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Words that matter

  • Published at 06:19 pm March 8th, 2018
Words that matter
Part of Naripokkho’s work, for example, has been to concentrate on terms and phrases that are applied to women, and we have worked to change phrases such as “victims of violence” to survivors of violence, and insisted that rape not be talked of as a loss of women’s 'honour'. There are two main spaces in which our activism really took on the issue of naming, and I would like to dwell on them now.

Sex work in Bangladesh

In the sex workers movement which reached its peak in the 1990s, there was a sustained effort to change words - from prostitution and prostitute to sex work and sex worker. Even now feminists are divided over this, as some women feel that acknowledging sex work as work glorifies the ultimate exploitation of women’s bodies. Despite these reservations, the change in nomenclature did take place, and mainstream reporting in Bangladesh now uses the terms sex work. While we feel that this change in naming gives these women more space from which to fight for their rights as citizens and workers, others point out that it has not really spelt a change in their situation. Sex workers are still subject to the worst forms of violence, do not get legal redress, and their living and working conditions are at the mercy of a lot of forces much beyond their control. Nevertheless, calling sex work work provides a platform from which women can fight for their rights as workers, as well as citizens, and takes away some of the stigma associated with sex work. The sex workers’ movement of the 90s concentrated on the issue of citizens' and women’s rights and is an example of how such a movement can change attitudes. One of its long-lasting effects has been the formation of sex workers’ groups who can mobilize against violations of rights, such as brothel evictions, or gain access to health facilities and get education for their children. The way that sex work is debated in the country today is really different from the attitudes and views that were expressed during the prior decades when words such as prostitute or fallen women acted as badges of shame for women engaged in sex work.

Naming of the rape survivors of 1971

We had supported the term ‘birangona’ which recognizes the victims of war time rape as war heroines, and had resisted the term ‘muktijoddha’ or freedom fighter which the women themselves were insisting on. Again, the reasons for the difference in our approach and demand are manifold – one, we felt that the term birangona had been bestowed to women who had suffered rape as a badge of honour. Their rejection of this honorific was guided by the fact that subsequent actions had not echoed the spirit of the term, and in fact, other words applied to the women had not echoed the honour that is inherent in that title either. Women were and continue to be extolled for ‘sacrificing their honour’ in service to the nation, which does nothing to mitigate the opprobrium connected to the ‘loss of honour’ that continues to be attached to women who have been raped. Hence, the women themselves did not want to stand out as the violated ones. Feminists, on the other hand, felt that reinvesting the title birangona with its original intention would not only acknowledge the fact of war rape, but would help other rape survivors to feel that the crime committed against them had nothing to do with their own or their family or community honour. Rape as a weapon of war is used to ‘dishonour’ the enemy, and women in conflict have continued to be subject to this. However, when the government of Bangladesh, after 45 long years, and after women had lived their whole lives with the shame of rape hanging around their necks, decided to acknowledge and give reparations to the still surviving women, they were acknowledged as muktijoddhas or freedom fighters. This change in naming from birangona to muktijoddha, we felt, has drawn a veil over the fact of rape and made it that much more difficult to ask for reparations for a crime against women’s bodies. In both these instances, the issue of sexuality was prime. In the first instance, it was felt that the acknowledgement of sex as work would bring the whole issue of women’s work to the forefront - its exploitative and discriminatory nature, and would give a platform for these women to fight for their rights as workers. In the second instance, the state or country would be bound to acknowledge the political nature of violence against women, and by asking for reparations on that basis, would draw attention to the politicization of female bodies. Legal measures – both of workers rights and conditions of work, and the legal status of rape as war crime, would thus be acknowledged.

Women's migration also subject to verbal play

The vocabulary in terms of women's migration hovers around two main words - migration and trafficking. There is a wonderful book called Coolie Women: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gauitra Bahadur that brings the history of such terms to the forefront. Written in 2013, it shows how the banning of the slave trade did not mean the end of the plantation economy. Hence ‘indentured’ labour now replaced the import of African slave labour. The focus shifted from Africa to the Indian sub-continent, and the book traces the import of ‘coolies’ from India to the West Indian/Caribbean lands. The same process was followed in the rubber plantations of what is now Malaysia, or Malaya and the islands of Borneo and Sarawak. Colonial economic networks depended on this transportation of labour. Coolie Women is a wonderful book in this context, as it draws our attention to the racial admixture the Caribbean region witnessed as a result of the great migration of peoples under the aegis of colonialism. Also, the book draws attention to the Indian in the admixture of races, something that has been widely overlooked in studies of the Caribbean. One of the changes that had been brought about by the replacement of slave labour by indentured labour was the notion of voluntary migration versus forced migration. Slavery was castigated for its violent and forceful nature, whereas indentured workers had supposedly chosen voluntarily to make the cross-continental journey to work in plantations. Coolie Women’s emphasis on women helps us relate it to some of the issues that pertain to women’s labour migration today. The division over the words ‘migration’ and ‘trafficking’ sometimes tips over to the phrase ‘modern day slavery’, representing the difficulty of distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary migration where women are concerned. The hesitation over women’s migration today is closely related to her sexual positioning and notions of honour. It is presumed women’s bodies are trafficked for prostitution, and women are not granted with any agency in this process. In fact, the literature of sex work has divided women into ‘third world’ women, who are trafficked into sex slavery, whereas the narratives of choice have been attributed to white women. Such representations echo existing political and economic realities, giving very little scope for other ways of thinking about these issues. The notion of agency in the face of abject poverty is indeed questionable, but research in brothels in Bangladesh has shown that women do exercise a modicum of choice in the process. Naila Kabeer in her book The Power to Choose (2000) has shown that poverty and choice are not mutually exclusive, by highlighting the negotiations that women are involved in even in the most vulnerable of situations. On this International Women’s Day, as we celebrate how far women have travelled on the road to freedom, let us stop for a moment to look at how our lives are determined. Even if words are not all, words do matter, and determine to a large extent the nature of choice and agency that we as women can exert. Words also form the realities that we are placed within, and hence the struggle for language – for naming – remains prime. The author is Professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University, and a member of Naripokkho. Her main interests are in feminist and colonial literary criticism.