East and West

A Little Respect

English was not my first language. It’s true that I was born in Marston Green but I don’t recall leaving the house much as a small child so there was probably no use for it. Any memories I have or what I understand to be memories are spoken in another language, the Mirpuri dialect my mother spoke. But as soon as I started nursery the memories very suddenly change and I remember giggling at my white reception class teacher for employing two Punjabi phrases every teacher needs when dealing with little ones; “line bunaow” make a line, and “chup kar” be silent. There were a large number of us without English as our first language but personally, my grasp of English has never held me back.

I’ve always been fascinated by the way words translate cross language and how so much of what we mean when we say a word is reliant on how it makes us feel. Certain words lack gravity in some cultures whereas in others they are taboo. Words like ‘cunt’ and ‘Paki’ for example. On a very basic level, these two words say very different things to British and American people, cunt being somewhat acceptable in Britain due to its overuse and Paki in America because their Asians are oriental. It doesn’t have the same gut wrenching impact as it does over here but then I became aware of how ‘cunt’ made my American (and some British) Twitter friends feel. I cannot knowingly use this word around people who are affected by it. I have to think of better words.

I have this focus on language because it is so important to understand the way it makes us feel and how it shapes our ideas. Language everywhere in the patriarchy is designed to make us feel a certain way. It controls us. It maintains the status quo. Take the word ‘Izzat’ for example. It means honour, respect, personal worth to some. I would push ego in there too. It’s a reflection of one’s self worth, and suggests the person has a reputation that needs protecting. The women in the family carry the burden of Izzat, although it is a thing shared by all those in the unit. As a child, I was often commanded to speak with Izzat, with respect, as were my siblings, whether male or female. But Izzat came to mean another thing too. For a while I believed it had something to do with the physical act of getting naked because of when it was said. The family sat round watching the latest Bollywood hit and then the villain would tear the starlet’s clothes from her. Amidst the scramble for the remote whilst we little ones cowered behind cushions, I was accustomed to hearing the phrase “Izzat looti”. Stole her honour. Stole her respect? Self-respect? Whose respect? Whose honour? What was I missing from behind my safety guard? Of course Bollywood cinema was heavily censored so I never understood what it was until I became a young teenager myself. Then I guess the older women would speak about it to give us some idea of what to expect. Cringing with shame they’d share stories about women who had been raped. But then the word changed in meaning again. This time it was being used in conversations about young girls running away from home. The families they’d leave had no Izzat left; their fathers too shame faced to lift their eyes from the ground.

This word Izzat has many layers and is not as simple as a foreign practice incomprehensible to the civilised West. It expresses many feelings and ties that are not dissimilar to our white brethren. Izzat or honour as the West refer to it is an emotion felt by the person in possession of it. This is usually men. 70% of the world’s population experiences violence and/or sexual abuse at the hands of the patriarchy. Perpetrators justify their actions by using a variety of excuses. At one time the defence “she made me do it” would have probably got you a pat on the back from the local police as they left you to resolve your own “domestic” (translate: not public, nothing to do with us) but with changing attitudes towards accountability and an understanding of power and control dynamics, better education and training for public authorities, we no longer buy that crap. Or at least there are some who don’t.

We are struggling to identify abuse and inappropriate behaviour because of racism. Physically harming a person, regardless of the excuses the perpetrators dream up is unacceptable in all its forms. When a white man knocks back 10 Stellas and beats his wife/girlfriend for winking at another man, he is responding from his own bruised ego, his own honour. He feels he has been disrespected and the only way to claw back respect is by force. Every action has a reaction and fear in the victim can be interpreted as respect by the perpetrator. How is this different to brown men abusing brown women? It isn’t. It is merely used as an excuse to avoid helping often the most vulnerable and marginalised women in our society. Because racism.

Whether in the East or West, women are property. They are required to adhere to a strict code of conduct. Deviating from this results in coercive force to intimidate the woman into behaving in the way patriarchy sees fit. Now, whether this comes in the form of forced marriage or alienating a woman from her friends, the intention is power and control. They are essentially the same. The only difference is the way in which we view colour. Black/brown, they are already viewed with suspicion. Throw in a cultural practice that is not unlike our own a century or two ago (and really, how old are the former colonies? In their infancy) and you have an unknown entity threatening the very fabric of our society. It’s a creeping Shariah. The fear this evokes in people is not a gender issue but one of race.

We can only move forward once they acknowledge this.