POLITICS OF LANGUAGE

Naming the experiences of women

Habiba Nowrose | Published: 04:30, Feb 21,2017

 
 

AS A development worker I have dealt with a few cases of violence against women. One of them took place in a village named Buripota in Meherpur. This case was reported in a local newspaper, Dainik Samayer Samikaran, on November 8, 2016. A man named Russel, son of Rajjak, was sexually harassing a young girl of Class Seven on a regular basis for several months. He desired to marry her without her consent. During Eid holiday, she was out to attend some festivities. Russel blocked her way and grabbed her by hands. She was shaken and outraged, told her father about the assault. Her father confronted Russel at a local street corner for assaulting her daughter and slapped him. At one stage, few of the relatives from the girl’s side assaulted four people of the offender side with knife. Russel’s family filed a case against the four assailants of the girl’s family including the father. The accused were arrested and a few days later, they were granted bail. Since then they had to stay out of the village as the offender’s side was threatening them. However, they were able to return with the villagers’ assurance that they won’t be harmed. Fifteen days after their return, the father of the girl, Nuh Nobi, was attacked on a village street with iron rod, hammer and other local tools. Not only the father was injured in the attack, but also those who came in to his rescue including the uncle, mother and the girl herself were injured. Later Nuh Nobi, her father succumbed to his injury in a local hospital. The family accused Russel and his associates of killing Nuh Nobi.
From the development organisation I work with, we decided to work on the case and supported our partner organisation to organise a press conference and human chain to create pressure on the local law enforcing agencies. Once the reports of these events were published, I was puzzled to see that instead of ‘Sexual harassment’ the crime against the girl was regarded as ‘Eve Teasing.’ The security of school going girls and the law and order situation at the district level left me profoundly perplexed and worried. What was bothering me that even in the case of sexual harassment in which a murder was involved, the development workers themselves are using terms like ‘eve teasing.’
According to Oxford dictionary, the word tease means ‘make fun of or attempt to provoke (a person or animal) in a playful way’. Eve on the other hand refers to ‘the first woman, companion of Adam and mother of Cain and Abel (in the Bible).’ When we use the term ‘Eve Teasing’ to name a punishable crime that is sexual violence not only are we trivialising the grave injustice but also we are serving the purpose of patriarchy by rendering violence against women invisible and letting the offenders off the hook.
I came across a debate on this issue in the book ‘Pathe Bipade: Meyeder Nirapatta’ by an Indian feminist scholar Vashshoti Chokroborti which was published in 2004. She argued that ‘The word Eve teasing does not have any meaning. Eve does not mean only woman, it means primitive woman. Here two things are worth noticing. Any woman, every woman essentially has only one real identity — she is primitive, naked woman. Hence she can be ‘teased’ anywhere in any situation — if this word is used a tone of joke can persist.’
Often even the victims of sexual assault refuse to use the term ‘sexual harassment’ to describe their experience. Once in a group discussion with online activists and bloggers, I have witnessed their clear unwillingness to use the term ‘sexual harassment’ instead of ‘eve teasing’. This phenomenon is not exclusive in South Asia. Allison M Thomas and Celia Kitzinger in their book, ‘Sexual harassment, contemporary feminist perspectives’ mentioned similar tendencies among women from the western countries. They wrote, ‘…it is clear from all the research to date that many women remain uncertain as to which behaviours properly qualify as sexual harassment, and are unwilling to label male behaviour in this way…’ My interpretation is that their refusal to use terms like sexual assault or sexual harassment is clearly a manifestation of women’s struggle to cope with the shame associated with being a victim of sexual harassment. Their lack of awareness on this issue makes them believe that if the true nature of violence is kept invisible they are better equipped to cope with the social stigma associated with sex crimes which men are responsible for.
According to several sources the term ‘sexual harassment’ was initially coined in the mid 1970s in North America. It was adopted in UK in the early 1980s. The power of this labelling enabled women to identify a piece of everyday experience as a form of violence, which is experienced by many women. Before 1970s the term did not exist. Men’s act of sexually harassing women was literally a problem without a name. This labelling can be regarded as one of the most significant cases of renaming the world based on women’s experiences. Hence it is not a matter of wonder that naming men’s behaviour as ‘sexual harassment’ faced significant backlash all over the world. This backlash that is anti-feminist in nature tries to restore men’s power of naming the world and experiences. Language, through which thoughts are experienced are infused with the men’s definition of the world. It is this masculine power of naming and defining the world that sets the boundary of what women can express and what they cannot. Every effort of women’s emancipation is either with this power of naming or against it. It is one of the tenets that sustain male supremacy. Feminist struggle challenges men’s power of naming in order to gain the ability of naming and defining the world on behalf of women and other minority groups who are marginalised by patriarchy. This is why using labels or names which are feminist in nature have a great significance not only on language but also on how our future generation of women will perceive this world. I can add another example of how important it is to label experiences from the perspective of the marginalised.
The Repression on Women and Children (Prevention) Act 2000, amended in 2003, explains what is rape, ‘If any person without marriage has sexual intercourse with woman more than 16 years without her consent or intimidating or fraudulently obtaining her consent or with a woman under 16 years with her consent or without her consent he shall be presumed to have raped the said woman/he is said to commit rape.’ This definition of rape does not include anything such as marital rape or sexual violence within marriage. Considering the extent of domestic violence in Bangladesh, it is not far-fetched or unsubstantiated assumption that marital rape occurs. This definition clearly disregards the concept of consent for married woman. It is undoubtedly patriarchal to perceive that married women are obliged to have sex whenever and however their husbands wish to. Naming women’s experience as marital rape will shade light on how their human rights are being violated within marriage. This can eventually pave their way to get justice. This will also shape the perception of future generation of men and women in a more positive way.
I have mentioned only a few features of the vast area where amendments should be done. Finally on this regard I would like to recollect one of my favourite quotes by Andrea Dworkin, ‘As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so feminists will have to steal the power of naming from men, hopefully to better effect.’

Habiba Nowrose is a development professional and freelance photographer.

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