The Languages of Sexual Violence: Anupama Mohan
Guest post by ANUPAMA MOHAN
I teach a big word in my critical theory classes: phallogocentrism. It is the idea that our societies are centred by the phallus and language (logos) and is a word that often scares, perplexes, and disturbs my students, but I unpack it using an example. In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb. What does such loading of the language – what a 20th century Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin, called the formation of the verbal ideological world – in terms of the perspective, validation, and supremacizing of one gender over the other do to/in our varied lives? Think of the word vanilla that, at least since the 1970s, has meant the ordinary and bland: its etymology derives from the Latin word for vagina (vaina) or “little vagina” for the pods of the plant that reminded someone of women’s genitals. The word porcelain – a thin, fragile kind of clay – too comes from the word for “cowrie shell” whose Italian links to porcella or young sow (a female pig) for someone recalled the shape of a piglet’s orifice. One more: the word amazon which refers to a legendary race of female warriors and has come to mean a strong woman derives possibly from many sources: from the Classical Greek a-mazos or breastless to the Iranian *ama-janah or “virility-killing” – a meaning that interprets the idea of women’s strength as both a mutilation of her physical self and/or as a threat to men.
When I raise these examples in my classes, it is like a curtain has lifted, and students are as much thrilled by the process of becoming unfamiliar with familiar expressions as they are disturbed by their inability to articulate what all of this means. For my students, many of whom identify wholly with America’s self-representation as the land of opportunity and the golden land, the assurances of neoliberal logic have swamped out all issues of gender other than when violence pops up in the occasional spectacular case of rape (such as the Steubenville incident recently) or, as is more pervasive, in the fairly routine occurrence of domestic abuse for some faraway cousin or relative. To such students, phallogocentrism is the revelation of a darkness tucked away into the folds of a world which blankets their lives with certitude and (relative) comfort. When I teach the word/idea, I have to try hard to beat down first their sense of incredulity at the hidden or embedded nature of the linguistic layers of our “real” worlds (a Ripley’s Believe It or Not way of looking at life), and then, more programmatically, their tendency to dismiss phallogocentrism as a freak, eccentric aspect of language, more a curiosity than a conspiracy, more theory than practice. To some students, though, the insight into the ways in which social structures build, shape, and systematize status quo occurs through this introductory jolt to the ways in which they find their very bodies written into the scripts that they have spoken all their lives. For many of my students, the learning of critical theory, then, is often the first step to the unlearning of their privileges, and the denaturalisation of those sacred ideas and words that had seemed to them natural, universal, and normative.
I begin this piece with the anecdotal evidence of my teaching in the US partly to draw attention to an idea that requires to be confronted by all of us in and out of India who are trying to come to terms with the brutal rape and murder of the 23 year old in Delhi, and partly, to suggest that nothing short of a full educational overhaul will truly address the endemic gender violence in India’s society. Much has been written about the specific nature of the gender violence that is both explicit and implicit in Indian society in various ways. The patronizing, protectionist discourse of women’s purity which is often evoked in the speeches of Indian demagogues is itself a powerful illustration that (at least for Hindu India) the most resonant images of “woman” are to be found in her idealization as goddess or devi (Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati, Sita, and others) or in her appendiciary roles as mother, sister, daughter, and wife. This is the “best” face of Indian political discourse surrounding women’s space in the public domain; the worst is, of course, the kind of logic that shifts the blame on to the woman – to her inappropriate clothing, to the influence of Chinese food on Indian male palates, to her family’s loss of control upon her movements outside the home, and so on. Rightly, such “analyses” have been lampooned, bitterly satirized, and publicly castigated in what is a historic first – for the language in which our leaders speak to us in India has rarely come under the kind of scrutiny that it should.
Indeed, if the fight against sexual violence in India has to have any real teeth, it has to first own up to the fact that the languages we employ in our everyday life betray our entrenchment in the very same violence that we seek to dismantle. Every time one of us uses the word “seminal” (or seminar and dissemination) without a sense of its history or when we talk of paurush as a positive ideal to which India as a whole must aspire while discarding “effeminate” ways (not to mention the deep, abiding fear and abhorrence of napunsakta – the pejorative term used to actively marginalize and dismiss a range of trans- identities), we endorse that hierarchy between male and female, that tilt of the world and that swerve in history and myth, whose brute logic ends in an evening on a bus. One must recognize that the natures of our patriarchal lives have been streamlined by male values: this in itself means nothing if we do not also understand at the same time that such values undergird, buttress, and provide the daily logic for our achievements and our collective sense of what is valuable, precious, and worth living for. The knowledge of the ways in which our lives have thus been moulded is the first step in denouncing a language that has become a leash by which we have long been led.
Phallogocentrism structures and provides shape and form to our lives and the fight against patriarchal values that mark women as naturally, inherently unequal by simultaneously proclaiming her fairer and weaker, devi and ma, the keeper and flouter of maryada (honour) has to be extended to the very language in which such ideas gain an identity. This, of course, cannot be the only way or indeed, the dominant way; but the focus in India upon the very language of political change has been a refreshing new way of identifying what many activists and educators have long believed to be a crucial front on which any kind of social reform must be imagined: that of language. The destruction of gender inequality must begin with the deconstruction of the language in which such inequality takes shape and keeps a hold on our lives.
So, how do we take the war to phallogocentrism? We begin, I think, by first acknowledging it as part of our everyday practices. Many people have been recently talking about “rape culture,” a phrase that disturbs me even as I recognize that what is being indicated is “phallogocentric culture” where the lingam is worshipped, women keep fasts for men’s welfare or for being blessed with a (good) husband, hide their faces, menstruation, pregnant bellies, abortions, and indeed, run the gamut of their social lives from one threshold to the next and the next, hiding various parts of themselves, physical and emotional. The focus on women as worthy of respect because they are mothers, sisters, and wives is almost always a ploy to constrain women within social identities where their “roles” are defined by and understood in relief from the normative male paradigm. This doesn’t mean that mothers, sisters, and wives are bad things to be, but it does point to the fact that in these roles, women are safest, most worthy, and most valuable to our societies. So, in this sense, to understand the reach, sweep, and depth of patriarchal role formations is to take the battle beyond challenging and subverting the language of phallocracy, or the absolute dominance of men.
In academic critical discourses, the idea that our privileges define how we live our lives rather than merely being an effect of our lives is by now a commonplace. In our daily lives, though, such knowledge is all but absent: for how else does one account for the rampant use in song, film, and much literature of a word like bitch as a synonym for woman, or the popularity of such ideas as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus when academic culture has, since at least the 1950s, burst the bubble on theories of essentialism? How do we connect the dots in what is a vast cross-stitch pattern that orders our world for us? Given that patriarchy is ubiquitous, are we doomed to regurgitating power hierarchies in our everyday communication? Not quite: languages that fight the biases of gender are in our very midst and we have to seriously commit ourselves to such language far more pervasively than we have.
We have to spread the word – and I use “we” as expansively as possible, for this is an ongoing struggle that encompasses all of us who consider ourselves a part of any society, any community, and it is a struggle not just in deed or law or action, but also in the very language in which any “real” change to women’s lives can be implemented. The questions of sexual inequality are the questions of human inequality, and we cannot call ourselves developed nations, enlightened societies or even civilization if the very grain of our beings is marked by the inferiorization and subjection of those who ought to be equals. Such questions are intimately, although never primarily, tied to language where we can find many such itineraries of control that pass male privileges as human rights. The fight against social inequality must be fought also in our recognition of the ways in which our very languages can be so loaded, and therefore, to use words with caution, with accuracy, with compassion.
Patriarchy is essentially an arrangement of power relations. Such an arrangement uses phallogocentirc language to assert men’s (natural, moral, physical) superiority over women but it often also uses the language of praise or female adoration that is just as imprisoning. In such a system, our most cherished values are configured around what have (with some notable exceptions) traditionally and historically been male pursuits. E.g., when I ask my students how they imagine the idea of strength, almost all of them envision being strong as reflected in being able to fight, lift weights, physically attack or repel an attack, and being in the military. When I ask them if they think being able to deliver a child should count as a paradigm for thinking of strength, they look flummoxed, even amused because how can what women naturally do and men cannot be a universal paradigm? And yet, that is exactly how patriarchal paradigms work by masking and parading male values, needs, and desires as human values, needs, and desires. Thus, it is, for instance, that while the history of the use of various forms of anesthesia to cope with injury goes as far back as ancient Greek, Roman, and Arab societies where the first subjects were men wounded in war, the first use of caudal anesthesia (epidural) upon a woman in labour occurred only as recently as 1942, for why would what “Nature” has intended for women require any other way to be? Thus, it is also possible for rape to be both a matter of honour/dishonour on the basis of which wars can be fought and families dismembered and the node of jokes that pass from father to son to brother and lover (think of the highly popular “balaatkaar” joke in 3 Idiots to ask oneself why would rape be funny in the same culture where rape is also a tool of war, revenge, and dishonour).
So, is some utopian fantasy towards matriarchy the answer? I would aver, not. When trying to understand social systems, one must approach the idea of matriarchy with a similar sense of its structuring principles: as an arrangement of power relations. Indeed, historically in matrilineal systems of Kerala’s Nair society, men were often treated poorly, insofar as they were considered merely the tools for procreation or as paramours for women that could afford the lifestyle. In the practice of ozhimuri, for instance, the Nair woman signalled the end of a relationship by putting on the threshold of her house a small box containing areca-nut and betel leaves (and perhaps some money) to bid goodbye to an old lover, and to announce the assumption of a new one. So, one way to recognize that our societies work with the logic of privilege is to understand also that should women who violently exerted their power have dominated the world, we might have been having the same conversation – only this time with different victims and oppressors. Read in this way, matriarchal societies can also become gynocratic – e.g., what of the emotional loss of the man who finds himself fallen out of love with by the woman and her family? And although rape of man by woman may not exist (because “we” have defined rape as penetrative), there can certainly be emotional violence, suffering, and ostracism for men in such social frameworks. The burdens of patriarchy while most obviously fall upon women also mark the lives of many men who too suffer, in different degrees and ways, within the constrictions of an unbending masculinity. A revolution towards a matriarchal society that merely upends the logic of patriarchies without questioning or challenging absolute class divisions may merely replicate power hierarchies in its own way. What we have to make possible, then, is the ability to envision a social system that is not predicated on the erasure or marginalization of the (female) body and women’s voices, and that is not some compensatory, revanchist fantasy of a New World that lets us escape from the only world we all have – this one.
The reform of patriarchy – in sweeping ways – is quite possibly our best hope for a more equitable, less violent, less saddening world. The reduction in many men’s sense of entitlement in the world and the rise in many women’s sense of their own place and space in the planet is a daily project full of thousands of ethical choices, scrupulous words, and collective actions. In our everyday lives and practices, we will have to turn upon ourselves the strong light of self-reflection and self-criticism. In the languages we use, in the songs we sing, the rituals we follow, the colours we clothe our children in, the parks and gardens that our men enjoy and women shrink from, and the hierarchies we take for granted, we have to recognize that invisible hand of historical Time which sifts, arranges, and distributes rights to some and duties to others. That invisible hand is not the literal hand of God, although much religion would have us believe it is so; instead, the weight of that hand, like the scythe of the grim reaper, is the sum total of our beliefs in whose thrall we live out our lives and scarcely wonder at the injustice of it all.
In this sense, the dismantling of phallogocentric culture and expression must transform into a way to understand how normalized it has become to think in male terms about the “human” condition. We already have such words as “mankind” or manushya and the universal pronoun “he” that help institute the male-centric view as the dominant view. The fact that “PC” or politically correct language is sniggered at and satirized, even as it is upheld as a ball-and-chain around our collective necks, suggests how hard it is to fight violence in language because for so many people (especially many men, although never all), such violence is normal. And yet, it is in language that the struggles for legitimacy and identity have been so powerfully waged: the reclamation of “queer,” “black,” “Dalit” for the purposes of anti-homophobic, anti-racist, and anti-caste politics as well as the formation of languages that are sensitive to and affirmative of people with physical and mental challenges are powerful examples of the ways in which we have sought to transform our social practices, our scientific discourses, and the very shape and form of our laws to align with the vision of an equal society. PC can become a mockery of the goals of gender equality and we have to guard against its own involutions. Instead, that impulse to find an expression, a language that is sensitive to gender, and a spirit of questioning that challenges received coinages – these are attitudes to nurture. Invariably, language that challenges gender biases meets with resistance, dismissal, and contempt, but those of us who believe that language is constitutive (and not merely reflective) of our everyday realities, realize that to speak and write sensitively, ethically is a gift, a responsibility, a promise.
There can be no abiding social reform that is not holistic and that does not build upon men and women’s conciliary and collective friendships: equality in the work-place, in the public domains, in opportunity and access, in education, and in familial structures – these are all important, non-negotiable goals for any modern society, and are not just goals for women’s movements. Indeed, if the removal of gender bias in language could alone propel us into a society where women’s rights and freedoms were realized, then the speakers of modern Persian, which has no gendered expression, ought to find in Iran a women’s utopia. Similarly, speaking Tamil, which too is free of gender biases, ought to make Tamil Nadu a land of equality for all women. The issue of language clearly is no stand-alone issue; it is tied in with other equally important aspects of civic life, but as we get embroiled in one cause after another, we run the great risk of forgetting the means by which our ends are to be gained, the words in which our deeds are sought to be forged. The commitment to ethical language is the commitment to imagine collectively our songs of freedom. In our words, we must create the equality we want to see in the world.
(Anupama Mohan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nevada Reno. She is the author of Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures (2012) and Twenty Odd Love Poems (2008) and has written on topics in women’s studies and critical race studies.)