What’s in a word?

Published August 8, 2017
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

THERE is no mention of the colour blue in ancient texts. Not in early Greek literature, not in Hindu Vedic hymns, not in the original Hebrew Bible, not in ancient Chinese stories or Icelandic sagas.

William Gladstone, the first to notice this through Homer’s Odyssey (‘wine-dark’ seas) wondered if the Greeks were colour-blind. But philologist Gieger found a consistent pattern across different cultures: every language first developed a word for black and white, the next colour to come into existence was red, and after yellow and green, blue was always the last to show up, at times centuries later. People in ancient times could see it of course, but they couldn’t recognise it. The Himba tribe in Namibia still doesn’t have a word for it and still cannot identify it in a colour palette.

How far does language shape our worlds? Can we register something, understand it and grapple with it if we don’t have a word for it? The lack of a word ensures we cannot discuss it, but since words also structure thoughts, does that mean we cannot think about or perceive it? This article is about rape. But in shifting the perception lag from colours to humans, let’s start with an easier example.

Historically, children became adults without teens as a transition category. So while people have been 14, 15, 16 years old throughout history, they were adults. Adolescence is a modern social construction. Questions of whether teenagers should labour and toil or not, fight in wars or not, or be married off or not would have made no sense to anyone before the 19th century. They still make no sense to those outside the ambit of modernity. Issues of adolescence could emerge only after adolescence was recognised, even though it was already present as an age cohort.

Much to activists’ frustration, there’s no local word for rape.

Now let’s shift this further, to a problem that has frustrated women activists for decades. There is no local word for rape.

Part of my first full-time job was to interview distraught women survivors of violence to prepare case briefs for lawyers at a legal aid centre. And I didn’t have the vocabulary to inquire about rape. When they tried to tell me themselves, I’d spend 20 minutes telling them they were wrong, that no one had looted their izzat and hurmat (dignity and respect) because those were innate.

Zyaadati spanned everything, from withheld promotions to unfair accusations. Zabardasti could range from forced marriage to forced work to forced confinement at home. We had no way of framing and jointly understanding what had happened to her. At times, I’d look at the women and simply ask, “Did he?” And they would simply nod. Our shared understanding was the knowledge of unspoken horrors.

There was also the legal term ‘zina bil jabr’, translating to ‘forced adultery’, which is firstly a term no one knows; secondly, is a contradiction in terms; and thirdly, it’s ludicrous.

These roundabout terms further reinforce the stigma attached to rape, that it should not be directly acknowledged. Naari Tehreek coined a new word, ‘zabarjinsi’. Women writers have also tried, though the terms still haven’t taken hold. So the question remains, can we understand the experience of sexualised subjugation when we have no conceptual architecture to even recognise it? The viciousness against women following public accusations of rape and harassment illustrates as much cluelessness as misogyny.

Once you see blue, you cannot un-see it. But there is a difference between seeing something involuntarily, like turning towards a window and seeing a tree, and looking at something, which requires intention and attention. We can and do see women’s suffering without actually looking at it.

Optimism about social change is more about coldness than naivety. It requires an insensitivity that social activists shouldn’t even have, of stepping away from the horrendous daily violence, its broken or brittle survivors, the apathy of officials and society’s indifference, to a distance where each case becomes merely a plot point on a graph of changing trends. Yet it’s the activists and engaged citizens who need to see change most, otherwise outrage congeals into cataracts of bitterness. So here’s the uplift. Recognition can be forced. And language can be co-opted.

Postscript: I heard Punjabi being sung before I ever heard it being spoken. Every wedding, women would sing the folksong Jugni to the beat of the dhol, relishing the idea of a liberated female travelling to places from Multan to Calcutta, observing quirky customs and sampling cuisines along the way. The song is actually about the torch commemorating 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, her golden jubilee. Like the Olympic flame, the torch was carried across the British Empire. ‘Jugni’ is the vernacular distortion of ‘jubli’ which itself is a distortion of ‘jubilee’. Imperial pomp and the roaming torch co-opted to reflect women’s longings to take flight.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

nazishbrohi.nb@gmail.com

Twitter: @Nazish_Brohi

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2017

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