Earlier this month, Gloria Steinem moderated a discussion on Feminism and the Politics of Language at the Albertine in New York. What began as a discussion on the inevitability of gender pronouns in some languages morphed into a provocative debate on gendered power dynamics embedded within languages. As the novelist Marie Darrieussecq noted — in French “the masculine dominates the feminine” as a grammar rule. Patriarchal French society struggles with the everyday linguistic dominance of masculinity while its neighbouring matriarchal Basque society speaks no gender pronouns. Curious coincidence?
The question of whether gendered grammar rules necessarily correlate with gendered societal power structures is beyond the scope of this opinion, but pronouns, words and terms are of interest. As Steinem noted, “before women at Yale coined the term sexual harassment, that was just everyday life, you know.” Mary Kathryn Nagle, the lawyer on the panel, pointed out the difficulty of working with Native American tribes and communities using languages that have no words for domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and the like.
Pause. What’s in a word, you may think? Think again
Rape. Sexual harassment. Sexual assault. Domestic violence.
These terms are powerful because of the lack of choice, gross violence and heinous misconduct — the absolute unjustifiable societal wrongs — of which they speak.
Circle back to our communities. What words correspond to these terms in the native Pakistani languages you speak?
Eight years ago– quite by accident — I began my probono legal activities when a woman burst into a public meeting hall in Khairpur Mirs to interrupt Sindh’s former minister for women’s rights, Tauqeer Fatima. Possibly as the least useful though somewhat relevant political person in the room, I was asked to join those whisking her away to redress her concerns. It took hours of patient questioning to understand what she had experienced. She merely pointed to burn marks all over her body, saying ‘Adi, zulm — injustice.’ But what she had experienced was a lot more than nebulous, vague, inaccurate, generic zulm. She was being raped and could not express that in any language she spoke. She didn’t know foreign legal terms — the Arabic zina bil jabr or Hindi balatkar. She didn’t know of any Sindhi or Urdu words for what she experienced and neither did I. Neither she nor I knew of Sindhi words for sexual organs or indiscretions. Armed only with general words for violence and justice, it took hours to unpack her story. She only came to us because she feared her brother-in-law would burn her to death. She didn’t know that being raped was not okay.
This kind of conceptual confusion occurs in fringe, rural areas, far from the world of English-speaking Pakistanis reading this opinion? Wrong. Unsurprisingly, the hardest legal concept I’ve had the misfortune of teaching — far harder than anything corporate finance or land law — was marital rape. One of my best students was extremely confused when I mentioned the House of Lords’ decision in R v. R  UKHL 12 in the context of judicial development of the common law in England and Wales. He quizzed me about it in class and in office hours, and it took me several rounds of questions to understand that he, like many others, genuinely presupposed perpetual consent within the institution of marriage, not realising the concerns of agency and consent involved.
Pakistani law makes illegal rape, assault, sexual harassment and general bodily harm, but the law can only go so far. Professor Kendall Thomas at Columbia Law School reminds us that the law exists through language. But what do we do when communities speak no words for legally proscribed wrongs? Does the absence of local terms allow wrongs to continue relatively undetected? Apparently so. In the absence of local discourses, too many Pakistani women and men — in too many villages, towns and cities — continue speaking silence where they ought to speak words.