Karachi: There is no mention of the colour blue in ancient texts. Not in early Greek literature, not in Hindu Vedic hymns, not in the original Hebrew Bible, not in ancient Chinese stories or Icelandic sagas. William Gladstone, the first to notice this through Homer’s Odyssey wondered if the Greeks were colour-blind. But philologist Gieger found a consistent pattern across different cultures: Every language first developed a word for black and white, the next colour was red, and after that yellow and green, blue was always the last to show up. People in ancient times could see it of course, but they couldn’t recognise it. The Himba tribe in Namibia still doesn’t have a word for it. How far does language shape our worlds? Can we understand it if we don’t have a word for it? The lack of a word ensures we cannot discuss it, but since words also structure thoughts, does that mean we cannot think about it? This article is about rape. But in shifting the perception lag from colours to humans, let’s start with an easier example. Historically, children became adults without teens as a transition category. So while people have been 14, 15, 16 years old throughout history, they were adults. Adolescence is a modern social construction. Questions of whether teenagers should labour or not, fight in wars or not, or be married off or not would have made no sense to anyone before the 19th century. Issues of adolescence could emerge only after adolescence was recognised. Now let’s shift this further, to a problem that has frustrated women activists for decades. There is no local word for rape.
Part of my first full-time job was to interview women survivors of violence to prepare case briefs for lawyers. And I didn’t have the vocabulary to inquire about rape. When they tried to tell me themselves, I’d spend 20 minutes telling them they were wrong, that no one had looted their izzat and hurmat (dignity and respect) because those were innate. Zyaadati spanned everything, from withheld promotions to unfair accusations. Zabardasti could range from forced marriage to forced work to forced confinement at home. We had no way of framing and understanding what had happened to her. At times, I’d look at the women and simply ask, “Did he?” And they would simply nod. There was also the legal term “zina bil jabr”, translating to “forced adultery”, which is first a term no one knows. These roundabout terms further reinforce the stigma attached to rape. Naari Tehreek coined a new word, “zabarjinsi”. Women writers have also tried, though the terms still haven’t taken hold. So the question remains, can we understand the experience of sexualised subjugation when we have no conceptual architecture to even recognise it? Once you see blue, you cannot un-see it. But there is a difference between seeing something involuntarily, and looking at something. We can and do see women’s suffering without actually looking at it. Optimism about social change is more about coldness than naivety. It requires an insensitivity that social activists shouldn’t even have, of stepping away from the daily violence, to a distance where each case becomes merely a plot point on a graph of changing trends. Yet it’s the activists who need to see change most, otherwise outrage congeals into cataracts of bitterness. So here’s the uplift. Language can be co-opted.
Postscript: I heard Punjabi being sung before I heard it being spoken. Every wedding, women would sing the folksong Jugni, relishing the idea of a liberated female. The song is actually about the torch commemorating 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Like the Olympic flame, the torch was carried across the British Empire. Jugni is the distortion of jubli which itself is a distortion of “jubilee”. Imperial pomp and the roaming torch co-opted to reflect women’s longings.
By arrangement with Dawn...