Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Opinion | How #MeToo has enriched Indian vocabulary

Beyond the hashtag, the movement has given women in the country a language to speak out

I had agreed to dinner. I had agreed to drinks after dinner. I had even agreed to “Do you want to come home and be the first person to listen to the soundtrack of my movie?" After that, I had wanted to leave. There was no verbal ambiguity. I said I had class the next morning at 7, I wanted to leave. I said I had my period, I wanted to leave.

I was 25 and living by myself for the first time, outside of the country. I had to believe I had everything under control. I made it in time for my class the next morning.

I did not raise an alarm. Not to anyone else and not even to my own self. Much later, I told one person we knew in common, and he asked me, “Are you sure this is what happened?" No, I was not sure. And if I didn’t have the vocabulary to navigate the experience for myself, how could I explain it to someone else? Perhaps it is because the bigger trauma for me will always be the touch of a neighbourhood creep at age 6. Perhaps it is because I did not have the words to articulate what had happened.

Very few women have the vocabulary to describe ambiguous encounters. Tolerance and adjustment and “being cool with it" are considered high feminine virtues. So many minor infractions happen in a girl’s lifetime that by the time a boss snaps a bra strap—or whatever the 2018 equivalent of that is—her quick defences are dulled. If language fails, so does memory. There is gaslighting not just by perpetrators but denial by family and close friends as well, because often it is they who don’t want to face an uncomfortable truth about the environment you share with them.

In the last two weeks, as women have come forward with painful and graphic stories, the argument of “why they kept quiet all these years" has lost its legs.

Because it’s hard to remember, and then it’s hard to forget. I spent a part of last week feeling guilty at my privilege—nothing of the sort the women described on Twitter and Medium had happened to me. My husband had to remind me. I had either entirely forgotten or mislabelled my 25-year-old self’s misadventure. This is the reason the women’s stories are coming in waves. We are reminded of things on reading. We are aided by the narrative structures of other people’s stories. This is why the women who shared their experiences deserve our veneration.

For those who went to school in the 1980s and 1990s, there was some hurried discussion of “good touch" and “bad touch". Some parents took the after-school effort to elaborate further. But what about the good touch that rapidly descends into the bad touch? What about the baddish good touch? More problematically, what about the good-at-first bad touch? There has been no widely and easily recognized language to address this spectrum.

The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf made what he called the “linguistic relativity principle" his life’s work. He studied Native American languages in an attempt to account for the ways in which language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes and the extent to which language influences thought. Among Whorf’s examples are the words for water in the Hopi language. One indicates drinking water in a container and another indicates a natural body of water. If water can go by different names based on its vessel, why shouldn’t consent?

With “enthusiastic consent" and “safe space" and “agency" gaining new energy (Have you spoken to a 17-year-old lately?) women are finally talking. At a Durga Puja pandal this week, a woman I have never spoken to about anything more weighty than lightweight saris, asked me, “So what do you think about this #MeToo stuff?" We ended up talking for a while. She wanted to tell me her story. In the last two weeks, I’ve learnt everyone has a story to tell. And the MeToo hashtag has equipped women with vocabulary that acts as arsenal.

#MeToo has uncovered buried areas of conversation. It has enabled my mother to tell me about her experience as an adolescent girl in Delhi. A doctor touched her inappropriately during an examination. She hadn’t known what to say but she had known to scream, and she and her mother eventually got the doctor fired.

Before #MeToo we lacked words. Now we have a language.

She tweets at @aninditaghose

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