April 05, 2013

Engaging with the elephant in the room: need for a new vocabulary, spaces and dialogue

Scene 1

Neha jumps into the local along with two of her friends. Their chirpy banter fills the space. Her boyfriend is going to join them at the next station. She is beaming with eager anticipation about the day ahead. They are all going for a movie.

The train halts. Enter Gaurav.

After a brief disdainful look he finally blurts out, “Couldn’t you have cared to wax, if you were going to wear a skirt? Oh man! You are going to embarrass me in front of my friends.” The two other girls try to contain their shock and Neha, humiliated and guilty mutters a timid sorry.

My first reaction when one of my friends narrated this incident was to push that guy and his smug, insolent misogyny of that train. But hold on, how many guys will we keep pushing off trains?

Most of us have grown up with early, everyday lessons in ‘who has control over whose body’. We have studied in segregated classrooms where any kind of interaction with ‘the other’ was not only discouraged but even punished.  The solution cannot be found by pointing fingers at ‘them’. But by understanding how this violence is systemic, that our behaviour is informed by the social conditioning we go through, owing to our patriarchal setups.

But what do I do with this understanding after stepping out of my sociology and women’s studies class rooms? Can I go about pushing guys off trains?

Scene 2

Its 9 p.m. The college entire is out. It’s a fest night, the hostel deadlines (for girls) have been relaxed and the campus is abuzz with exhilaration. It is one of those nights when everyone expresses solidarity towards their departments, often marked by wearing the respective departmental t-shirts that the students design.

One such t-shirt catches your eye. It has got some machine parts on it, the functions neatly labelled, announce: Suck! Squeeze! Bang! Blow! Gasp! A brief moment of discomfort bordering on disgust that suddenly turns into confusion when you notice everybody enjoying the ‘joke’ and you eventually join in. Another such t shirt announced something like “attitude in tune” strategically highlighting the letters ‘tit’ twice. Another gasp! But hey! Its ‘harmless’ fun, plus “it’s a ritual, this is what they have been doing since forever”, “it’s an engineering college thing”, “it’s a guy thing, why bother?”.

Well, here’s why it’s worth bothering. Imagine over 200 students (guys) sporting these t-shirts all over the campus. Should we still just gasp! And then feel compelled to laugh along? And manoeuvre our way around this violence and systematic alienation. Learn to survive these masculine spaces by constant negotiation and normalisation? Or would I dare call this violence?

Scene 3

Like most of us, my lazy Sunday morning begins with tea in one hand and clicking open my facebook account with another. One such morning I was greeted with this post on my wall: “You know what rhymes with women’s rights? ——————- Sandwich!”

The cyber space is overflowing with such “humour”.  The whole new lingo that has come into being thanks to the likes of facebook and 9gag is overwhelmingly chauvinist. The other day I saw two guys on campus sporting crisp white t-shirts that announced “bitch please”; which can be roughly translated as a 9gag equivalent of ‘whatever’. I couldn’t even dare to take offense at such ‘humour’ because of its coolness quotient. I would be “overreacting” if I point out the misogyny that is being reproduced through ‘bitch please’, and will be met with ridicule, dismissal, and more misogynistic humour about feminists.

So why are all the cuss words about women? Is this the backlash and how can we even begin to respond?

Scene 4

Another typical facebook post that I came across had two photographs, one of a fair skinned foreigner clad in a sari and another of a group of dark-skinned Indian girls dressed in jeans. The caption said: ‘Shame! Even foreigners love our Indian culture. Our girls need to be taught a lesson’. Apart from the evidently skewed yet dominant ideas that the post propagates, what unnerves me the most is the authority and right that the boys/men extend over women’s bodies.

I bet all of us have endless such stories to tell. They are like the elephant in the room that we do not talk about.


Shrinking spaces!

We need to notice how these ‘new’ and ‘young’ spaces are becoming sites of an active process of depoliticisation. Through the use of humour and the idea of ‘coolness’ those are constantly being encouraged, mass produced, reproduced and normalised everyday. For example the ‘sandwich’ jokes that you bump into everywhere are an example of what some feminists call, retro sexism. The whole idea of retro sexism is that you purposely don’t attempt to conceal the blatant sexism (or racism etc.) and in fact make it more over-the top. Since it is obviously over-the-top and everyone knows what is wrong, it ceases to be offensive, but is rather funny, if anything since it is being ironic somehow and thus not sexist. So it is okay. But it is not.

Sexism is not idle banter. Even though everyone knows it is sexist, the idea of the joke forecloses any space for us to challenge or even question the status-quo. It is this everyday insidious patriarchy that feeds into the greater and more direct structures of violence like ‘rape culture’ complete with their caste, religion, region, class complexities. Constant repetition only reinforces the power dynamics and stereotypes. Further, saying that it is ironic eliminates any scope for dialogue. If I try to question it, I will be overreacting; I need to learn how to chill, because the humourless feminist that I am ‘I just don’t get it’.

The cyber space is a fertile ground where such violence is manifested, though it is also true that the internet allows some space to us to challenge and confront this violence. But I have often experienced that the anonymity and impersonality of such communication renders the confrontation futile after a point of time. In virtual spaces dialogues, debates or even conversations are not of a very sustainable nature. For example something like online petitions, one comes across so many of them everyday. When online we become more witnesses than participants. It is important to engage via these virtual modes but there needs to be a simultaneous effort in bringing these conversations to real life settings. How can we make this space more enabling?

Many people that I came across including myself register many instances as violence but lack the apparatus to deal with it. This apparatus could include confidence, support, strength or something as primary as vocabulary. What language can we employ to counter the consumerist, ad-friendly, dissent-unfriendly, schizophrenic, middle-class mindsets that we find ourselves amidst? Being continually dismissed and labelled as a feminist, by those who don’t even care to spare a minute to understand what feminism is all about leaves me feeling very agitated and aware of my own limited capacity to communicate my politics in a language that will be understood. How might we speak so that we will be understood? The other day I came across a very heartening video, where a woman talks about the connection between sex and violence by referring to the swear words that we use. She ends up offering alternatives like ‘son of a bush’! for the gaalis that we otherwise use.

What I am really trying to say is we need to work together and innovate new ways to unlearn the violence that we have grown up with. We need to re-invent the language we use. This is important. Despite being continually dismissed we cannot afford to stop engaging. There is a need to make the present spaces, virtual or real more political and dialogue friendly. Along with making the current spaces political we need to imagine new spaces. There needs to be an effort to bring the discussions and arguments down from the impersonality of the virtual to the real world. To the classrooms, the living rooms, the tapris, the coffee-shops, the streets and so on.

As I began to list these disquieting incidents at the beginning of this post, I realised how many issues that weren’t that apparent to me start coming up. Many new questions raise themselves. It seems easier to imagine ways of not just understanding the problem but tackling it too. It is then very important that we pause, think and try to unlayer all of this together. Figure out why we feel uncomfortable about some things. Or why sometimes we don’t feel disturbed by say blatant acts of sexism? Why we feel apologetic about these discomforts?

I realise it is important to say this out loud and constantly talk about it. Not just in classrooms or comfortable canteen chats but also talk constantly to friends who disagree, to boyfriends who abuse, to random strangers on the internet or on the street, to the facebook junkies who post all this stuff, to friends who like and share these posts. It’s a long list.


Firdaus Soni is about to complete her graduation  in Sociology from Fergusson College, Pune. She is interested in exploring everyday experiences of identities, structures and spaces. She also loves getting high on some pickle and lots of poetry every once in a while.

14 comments to Engaging with the elephant in the room: need for a new vocabulary, spaces and dialogue

  • rajashree

    Firdaus, I love the way you have narrated the 4 scenes. They reminded me a lot about many many more of these kind of situations, especially in my hometown Nagpur, where one just could not shut up and was forced to speak up and engage. I feel this are like one-shot attempts, where if you lose your audience with a dry jargonistic language in the first attempt, you’ve lost the chance to engage. Adding to your desire to create a new vocabulary, I want us to reclaim humour. Though as feminists we are often called ‘humourless,’ I consider myself to be extremely funny, especially when i eat spicy food. 😛 I want to challenge myself, if I can reply to such humour with a humour of my kind, a humour of our kind. It’s not like we haven’t seen such attempts before, Gloria Steinem’s ‘If Men could Menstruate’ was a rib-tickler of the sexiest kind! We have always used sarcasm and poetry and all kinds of jazz to punctuate our points. We need to extend that to these situations and respond with it. We should share with each other, the way we conversed with such ‘jokes’ and such people, in maybe our vernaculars, in our local humourous lingo (I am reclaiming my Nagpuri-Bumbaiiya Tapori ness for that), and posing imaginative ‘what if..’s and puns. I see facebook brimming with feminist trolls and images, I see some of my wonderful feminist college seniors give sexy come-back replies to college ‘Confessions’ that diss feminists. I see people like Ashwini Mishra and Manmeet Kaur perform feminist rap that blows your mind. I know there’s a long way to go, but in this morning-optimistic mood, I am looking at the hope and excitement I feel to get on to this journey. Thanks, for bringing it up, Firdaus.

  • mangs

    This is a great post Firdaus! Thanks for sharing. It reminded me that the hardest moments of being a feminist erupt in otherwise comfortable interactions where your complicity and understanding is assumed and expected… ‘friendly’ family banter about apparently unacceptable hair growth, the avuncular family friend who asks you to talk about your work in women’s studies to demonstrate that “it’s not JUST about… feminism,” evening drinks with good friends who seem convinced that every meeting of more than a few adult women is a kitty party and joke about the women in your study being ‘cougars'(because they are above 35, single and financially independent?)… the list continues.

  • saikumar

    Yes its easy to flow with the current..( here the current seems to be leading into a cesspool). We need to take a call and resist..well done Firdous maybe this is the first step towards an uphill task.

  • firdaus

    exactly! rajashree you have so clearly listed down how we can be innovative in our approach and not seem as “people who just make faces and point fingers”. And yes there are many stunning feminists out there who are reclaiming humour and language, making beautiful poetry, and being sexy with their sarcasm. One needs to share their videos, articles, photographs etc. as widely as possible. i feel inspired by your mention of embracing our quirkiness (the nagpur-bambaiya tapori in your case ), work with the stereotypes and mediums (trolls and pictures)already available to us instead of going out and looking for something totally new. We need to just re-discover creative ways to go to the next level from asking questions towards creating alternatives. or even asking questions in a way that would appeal and seduce (even poke)everyone into engaging rather than pushing them away.

  • firdaus

    hey mangs 🙂 thanks a lot for reading, true the list is really long. and yes it includes not just strangers but people who are close to us, people we love, family, friends etc. what is really important is that we keep the channels of communication flowing. we keep engaging. i tend to become unnecessarily aggressive and defensive a lot of times during such confrontations but i think the trick is to let the other person participate as an equal.

  • firdaus

    hey saikumar, true its sometimes easy to drift away in the flow. i sometimes find myself too tired to resist as well, sometimes also because i don’t know how to without sounding accusatory or defensive or humourless. yes it is an uphill task, but i also look forward to it with wide-eyed eagerness as being a lot of learning and fun.

    • saikumar

      Dear Firdous
      you should read this article “jhola and a joke” by Malini Nair in times of India crest 13 April to get an answer to tackle this elephant…. ofcourse with humour.

  • Sameer Lodhi

    Hey Firdaus. First of all, let me congratulate you on an extraordinary post – one that not only brings to light the many pernicious ways in which misogyny has taken cultural root in our society, but also (& rather bravely) suggests investigation into what the image – either self created, or socially imposed – of today’s Feminism labours under.
    The venom of misogyny has unfortunately poisoned almost all of the media that we consume; advertising displaying being some of its most virulent manifestations. The process of change will be slow & exceedingly difficult, but it will eventually happen – largely due to women like you & like-minded men, which I’m sure you’d agree, exist in large (if well camouflaged)numbers.
    And the internet is your largest ally in this battle. The strengths of which the upcoming generation harnesses only too well.
    All the best.

  • firdaus

    thanks a lot sameer 🙂 you response is very encouraging 🙂

    As Mcrobbie words it “the strength of feminism lies in its ability to create discourse, to dispute, to negotiate the boundaries and the barriers, and also to take issue with the various feminisms which have sprung into being” (McRobbie 530).”
    It is through constructive self-criticism and a constant active communication that we can all not just grow but become more accessible. I bet you would agree that it is important that we do not get stuck in intellectualism but involve ourselves in simple meaningful fun conversations. we also expand our idea of ‘we’. Yes change will eventually happen and men, women and people from the third gender, everyone will join.

    Though i agree internet is a major ally, i also feel we need to make efforts to bring these conversations into real life interactions. Politicise ‘real’ spaces.

  • N.Shobhana

    An excellent post Firdaus. I think the need to ‘unlearn violence’ and in the process, produce ‘new vocabulary’and ‘new humor’is a very important task. However, to unmask the reasons for such everyday violence and then ‘unlearn such violence’ one needs to intersect patriarchy with many other structures/processes/factors. Brahmanism would be an elemental intersection.It would surely complicate our process of finding ‘new humor’ and ‘new vocabulary’. But I strongly believe that interrogating the’patriarchal self (and other)’ should not be separated from interrogating the ‘casteist self (and other)’. This would help us in identifying and engaging with violence in a nuanced fashion. Secondly, i would like to highlight the fact that such violence have their impressions not just on our cultural lives but also on our material lives. I think there is a need to move beyond the binary of cultural and material and appreciate its complex interplay.

  • dennis

    hi, i have to take issue with your characterisations in scene1. too easy, i think: the play off between the machoistic boyfriend and the complaisant girl.

  • firdaus

    Hey Nidhin, yeah i completly agree with your point, there is a need to intersect patriarchy with many other processes, very importantly as you pointed out of caste. I find myself feel very inadequate when it comes to dealing with the caste angle in our narratives, but again it is very important to atleast mention that silence/inadequacy. It reminds us how complex and intrinsic the violence of caste is that we do not even realise it. Like you said we need to bring in the issues of not just gender but caste, age, sexuality, disability, race etc. etc. I feel the easiest place to start of with is exploring our language.
    True, we need to move beyond the binaries of cultural and material and start exploring and accepting their complex interplay.

  • firdaus

    Hey Dennis, I did not attempt to paint a black and white picture of the girl as a victim and boy as the villian. But i have witnessed plenty of incidents where the boyfriends are quite vocally insult or ‘show off’ their girlfriends. All the incidents mentioned above are real i did not try to script anything.
    Maybe we could take this discussion forward and talk about the whole deal with the violence that various young men face as participants in this setup. We could discuss the concerns posed by the discourses on ‘masculinities’.

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