The F-Word and Language
I was at the library earlier, I had some free time and decided to ignore the red circle on the top left hand corner of my mail app which was steadily growing in numerical value and chill with a costa (or as I refer to it, a caffeinated cocktail of piss and desperation) and a book. As I was waiting for my fix, I noticed one of my friends had shared an article on female genital mutilation. Of course upon reading the headline I began my ritual of quiet tutting and seething at the fetishization of issues such as FGM by privileged Western men and women. The article, while attempting to squirt some modicum of empathy, came of as a condescending case of shock journalism. It treated the young women as subjects that could never have any agency of their own, their only voice was the voice given to them by the benevolent journalist, they were subjects trapped in their own history, they were eternal victims. But publishers love these topics, these topics sell because they are an update on Orientalism, an Orientalism with a conscience if you please.
My quiet seething reminded me of a conversation I had with a very insightful friend of mine. It was one of those long conversations that only come about after 2 am, last for hours, and leave you feeling satisfied. Somehow we found ourselves talking about discrimination between men and women, the questions of nature vs nurture, and the way that language is deployed to relegate women to a subservient position. Now, usually I shy away from even mentioning the f-word, eschewing it for a number of colorful euphemisms, but I have to concede that what my friend and I were doing was engaging in a very feminist conversation. Gasp. Even the fact that my fingers shiver when typing that word ought to tell you something about the state of feminism in our society. That aside, I wanted to share and expand on our conversation because I came out of it with an enlightened view of myself and my ‘place’. It’s a terribly thought out, winding stream of thought so bear with me.
I base much of what I say on my belief that our social reality is a result of ongoing human production. That is, the way we talk, the way we act, the stories we tell about ourselves and others are all things that we create, share, and institutionalize with embedded meanings into tradition or custom or religion or simply ‘the way things are done’. Language is a big one. Our experiences with language involve how we are taught to use it and how it is used to refer to us, and I’ve noticed that in both cases women are relegated to a lower position either that of an object (sexual or otherwise) or that of a rather dimwitted servant. This is analogous to the roles women are expected to play in society. It really begins from an early age, in the way little girls are taught to interact with other people. Any of us with brothers or those of us who have gone to coeducational schools will recall that the idea of speaking politely was heavily emphasized for girls, and speaking “like a boy” would result in a scolding. Boys also have to adhere to a certain way of talking, of course, but while there is a similar socialization process, the end results vary dramatically. When boys learn to toe the line, their reward is acceptance into society. A boy that goes to the majlis for example, and uses “man talk”, rattling off a bit of poetry perhaps, is heralded as a prodigy. A girl, on the other hand, who practices “woman talk” (and I’m sure most of you will immediately understand what I mean by that) is merely doing something that she is expected to do. She is just adequately fulfilling her role as a female.
This role that is being fulfilled, I must stress, is a denigrated one. It is a role that requires ennobling; it requires an embalmment of some sort of secondary honor. This is because women exist only as a reflection in the eyes of others. The talk and gossip that surrounds a woman is what shapes her, more so than her personal victories. A woman can hardly wave away the talk, throw up two fingers, declare ‘to hell with people’ and do something purely for her own pleasure. Men certainly can, with hardly any lasting backlash. Egocentricity in men is encouraged, because a man with a strong personality is valued, whereas in a woman it is a flaw. What that entails is that men go through life with the confidence of being able to speak their mind without being belittled or having their gender used against them.
Perhaps one of the greatest ways a woman can be ennobled is by association with a man. Isn’t it funny how men are defined in terms of what they do, while women are chiefly defined by who they do (or who they are associated with, to be less coarse). Perhaps the greatest illustration to this point is the connotations of the terms spinster and bachelor. Both literally mean unmarried, however the word spinster is often lobbed as an insult or uttered in a whisper under a veil. It carries a weight of uselessness and marginalization – something that is unwanted and best swept to the side or under an ornate rug. One of the worst things that can happen to a woman is not having a man, and not taking her full place in society as a result. Without a man we are only half formed beings.
This is a bit of a confused tirade, a result of letting my fingers hit the keyboard and ignoring my inner filter that constantly screams “BUT EMAN IF YOU WRITE THIS PEOPLE WILL INTERPRET IT AS THIS”. The worst thing, and I’ve encountered this way too many times, is that a lot of women will scoff after reading this. They will say that women and men are different because we must be different. They will say that I am insulting women by saying that things should change for us, that we need a greater voice. “Women are treated like queens,” I have been told. Women are polite and discreet and deferential because we are bastions against the degradation of our culture, we are the repositories of morality and civility and tradition. We refine society and make it beautiful. By calling for that to change some women may think I am trying to pull them down, change them into something they do not want to be. I do not want that. What I do want is for us to be aware of the discrepancies, the hypocrisies that run deep within ourselves and our societies and have the choice to become a repository of morality… or not.