It was a long time ago. I was thirteen and we lived in South Bombay. Family friends had come over to stay with us. Their daughter was a year older than me. We were all playing some board game and I won. The girl’s father complimented me by calling me a “kutty thevidiya” which in Tamizh means little whore. You could feel the air freeze. My father, my mother, my grandmother went into statue mode. I saw everything in a haze of red, my heart beat pounding in my ear. My friend, saw me ready to launch into a tirade –and she said, “but that is my pet name ! my father uses it on me when he is very proud of me!”. I sputtered. My parents explained to their friends that this is not a word that was used in our household. The ‘uncle’ was mortified but he saw no wrong in the word, it was used in his family towards girls all the time. It is an incident that has stayed in memory.
What is violence against women? Oh it is many things – at the very basic level it is physical and sexual violence. I don’t need to reel out the statistics. Most of us have heard them time and again, and they are seared across our consciousness. Rape. Murder. Suffocating. Female foeticide. Trafficked. Traded. Enslaved. Sold. Acid attacks. Burnt alive. Stripped. Paraded. The litany of tortures and death methods is endless. We argue about rape in terms of clothes the girl wears. The solution talked about is child marriage. We split hairs on whether a slap is violence. Whether marital rape exists? Whether she has control over her body?
But before physical violence comes something. That something is the way of looking at women. Not as individuals in their own right. But something either lesser or more. Either as a body to be sexualised or a image that is larger than life. It is about things that start even earlier that lay the foundation for violence and societal tolerance of it. It starts with words that objectify her. Chamiya. Item. Maal. It continues with words used in every day parlance BC, MC … we don’t even think of it, but the woman is being objectified in these swear words. The kind of culture that uses terms denoting incest as swear words possibly is one that practises violence in general towards women, and sexual violence in particular. You find words like this used on women even on so called elite platforms such as social media. Concubines, having sugar daddies, nautch girls, whores, ‘kept’ women – the descriptors given to strong, independent women by men your family would be comfortable calling for dinner. It isn’t just anonymous riff raff that use terms like this. It is ‘honourable’ family men.
But it is not just the tapori language that objectifies the woman. It is the polite language too — ghar ki izzat, ghar ki aabroo, ..the woman as the meta being. Her honour that of the family’s. The loss in honour – defined purely in sexual terms – a blot to the family. And as always, death before dishonour.
To tackle physical violence against women, social attitudes need to change. And, one major area where change is required is language. Words. Phrases. This is not about being politically correct. It isn’t. Nor is it about curtailing freedom of expression. It isn’t. It is simply about socialising the next generation to think of females neither as objects nor as superwomen. But simply as individuals. It is only when women are thought of as people with rights will society as a whole start internalising the fact that violence against women exists and needs to stop.
(to be honest, there was a time in life, not so long ago, i wouldn’t think twice about swearing … i have mostly stopped (when you drive in Mumbai, it is impossible to stop completely). simply because i realise -every time i swear, I am hurling an insult that derives from a woman’s conduct. )