The Problem With India's Violence Against Women Starts At The Linguistic Level
The clear lack of words, in Hindi and other Indian vernaculars, to describe feminine reproductive organs, feminine hygiene or women’s reproductive rights, says a lot about a country plagued by violence against women and rampant rape culture.
Have you — who do not read or write in the Indian vernaculars — ever wondered about the semantic problem faced when writing about sexual abuse in Hindi?
Working on a book on the reproductive health of India’s rural women a decade ago, I was taken aback by India's vernaculars’ near uniform lack of a clear terminology for feminine reproductive organs, feminine hygiene, or clinically graphic discussions on women’s reproductive rights and wrongs.
Like Hindi, in Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Punjabi and Haryanvi, I was told the only commonly used terms for "sex" and "sexual pleasure", were available in a crude gutter language, straight out of all-male gatherings, street sex and our traditional country and pop songs, all of which celebrate male sexuality and see women as a sum total of their private parts.
Obviously one can not use that kind of language without belittling the importance of health issues and women’s self esteem. That leaves women health workers and Hindi writers like me feeling both needy and also embarrassed and angry.
Terminology deemed rude and offensive
A few years later all hell broke loose when an unsuspecting couple – husband, a doctor and wife, a psychiatrist – running an NGO in Uttarakhand, published a Hindi version of their handbook on the state of reproductive health in the area and (given the large male migration) how to prevent women from catching sexually transmitted diseases or STDs and AIDS.
The Hindi translator had used several terms that may be acceptable and normal in the English, but in the terminology used in the Hindi version, they were deemed rude and highly offensive by the locals. Since the couple that headed the organisation was also trying to create an outreach for Dalit women and talked of the need to rise above the caste system, the local priests had also harboured a deep anger against them. Encouraged by them, the villagers informed the police and asked that they be charged for discussing obscene defamatory material with simple hill folk. It took a lot of effort from friends and family to help get the couple out of jail after several months, during which time their eight-year-old daughter had to be escorted to their home in Kolkata to be cared for by her grandparents.
Just what is it about a frank discussion of unequal sexual relationships and sexual abuse of women that leads to red faces and/or an outburst like we witnessed in the parliament recently?
In a country where a male political leader can publicly boast of the size of his chest as proof of his virile leadership qualities and be applauded, can a woman display her body and assert her claim to being an influencer? Can she do so without being labeled as immoral? And while a troll army is let loose on her, won’t the political leadership try to hush and ridicule her defenders and lead the debate into the dense maze of whataboutery?
Kashmir female labourers transplant rice saplings during the sowing season in Awanti Pora, 40km (30 miles) South of Srinagar, in Indian administered Kashmir.
Mubashir Hassan/Pacific Press via ZUMA
Blaming the victims
Some academics who stand by the government, consider mere anecdotal or video clippings of sexual abuse inadequate without statistical evidence and hard data. But given the pushback on data gathering by recognised governmental bodies, the stance is questionable.
By now we have multiple graphic and well researched media stories about female victims like Geetika Sharma, Jessica Lal, and the six women wrestlers who filed sexual harassment cases against the powerful politicians with a record of intimidatory past with many criminal cases filed against them and then mysteriously dismissed. But upon casting a dispassionate look at the statements made on various fora, including state assemblies and the parliament, it appears that many of our public leaders, law enforcement authorities and even media reporters, are convinced that a woman’s sexuality does not belong to her the way a man’s does.
Our girls are systematically deprived of the language of sex and sexuality.
It is family property and a man (father, brother, husband or fiancé) is the prime custodian. If ever she is sexually abused, her being out alone becomes an acceptable point to blame the victim for. Ultimately, police and authorities all consider it normal that her male guardians take the matter to the law courts and report it as an issue involving their family’s good name. The victim herself thus becomes, not de jure but de facto, only half a witness.
"Where are your videos, audios and incriminating messages to substantiate your charges against the perp?" the police had asked Olympic medal winning wrestlers. Even a suicide note by Geetika Sharma, an air hostess, detailing how she was harassed, stalked and repeatedly molested by her employer, was considered inadequate evidence and the perp has had charges against him dropped.
Deprived of the language of sex
Rape, when all is said and done, is a sex crime. Most perps get away with it because if it can be made to look like consensual sex it is not regarded as a crime. The male perp can then claim an ungendered neutral ground for affirming (heterosexual) sex and rejecting charge of violence. No wonder there is talk of banning live-in relationships. As we know, these can lead to many jilted females, or, after they are found murdered, can lead to cases filed against the male partner.
In Maharashtra, Dr Rani Bang, a Harvard educated gynaecologist long working in a remote tribal area, Gadhchiroli, handed me a booklet titled Kanosa ("Whispered"). It is a painstaking compilation of terms gathered from her female tribal patients. These terms had been, she told me, invented by generations of women to whisper many sordid and worrisome facts about their sexual lives, along with long term humiliations and sexually transmitted diseases, otherwise suffered in silence.
The details I gathered and documented finally showed how our girls are systematically deprived of the language of sex and sexuality and lacking any basic self affirming sense of their own vital role as a partner in sex, give predatory men a huge advantage.
In the Hindi media, euphemisms are used copiously for victims of rape.
This, together with available hard data from NCRB, reveals enquiry into rape, sexual harassment, incest and child sexual abuse all show that politics is power and that males have co-opted an inordinately large part of it through tradition and male bonding. We must remember also that such power is a diffused entity. It is not lodged in any one place in particular. It is everywhere from sleazy red light areas to board rooms, from school buses to university seminar halls and to highways where raped women are paraded with impunity.
From various instances of rape used as a revenge weapon, it is clear how eroticized dominance – political, domestic and professional – defines masculinity in India. And the permissible ways for treating women deferentially (like the sniggering "ladies first!" and gallant opening of doors, or offering help in banks and shops to compute the bills assuming women are techno duffers) are also located in underlying male sexual interests. They function on the unstated requirement that women must play dumb and compliant.
Mr̥ṇāla Pāṇḍe (Mrinal Pande) presenting her book Sahela Re.
Vidya Shah via Facebook
Addressing sexual violence against women
I watch TV debates carefully for the semantic clues that they provide to the Indian mind. Even among the liberals, sexual freedom is increasingly being interpreted in TV debates as women being allowed to express their sexuality freely, like men. Despite women being largely deemed male property, most men do not treat women in law or life, with the same tender solicitude with which they care for their other properties. So in the Hindi media, euphemisms are used copiously for victims of rape – uski izzat lut gayi ("her honour is looted"), uski zindagi tabaah ker di ("ruined her life"), usko kahin ka nahin chhoda ("made her unacceptable anywhere"), or uske sath munh kaalaa kiya ("blackened his/their faces by copulating with her"), and so on.
What can self-respect and pride come to mean to a constantly targeted species in a rape culture?
Men who sexually harass women often defend themselves by saying women are temptresses. They harass them first, by dressing provocatively or laughing in their face or making fun of them while refusing their proposal or sexual advances. What they really mean is that they are aroused by women who defy them. The assumption that what women really want from men is what men want from women makes male force against women excusable if not invisible.
If we are to really understand and address the phenomena of sexual violence against women, we need to go beyond happily accepting (usually useless) sops such as knives with three-inch blades or cans of chilly powder or tin whistles.
We need to ask a different set of perilous questions. Does sexual mechanism in our society have a theory? If yes, how did it get scripted? What can self-respect and pride come to mean to a constantly targeted species in a rape culture?
And finally we must stand the Freudian question on its head: What do men want?
*Mrinal Pande is a writer and veteran journalist.
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