By Mallika Kaur
16 March, 2014
The satisfaction of having walked the course of the Sukhna Lake on a particularly cold and damp evening begins to set in during those final meters as one is bid farewell by the venerable banyan, always reliably bear-hugging the path much taken.
Then I felt it again: the nails-on-chalkboard cringe on hearing a term that has become punctuation all over Punjab.
“And I told him to take the b-c file to that b-c himself, because b-c we need a reliable bloke to get this done.”
For better or worse, in print, we won’t spell out that which is common parlance. In fact, questioning the employment of this swear word is what seems absurd (or prudish or peskily feminist or even conservative, nay illiberal?).
But here I go, at long last, perhaps after what felt like a desecration of a favourite tree, and perhaps because we might just want to pause and think a little just after international women’s day, a breather after all the spouting of poetry and prose extolling our women, our sisters.
The men desecrating the tree-hug, recounting their work day during a brisk evening walk, were in their late fifties, still in business suits, their heads still at work. When I stopped short to stare at them, they must have thought me rude.
I wish I had made the same request of them as I had of a friend in a coffee shop a few days before. “Just translate that and say it in English. You know, for clarity.” After a shrug, and an annoyed smirk, the term was dropped for the rest of the evening.
At best perhaps, we just don’t understand the swear words we use.
At worst, we measure women’s worth by what is done to them and what is spoken of them.
Somewhere in between lie most of us who just don’t think twice about the gendered nature of the swear words that punctuate sentences. These are anything but decorative terms; they all mean something.
But breaking it down seems too tiresome. Bastard—a milder curse in the scheme of things now—is a child, typically male, who does not know its father. An insult because one without a father is considered one without an anchor. After all, how to reply to the single-breath question still in most of our official forms: Name? Father’s Name? The flagellation of the mother is taken a step further by the insults that normalize the idea of violence against the mother. And similarly against the sister.
Hard as it is to believe, the movie Gangs of Wasseypur in fact was censored some, including a deleted scene widely available on social media. In this, with John Abraham’s star power, the “national swear word” is being debated among men with abandon. There is agreement one fits the bill perfectly: B-C. Explains a wise drunk “Yeh Gaali Humare Desh Ke Har Language Mein, Har Culture Mein Is Tarah Ghul Gayi Hai… Jaise Whiskey Mein Soda!”
Ours is by no means the only language where a remarkably high number of swear words have come to involve or indicate violence against women. Could that be reason enough to ignore the obvious obsession with using women as sites of honour-dishonour and ridicule against their bodies?
Or is it reason enough that (liberated?) women themselves now employ this language?
All for freedom of expression, and against suggestions that certain language is “unladylike,” (what constitutes a ‘lady’ is painfully laden with class, caste, and sexist norms all around us), I am thinking of purple spray cans.
During the spirited 2013 protests in Istanbul, Turkish protestors painted over the sexist and homophobic swear words used by fellow protestors with purple sprays. Some, were more particular about not becoming censors, and instead underlined the swear words, rather than painting over them. They bravely intervened to make change at an uncomfortable point: within their own movement, pointing out the fault lines in their own movement, within their own cohort.
When feminists loudly chanted the slogan “resist with tenacity, not with swear words” on the streets, which was later embraced by many protesting groups and became a widely accepted part of the resistance, they forcefully criticized the hierarchical and patriarchal organizational structures embedded in oppositional groups, including some leftist political parties, non-governmental organizations, professional chambers…” wrote Tugçe Ellialti for the Council for European Studies.
We may want to stop apologizing for the “otherwise decent” folks around us who like peppering every sentence with a curse, especially one that was unthinkable—for good reasons—just even a few years ago as particularly crude and violent. We may not want to take all cues about working women from a foul-mouthed Rani Mukherjee in No One Killed Jessica, ironically highlighting women’s rights and wrongs against independent women.
As latest statistics show a new incident of rape being reported every 22 minutes, we may want to stop and think about the role of language in normalizing the idea of women—including sisters, mothers, and others—as sites of sexual aggression. As we ad nauseam condemn the practice of sex-selective abortions, we might want to ask how we are reinforcing the dangerous root-idea that women are liabilities to men and their honour.
With the corrective spray of a purple can, perhaps the next time I walk by the men at the Lake, they’ll simply say “Good Evening, Bahen.” And I’ll not have to imagine anything else is insinuated.
Mallika Kaur is a lawyer and writer who focuses on gender and minority issues in the U.S. and South Asia.
This article was first published The Tribune, Punjab, March 16, 2014