Language Must Move With Social Mores

This article was first printed in the Sunday Guardian last week. I would probably have ended up titling it “You Sexy Thing”, but the good people at SG are not quite as facetious as I am. 

The National Commission for Women was set up in 1992 by the Government of India to tackle gender discrimination in the country. Who would ever have imagined that the NCW, with its mandate to advise the government on all policy matters affecting women, would end up sharing the same sentiment expressed in a Justin Timberlake song? After all, what’s the difference between chairperson Mamta Sharma suggesting women see being called sexy “positively” and Timberlake rasping, “I’m bringing sexy back/ Them other boys don’t know how to act/ I think it’s special what’s behind your back”? In fact, in the chorus, Timberlake goes on to declare he’s a slave and that the woman he’s with can whip him if he misbehaves. Surely madam chairperson would approve.

Mamta Sharma was speaking at a seminar in Jaipur, organised by a women’s organisation, titled Gateway to the Future. According to one news report, the audience comprised of “sadhvis and students”. At one point in her speech, Sharma said, “Boys pass comments about girls, terming them sexy. But sexy means beautiful and charming. We should not see it in a negative sense.”

She went on to say that the problem isn’t so much with men calling women sexy but in the fact that they, the men, are being misunderstood. “When we interpret them wrongly, that’s when problems arise,” she said. At which point, one has to wonder whether Sharma forgot that the W in NCW stands for women. When she was later asked to clarify her stand, Sharma said that she believed sexy shouldn’t be regarded only as a derogatory term because it was an English word that could have multiple meanings. This time, she planted the blame on language. “Angrezi jo hai woh hamari Hindi ki tarah suljhi hui bhasha nahin hain,” she said.

Its ironic that Sharma ultimately chose to plant the blame on a language that has quite a history of appropriating and reappropriating words. Back in 1964, the comedian and activist Dick Gregory titled his autobiography Nigger. In his dedication, he wrote that he had chosen this title so that if his mother heard the term, she’d think of her son’s book rather than a racist label.

The word nigger (and its derivative nigga), clotted as it is with a dark history of abuse and oppression, has since become an acceptable term among certain communities, thanks in much part to hip-hop culture. It’s still a racially-charged term and provocative but in the last few decades, the word has drawn on the turbulent history and trials of African Americans and come to signify fraternity, honour, defiance and loyalty.

By reappropriating words like “nigger” and “black”, the stigma of oppression and inequality that was originally attached to the words was replaced by specific qualities that people felt their community needed and possessed.

You can’t have a more complete victory than that. It’s a shift in collective thinking, a social change, and it’s satisfying because it leaves the oppressor speechless. Queer is another example of a word that has transformed its connotations radically. Once used to taunt homosexuals, it was in the 1980s that gay and lesbian organisations started using queer proudly. It was flaunted in campaigns and slogans and in a relatively short time, the politics of using queer changed significantly enough for it to be documented in an episode of The Simpsons. Livid at a gay character who keeps using the word, Homer Simpson railed, “You can’t use the word queer… that is our word for you.” Robbed of the vocabulary, those who taunt must find new words; and until they do, they have nothing to say.

The key to a word losing negative connotations lies in an in-group reclaiming something that was used against them. It has to be a collective decision and usually, there are social and cultural influences that subtly prime us to take such a stand. Personally, I would have loved to hear Sharma reclaim “bitch” and urge her audience to see feminine aggression positively. Perhaps “bitch” had a chance back when Khoon Bhari Maang was released. In the age of Sheila ki Jawani, Chikni Chameli, Munni Badnaam Hui and Zara Zara Touch Me, it makes sense that Sharma sought to reclaim sexy. (Incidentally, Munni Badnaam Huiwas sung by Sharma’s namesake, which makes Googling Sharma an entertaining experience.)

Given the soaring popularity of such songs among women, it would seem that we’ve already begun to take sexy as a positive attribute. In a news programme about women of substance in Bollywood, Sridevi was shown singing I love you to Mr. India (from the song that cemented the romance of wet sari). Madhuri Dixit is remembered and cheered for dancing to Dhak Dhak and Choli ke Peeche. Back when these songs were first seen on screen, they scandalised people. Today, actresses compete aggressively to get racy “item numbers”. Go out partying, and you’ll see women wearing barely-there clothes nonchalantly. Where girls used to only wear salwar kameez, form-fitting skirts and pants have become acceptable.

Whether or not Sharma meant to celebrate the word sexy and however activists may react on record to Sharma’s statement, the fact is that, in our personal lives, we have reclaimed sexy. We sing the songs, we dance the moves, we wear the clothes; we do all the things that we need to in order to be considered sexy. And this isn’t done only to garner male approval. Frequently, women’s behaviour is aligned to the expectations and assessment of other women. The bottom line is that in urban India, particularly in the upwardly-mobile and anglicised demographic, the stigma associated with oomph has faded. However, as is so often the case in India, what we’ll admit to in public and what we do in private are two very different things. A woman who is confident and open about her sexuality is something India hasn’t wrapped its head around yet. Given how Sharma first sympathised with misunderstood men and then blamed the English language, she isn’t really ready to encourage women to be unashamed about their desires either. It’s a shame because this controversy, with activists going red in the face and Sharma offering to take her statement back, shows India as either blinkered to its own reality or hypocritical.

Perhaps we’d do better if instead we remembered what Helene Cixous wrote in The Laugh of the Medusa: “We’ve been turned away from our bodies, shamefully taught to ignore them, to strike them with that stupid sexual modesty… Women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes and rhetorics, regulations and codes…”

Bringing sexy back may not be the answer but being able to utter the word without raising a storm would certainly be a step in the right direction.

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