September 29, 2008

A thought on semantics

A COMMON FEATURE of most fights in India, whether they be in the public or the private domain, is the use of the phrase, “wear bangles.” Having heard it in at least five languages at last count, I have come to the conclusion that the purpose of hurling it at a man appears to be an attempt to emasculate him by labeling him weak and ineffective. It’s interesting, this line, spoken with contempt, as if the world at large is expected to know that those who wear bangles are helpless, shackled as they are by their gender.

Another commonly hurled abuse is “hijra”, meaning eunuch. Again, always said to a man. No woman is called one, and it wouldn’t be an offense anyway, because everyone knows that womankind is hanging off the lowest rung of the power ladder, where even the otherwise unfortunate third gender is “stronger”. What’s almost amusing is how men take serious offense at the seeming threat to their manhood, which is invariably defined by physical strength. It would all work wonderfully in the hunter-gatherer context, but since we pretend to live in civilized society, could we please stop for a minute and question why it is so terrible to be called a woman or a non-male? No, don’t tell me “You’re not a man, so you won’t understand.” Give me a rational explanation for being so affronted. When you’re done packing the ego away, of course. Take your time. I’ll play clink-the-bangles while I wait.

16 comments to A thought on semantics

  • You can add to the list the common but bizarre use of ‘gay’ as an epithet. I’ve never understood why I’m supposed to feel insulted when someone claims I’m homosexual.

  • D

    “Why is it so terrible to be called a woman?” you ask.

    Well, considering that just about all the abuses hurled at men are related to women’s anatomy or women in general, that should not be so difficult to understand.

  • I would not really agree that the third gender are perceived to be better than women. They are basically outcasts and are treated like one.

  • Jayshree

    I just discovered this this blog and I love it!

    Just wanted to add a little side note about the “hunter gatherer” deal. The HG theory is a myth and although there is evidence to finally shred this universally held theory to pieces it is going to take a lot to shake this one loose.

    Gerda Lerner’s “History of Patriarchy” lays out the source of this theory.

    Love what you are doing with this blog!

  • jiri

    It is the concept of “insult” that intrigues me. Why should I react in any way to a false statement about me?

  • It always irritated me when my parents compared having me is similar to having a boy! Well, I dont blame them, it’s very general mentality of most of the Indian families. My parents only meant to convey how I am no less then a boy, and can do all that is done by a boy in general, for them.

    But seeing the reverse case, if some boy is equated to having a girl by his parents, I bet he would feel offended !!

  • on distributing sand as prasad from the Pokhraan nuclear tests, Advani said out loud, ‘we are not eunuchs anymore’. hmmm!! a nation without a land of eunuchs and women i suppose!

  • Sejal: As a matter of fact, my mom did the reverse comparison all the time – usually while competing with other mothers about how much their children helped out around the house – and I can’t say I ever felt offended. A little worried that this was a prelude to my being given more chores to do, perhaps, but not offended.

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Falstaff: 🙂 Yeah, that’s another frequently-used one. I was hoping folks would chime in with other abuses. (Umm, that didn’t come out the way I meant it to.)

    D: So my next question would be: what is so terrible about a woman’s anatomy that one should feel insulted? I’m suddenly feeling quite offended that someone would take such offense to a vagina!

    Apurva: That was an attempt at sarcasm. 🙂

    Jayshree: Thank you and welcome. 🙂 I’ll take a look at the links.

    Jiri: It could because of the underlying fear that what is uttered may be perceived to be true by others. But then again, we respond to insults in isolation as well, so perhaps they are an affront to our self-image, the default setting being “believe before you reject”. Does anyone else have thoughts on this one?

    Sejal: I get where you’re coming from. Apparently my grandfather always told my mother with great pride, “You’ve taken a son’s place.” And I remember asking her as a child, “Why do you have to be a son to do everything you’ve done for him?”

    m0rph3us: …..a nation best known by a MAN who preached non-violence. Ironic.

    Falstaff (if I may respond to your comment to Sejal): So what did your mom say? “Oh, he’s such a girl, he helps around the house” ??? 😀

  • Dilnavaz: Ya, pretty much. Sample conversation:

    Random Aunty: “Wonderful party, Mrs. F.”

    Mom: “Thank you”

    RA: “I don’t know how you do it. All by yourself too.”

    M: “Oh, my son helps out.”

    RA: “Your son? Really?”

    M: “Ya, sure. He’s very well trained. It’s almost like having a daughter.”

    smiles sweetly in direction of yours truly

    “Beta, go and make aunty some more tea.”

    Of course, my mom also goes around telling people how she always wanted a daughter, but has come around to believing in sons. So when she compares me to a girl she means it as a compliment.

  • I guess most insults are ‘traditionally’ insulting. And many of them deal with anatomy ‘below the belt’, as it were.
    Yes, many guests have been more than slightly surprised by seeing my sons make tea or lay the table.
    Even the ‘wearing bangles’ bit is so untrue, most of the time, in being associated with weakness and helplessness.
    So many bangle wearers bring up their children with only token support from their men.
    I guess we need to find some new, politically correct and relevant insults.

  • Jayshree

    Returned to this post and had some more thoughts…..

    Language is a tool we use to both create and express a system of ideas that we then call culture. There is a much larger pattern that emerges when semantics are analyzed in the context of gender roles. Semantics are not just a reflection of currently crystallized gender roles but also one of the magic wands used to create and then enforce gender roles in our culture.

    It’s less about why it is insulting to be called a a sissie, a girl or a eunuch and more about the larger “pattern” that emerges about the lowly place of women in a male-centric world. Insults evolve in the context of cultural value systems and so do compliments.

    According to Allan Johnson (The Gender Knot) the following words had a complete different connotation a few hundred years ago.
    Crone – A wise old woman who offered counsel and guidance.
    Bitch – Originally associated with Diana the goddess of the hunt.
    Witch – A midwife, healer and someone who knew herbs well.

    Note that the male equivalent for each of the above words does not carry the same negative connotations. So language is merely re-iterating and reflecting the basic premise of male superiority that our patriarchal world is built upon.

    “Wear Bangles” – Women are not active or aggressive they are passive and basically do nothing but look pretty. They wouldn’t want to break those dainty bangles would they?

    “Hijra” – You are less than a man now, you almost had it and lost it (?) I suppose that is worse than never having it, i.e. manhood. Interestingly enough gay men are subject to more homophobic attacks than gay women. Gay men represent a bigger threat to what it means to be a man than gay women (?) I suppose.

    “You are not a man so you won’t understand.” – I actually see parallels between this statement and the whole idea of “the white man’s burden” to civilize the rest of the world. Do any of you see it?

    Okay, I’m now done ranting.

  • ar sh

    Back when 15/16, I used to, and still spend, endless times at the window staring into space, into the pores between the leaves…Worried that I should be spending my time better, meaning, studying for school, she infuriates into “you should have been a girl. i wouldn’t have to worry and would just marry you off and you can survive as a housewife.” I stare back at her only for a moment, for, if more, the banter of rabid comments increase, and think about the weak generalization involved there. On the other hand, I liked the same as I felt that I’m not like other so called “boys”, that I’m rebelling, on hindsight.

    But, yeah, unthinking human beings get swept into the tide of generalizations of society. So was mom. I still like the description of being compared to a girl, as the act of rebelling, of not being part of the crowd is sweet (as sweet as being part of the crowd is for some others, as I’m realizing).

  • Dilnavaz Bamboat

    Falstaff: Can’t win, huh? 😉 I suppose gender roles are so deeply ingrained, they’re very, very hard to uproot/alter.

    Dipali: @So many bangle wearers bring up their children with only token support from their men– Absolutely! And that role is taken for granted although it’s a 24/7 position with no sick days or vacation time.

    Jayshree: I see it. 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

    ar sh: Not belonging works for some of us, but the pressure to conform is so tremendous, most people end up acquiescing. Good for you, though, that you could stand your ground. That remark about “surviving as a housewife” is offensive. May I ask what your mother does?

  • BoratFan

    Hi, I fully agree with you that Indian insults are mostly about seeking to lower male pride by “equating” them to women. But I must tell you this kind of thing happens in the West too. In the series ‘Family Guy’, there was a line used by a character (Brian) to taunt an off-duty cop for not doing something he was challenged to do, which was something like “do you keep your badge right next to your tampons?”. And British guys use the word ‘gay’ as an insult all the time.

  • BoratFan

    And I don’t mean to sound racist, but a spade is a spade. People from Muslim countries like Turkey and the Arab world also use these kind of insults frequently and even use insults directed to the guy’s mother or sister. Similar to the ones in India like “teri ma/behen ke ****”. The worst swear word in Arabic is one that translates to a receptive gay.

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