At a New York City Human Rights Commission hearing on women in the workplace, journalist Lin Farley was testifying. It was 1975, and Farley was teaching at the Cornell University. During her testimony, she used the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ to describe the act of women being fired or forced to quit jobs for declining sexual overtures in workplace. The New York Times picked it up, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“At first, it felt as if the term had the potential to change everything. Working women immediately took up the phrase, which finally captured the sexual coercion they were experiencing daily…what he did had a name,” she wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times in October 2017.
For a phenomenon to be recognised, it requires a name. Farley gave it one, much like Rebecca Solnit, who coined the word ‘mansplaining’ in an article dated 2008. Simply put, it weighs the act of men explaining things to women in a manner that is considered condescending. Practices which didn’t have a name so far were immediately identified.
Whenever a new term is coined, or an old one’s pulled out of hibernation — like ‘gaslighting’ in the 2016 US Presidential elections — it offers the possibility of altering the nature of a discourse, in this particular case, the systematic and continued harassment of women at the hands of colleagues, intimate partners and even friends.
The #MeToo movement, which is currently tearing down powerful and ordinary men alike, has been marked by the usage of these terms, which, according to an editorial in Economic and Political Weekly dated 6 October, 2018, “…shifts attention from women’s experience of discomfort to the male ethos that leads to it.”
At its core, language is a tool for communicating. But it’s also the means with which to reinforce power structures. Feminists have long argued about the gendered nature of language and how it furthers patriarchy. “The way in which we use the gendered pronoun, even for gender-neutral situations, including court judgments, gives us a huge insight into this issue,” Madahvi Menon of Ashoka University says.
Terminology, she says, is crucial because currently language is all about maintaining a structure wherein men are elevated over women. There is no ideal world right now that doesn’t come burdened with implications, including the usage of the word ‘survivor’, says Menon.
In a 27 September article for Washington Post, Michele Sharp, a former trial attorney, wrote about the word ‘accuser’, specifically in the context of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Sharp questioned the word’s usage (in this case for Blasey) arguing that it is another instance of “patriarchal insistence on control of women. It insinuates that the person who was assaulted is unreliable”.
The mere devising of words, however, is not enough to change existing structures. Farley argued that over the years, the words ‘sexual harassment’ was stripped of its power. While it became ubiquitous, it could do nothing to discourage the behaviour that prompted it. She offers a solution: talk about the details, every time.
It’s an advice that women, who have come out with horrific stories of harassment, seem to follow. Testimonies are rife with details of every pernicious action.
As is with every movement, there are people who question it. Film studios dissolved, directors under fire, ‘woke’ comedians ousted, and yet, India’s #MeToo movement is seen as being too urban.
According to sociologist Radhika Chopra, “The appearance of new ways of knowing and speaking will be most apparent when these ways of speaking are inherited, transmitted across generational gender boundaries.” For her, one of the bigger takeaways has been not just the emergence but the disappearance of terms. “…it has laid to rest one of the most pernicious and patriarchal terms used to dismiss the trauma of molestation – eve-teasing. Eve-teasing lived because my generation had no way to speak of “what happened”. Now she hopes, there will be language to bury it.
Network 18, of which Firstpost is a part, has received complaints of sexual harassment as well. The complaints which are within the purview of the workplace have been forwarded to our PoSH committee for appropriate action.
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Updated Date: Oct 12, 2018 14:52:11 IST