Language as Oppression, Language as Resistance
Robin Lakoff, a pioneering scholar in the field of Language and Gender reminds us of the fact that folklore and fables, those earliest instruction manuals at our disposal, construct the relationship between women, men and the idea of verbal expression in ways which are oppressive to women. For example in the fairy tale “Seven at a Blow,” the brave little tailor, having killed seven flies with one swat, embroiders himself a belt to that effect and wears it out into the world. He gets into trouble but eventually triumphs. The lesson: verbal assertion brings a man success. On the other hand, in the story ‘The Seven Swans,” a girl’s seven brothers are changed into swans. She can transform them back into men only by sitting in a tree for seven years sewing them shirts out of daisies. If she utters one word during this period, she will fail. She succeeds, despite terrible obstacles. The moral: silence and obedience are the path to success for a woman. Or if not success, the path to not getting destroyed. The way to stay safe and unharmed.
From the lack of language (i.e. silence) that is required from a wife who gets raped and beaten daily, in order to protect the good name of the family, to the way a woman should dress (or not dress) in order to not get raped, throughout the ages, women’s expression of themselves, their ‘language’ – be it verbal or non-verbal has been curtailed, ridiculed as being trivial and represented as being confined to the realms of gossip and small talk. The sexist language used to describe women is too familiar to be repeated here.
For this issue we invited contributors to interpret the theme of language and gender for themselves, and were happy to receive a varied and interesting range of interpretations which analyse, question and celebrate the language of women and women’s language. We were delighted to receive pieces from first time writers to Options, and also welcomed the interpretations of women and expression articulated by a few male contributors.
From an impassioned analysis of why the word ‘feminist’ is so abhorrent to young women today, to a powerful collection of photographs bearing messages from women (and men) for women in the form of placards and posters at a public rally, from a discussion of resistance as symbolized by a form of dress and the language of the saree to the way women use the act of cooking of a curry to express solidarity, from the language of women on a dance floor, to how female voices are affected in the act of translating and from an insightful analysis of dominant and competing discourses about violence in the home to thoughts on words and translations in religious texts, we offer you in this issue a mix of prose and poetry, the verbal and the visual, the pithy and the profound.  We hope the pieces in this issue of OPTIONS will provoke our readers to pay more attention to language, a phenomenon which is seemingly neutral and taken for granted because it is so fundamental and blended into our construction of the world. And of course, we hope you will be entertained as well.
I’d like to end with a quote from Amy Cunningham’s brilliant 2004 essay “Why Women Smile”, since smiling is also so much part of the ‘language’ expected of women, and so much part of remaining silent.
To limit a woman to one expression is like editing down an orchestra to one instrument. And the search for more authentic means of expression isn’t easy in a culture in which women are still expected to be magnanimous smilers, helpmates in crisis, and curators of everybody else’s morale. But change is already floating in the high winds…”
Vivimarie VanderPoorten

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