A brief meditation on how language facilitates rape on the first anniversary of the inhumane Delhi gang rape.
There are many reasons I chose the phrase Active Voice for the title of my blog. One of them is simply grammatical. I deplore the tendency to resort to the passive voice and all that it implies. The passive voice dwells on the action not on the actor. You come across it a lot in bad academic writing. “A form was developed and disseminated to collect epidemiological data, including data on health services utilization and costs….Subsequent visits were made to collect the data” etc etc.
But there are far more serious abuses of the passive voice, especially as described in the article quoted below; written in the wake of the horrific Delhi gang rape almost exactly one year ago (December 16) Tilotamma Shrinivasa notes how the passive voice can be employed as a blame-shifting device in relation to sex crimes. It’s worth thinking about.
Before we begin, a quick grammar lesson is due. Google for ‘passive voice’ and the very first hit defines it like this:
Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action.
And adds this:
“Sometimes a statement in passive is more polite than active voice, as the following example shows:
Example: A mistake was made. In this case, I focus on the fact that a mistake was made, but I do not blame anyone (e.g. You have made a mistake.).”
So, saying “Draupadi stole Bheema’s apple” blames Draupadi for stealing, while saying “Bheema’s apple was stolen by Draupadi” focuses on the fact that the apple was stolen. Now if you drop Draupadi from the second sentence, “Bheema’s apple was stolen” conveys the idea that this terrible thing happened to Bheema but doesn’t blame anyone! Or if I use an even worse and a grammatically dodgy form of passive voice: “Bheema had his apple stolen” squarely dumps the responsibility of what happened on Bheema’s head!
Now that you are equipped with the power of grammar, here is a snapshot of Google results for the recent assaults in Gurgaon and Manipal:
Let’s not even start with the ‘allegedly’ business! Anyway, here is another general snapshot of recent articles:
So much has been said, so much written, emoted, protested, pronounced and declaimed that you wonder if you should even venture to add anything to the maelstrom surrounding the young woman so brutally violated in Delhi who has now succumbed to her fearsome injuries. Yet not to mark her death with a post would be to disregard her life, to avert my gaze from this youngster who paid so dearly for having been out with her male friend in Delhi on December 16.
On that same evening I was in Bangalore, with Achal and Rita, enjoying the stupendous NH7 Weekender music festival. Somewhere in a field near the Yelehanka Airforce Base this superbly organized event featured seven stages or music stations facing different directions each one with a roster of acts simultaneously pumping out a particular genre of music: rock, soul, folk, punk, electronica and of course the Pepsi Dub Station with Reggae-inspired music. In fact i had organized this outing so i could hear the Reggae Rajahs live at the Pepsi Dub Station.
We watched Indian Reggae fans skanking and vybsing to the Reggae Rajahs who put on a great performance. We had barely arrived in time to catch them and missed all the earlier acts but it was wicked to be in Bangalore listening to live Reggae and so much else. The whole event had a mela-like atmosphere, thousands of youngsters, i mean probably 20 thousand young men and women, many of them out with each other and enjoying themselves. There was food, drink, other stuff to buy and the music crashing all around us, what an awesome moment, especially catching just before we left, the amazing Indian Ocean, one of the oldest pop bands in India.
Achal vouchsafed that the experience had restored his faith in Bangalore which in recent years with the explosion of tech industries had become unrecognizable from the gentle, civilized city it used to be. But seeing all these young men and women out having clean, good fun said something for the kind of space still available for non-religious, communal, Western-inflected, almost cosmopolitan recreation. Mind you you had to well-heeled, the tickets weren’t cheap but it wasn’t by any means exclusively an upper-class, English-speaking crowd.
In the aftermath of what took place in Delhi that same night, originating in a part of Delhi i know so well–Munirka–having studied at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), i was haunted by the thought of what a hostile space that city i love so much represented for a young man and woman who had only aspired to see The Life of Pi that evening. Early reports suggested that the rapists had taunted the young woman for being out alone with a man at 10 pm, as if to say she was now fair game for rape. They then had their way with her, expressing on her body and that of her companion, but particularly hers, all the repressed desire and rage engendered by a society that refuses to acknowledge the sexuality of its young, that keeps it pent up beyond all reasonable limits, allowing no space for young women and men to be with each other and enjoy their youth.
Who were these men? How old were they? I bet they didn’t have girlfriends or wives yet…where was their sexual energy supposed to be spent? This isn’t to justify their bestiality…personally i think they should be castrated as an example…but these are questions we need to ask and find answers for.
Ironically the long term cure for the rape culture so cozily nourished by draconian Indian kinship and marriage practices is the very thing this unnamed young woman and her friend were doing that evening. The practice of young men and women going out together before marriage has to be encouraged, cultivated and normalized before there’ll be any reduction in rapes. Look within India at cultures that have space for mating rituals before marriage and see what the correlation with rape is.
Gujarat may feature very high on the rape radar because of the systematic, premeditated rape that accompanied religious and ethnic riots there but if you look at regular, everyday rape statistics there i wonder what it would show. Because Gujaratis are generally very permissive towards their young and have space in their culture for widespread pre-marital mixing. Their garbas and other communal dances are designed i think to engage the sexual energy of young Gujaratis legitimately, within the culture, respecting cultural codes. As long back as the 60s and 70s the prevalence of courting couples had changed the name of Law Gardens in Ahmedabad to Love Gardens.
Look at Bangalore and the NH7 weekender event i described earlier and the vibrant pub culture long associated with this city. In recent years religious fundamentalists have decreed that pubs and other places be closed earlier and earlier, that spaces where the young could dance be shut down, all in the name of some sinister vernacular morality that ultimately begets, actually propagates, widespread rape, much of which takes place within families, with underage children, with the helpless and the most vulnerable in our societies. I haven’t even touched on the dread subject of Dalits all over India and the routine violation and terrorism they face at the hands of ‘moral’, ‘upright’, ‘chaste’ Hindus.
So rage against the government all you want, the problem is really with Indian culture, broadly speaking, despite the preponderance of female gods. Goddesses notwithstanding, as constituted now its a culture that incubates rapists, then trains them and arms them. How are we going to repair that?