka was too “conservative.” I don’t know.
I think what matters more is that “bessha” is a patriarchal word thrust upon us, it’s use sidelines, trivialises and devalues the experience of birangonas, it ignores the patriarchal power which defines and controls women’s sexuality, it distracts us from confronting men’s obsession with women’s bodies.
There is nothing to reclaim.
Bangiya Sabdakosh: ‘To be raped is to be a prostitute’
DOES language affect the thoughts of people who use it? Muriel Schulz in her now-classic essay, “The Semantic Derogation of Woman” (1975) says, we don’t know, calculating it would be difficult but what we do know is that language “reflects the thoughts, attitudes, and culture of the people who make it and use it” (emphasis added). This line of enquiry — of how sexism is built into a language — unfortunately fell into disuse when language and gender studies moved on to language usage, and discourse analysis (Hines, 1999).
The English language, Schulz writes, is primarily created and used by men, they also created all else, art, literature, science, philosophy, education etc, and the “language which describes and manipulates these areas of culture.” A close analysis of the language men use reveals “male attitudes, fears, and prejudices concerning the female sex.” Once innocent terms which designate women may gradually acquire negative connotations, for instance, Madam, Miss, and Mistress, all three have derogated (impaired), they no longer denote respectable women but prostitutes and mistresses. Words for domestics also derogate if they refer to women, with many becoming “sexually abusive” (similarly so in Bangla, older words daashi, bandi have sexual overtones whereas counterpart words for men, daash, banda, do not).
While it is true, writes Schulz, that men, regardless of context, think of women in sexual terms, that words which refer to women, when used by male speakers become “sexually suggestive,” nothing inheres in the concept of woman which would automatically taint every word associated with it, “Women are generally acknowledged to be — for whatever reasons — the more continent of the two sexes, the least promiscuous, and the more monogamous.” Men’s jokes, especially sexual ones, “reveal awareness and concern, even anxiety.” Scholars are of the opinion that anxiety can prompt hostility, for instance, Grotjahn, thinks it has to do with sexual inadequacy. “A woman knows the truth about his potency; he cannot lie to her. Yet her own performance remains a secret, a mystery to him. Thus man’s fear of woman is basically sexual,” possibly the reason why words pejorative towards women, have sexual connotations.
Begum Rokeya, the early twentieth-century feminist, had expressed concern over masculine supremacy which was inbuilt into Bangla language. She had bitingly reminded her readers that “shami” (husband) meant lord, and master (“probhu”), as in “bhu-shami,” “griho-shami” (wife or “stree,” by the way, signifies nothing more than “female”). Exhorting women to be rid of “mental enslavement,” she had advised them to refer to their husbands as, for starters, “ordhango” (other half) (Rokeya Rachanavali, 1973).
Inspired by Schulz and Begum Rokeya, I decided to look into words and their meanings, to search out roots, in other words, I reached out for dictionaries. The first was the two-volume Bangiya Sabdakosh, which was originally published in instalments from B 1340–1353 (1932–1946). It was compiled and written by Haricharan Bandyopadhyaya, professor of Sanskrit at Shantiniketan, at the request of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who had asked him to compile a comprehensive dictionary. The Bangiya Sabdakosh is regarded as the most authoritative reference in the Bangla language.
It is common knowledge that the concept of shotitto (female chastity) structures relations of power between men and women, that it is deployed to police caste purity, but I think that the manner in which its tentacles branch out into scores of words, the way in which its poison seeps deep into their roots (etymon), and implants suspicion against woman, has not been adequately researched or investigated. The Western notion of chastity fails to convey the meanings of “shotitto,” its centrality to gender relations in Bengal, embodying as it does, “a whole register of social and moral codes for women encompassing self-sacrifice, uncomplaining service and loyalty to the husband and family” (Vijaya Ramaswami, 2011).
“Dhorshon” (rape) merits a large entry in the Bangiya Sabdakosh,
– the root word “dhorsho,”connotes various negative feelings – hingsha (jealousy), omorsho (intolerance, greed); it also connotes losing out, being subjected to violence – obhibhobho (defeat, attack, suffering). More explicitly gendered meanings are streedushon (defiling a woman), shotidhormonaash (destruction of female chastity).
a rapist is a debauched man (lompot), also, one-who-enters-another’s-wife (porostreegomon), the gendered implication here is obvious, it is not the woman’s lack of consent which matters but her husband’s loss of proprietorship, his sense of deprivation at not being the only one to “enter” his wife (whether consensually or forcefully).
The last cluster of meanings, however, are the worst,
– a raped woman is unchaste, prostitute (oshoti, kulota).
the (patriarchal) logic here is that a woman who has lost her chastity through having been raped has no other place to turn to but the brothel.
Bolatkar fares better, the entry is brief, and although “shotitto” is still a major concern, it is apparent from the meanings that woman’s lack of consent, that sexual intercourse has been forced upon her, that she is being coerced, is conceptually recognised,
– onnay (injustice), ottachar (torture)
– bolpurbok shotittonash (the destruction of chastity by force)
I was pondering the meanings of “dhorshon” and “shotittonash,” feeling aggrieved about why someone hadn’t yet written and compiled a Bangla dictionary of how the meanings of key words have changed over the centuries, how new meanings have attached themselves to words while older ones got discarded, when I thought of looking further into oshoti, kulota. I looked up the different words I knew for bessha, then thought hmm, let’s see what it says for “gonika,” a less used word nowadays, tinged more with courtesan overtones.
I picked up Cholontika, another authoritative dictionary, riffled through, and was shocked to find that ‘democracy’ and ‘prostitute’ share the same root, in the notion of the ‘multitude,’
– gono (mass): shomuho (collective), dol (party), bohubochon shuchok (plural), jonoshadharon (common man, ordinary people)
– gonotontro (democracy): jonoshadharon kortrik rajyadi porichalon (running the kingdom through the rule of the common man)
– gonika (prostitute): bohubhoggo (consumed by many), barangona (harlot), bessha (prostitute)
What little I/we know of the language we speak, the one we identify as our “mother” tongue! — I thought to myself, while wishing someone would do a feminist study of the seismic shifts in terms of cognition which must have taken place in the Bengali Muslim male psyche over the last quarter of a century, with our two women leaders trotting all over the country either promising democracy, or struggling for democracy, or something or the other to do with democracy.
“Rehtaeh Parsons, Canadian Girl, Dies After Suicide Attempt; Parents Allege She Was Raped By 4 Boys,” The Huffington Post, September 4, 2013.
Hillary Di Menna, “Gender Block: SlutWalk Toronto 2014,” this.org, July 14, 2014.
“Bodies in Alliance: Gender Theorist Judith Butler on the Occupy and SlutWalk Movements,” interviewed by Kyle Bella for Truthout, December 15, 2011.
Rama Lakshmi, “Indian women alter SlutWalk to better match country’s conservatism,” washingtonpost.com, July 23, 2011.
Black Women’s Blueprint, “An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk,” blackwomensblueprint.org, September 23, 2011.
Muriel R Schulz, “The Semantic Derogation of Woman” (1975), in Lucy Burke, Tony Crowley (eds), The Routledge Language and Cultural Theory Reader, Routledge, 2000.
Caitlin Hines, “Rebaking the Pie: The woman as dessert metaphor,” in Mary Bucholtz, AC Liang, Laurel A Sutton (eds), Reinventing Identities. The Gendered Self in Discourse, Oxford and New York, OUP, 1999.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Rokeya Rachanavali, edited by Abdul Qader, Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1973
Haricharan Bandyopadhyaya, Bangiya Sabdakosh – a Bengali-Bengali Lexicon, v 1 a–na
Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, first published 1932-1946, 4th edn, 1996.
Vijaya Ramaswamy, “Gender and the Writing of South Indian History,” in Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (ed), Approaches to History: Essays in Indian Historiography, Delhi: Indian Council of Historical Research, 2011.
Cholontika. Adhunik Bongobhashar Obhidhan, Kolikata: MC Sarkar & Sons, Private Ltd., 11th edn, B 1380/1973.