Monday, November 27, 2017

#nosgbv That feeble no

We have been talking about consent since yesterday, and the infamous 'feeble no' judgment has come up just once--maybe because we've really been talking basics.

But I want to reflect a little bit on the 'feeble no' that you know and I know is out there. It's the feeble no we teach our daughters to say so that when they visit someone and are asked, "Would you like some tea?" they know how to simper and say, "No, Aunty." It just needs to be loud enough to register as a polite answer. One level up and it would be too boisterous.

In workshops on sexual harassment, I hear that 'feeble no' all the time. I ask young women what they would do if someone propositioned them, and how they would communicate lack of assent. They reply, with the energy of a two-day old bouquet without fresh water, "No." That no. Then I make them repeat the 'no' with more and more energy and feeling till it brings the house down.

It's not their fault. They've been told to be seen and not heard. To be useful and not impose. To serve and to please without consideration for their own needs and feelings. To efface themselves.

Aunties and Uncles and Akkas and Dadas of all descriptions have felt free to pinch their cheeks in childhood and comment on their physical growth in adolescence. "Big girl you've become, aaah?" And then of course, "Come, give me a hug, I have a teddy bear for you." The girl that says 'no' audibly is the one who is a brat, a disgrace to her parents and watch out, will go nowhere in life thanks to her bad temperament.

That feeble no, carefully calibrated so as not to be heard, is the one that gets the most practice and praise all of one's life.

"Do you want another piece of dhokla?" No, thank you.
"Do you want to watch another channel?" No, thank you.
"Would you like some more tea?" I wouldn't mind. (Not, "I would love some!")
"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

We tell girls that adding the word 'please' is wrong. That assailants hear the 'please' and nothing else. That they think it's the no-that-means-yes. 'Please' enfeebles 'no.'

There was that whole piece in the judgment about how educated women should be able to come up with more than a feeble 'no.' Agreed. The problem is educated women are also raised in a patriarchal society to be nice girls. And educated women are also afraid of assailants provoked to even greater violence. And educated women think, let me get away with the least physical injury.

I don't know. The truly mysterious element in the whole consent conversation is what goes on in an assailant's mind when he pushes past the push-back, the no, the attempted escape--to force himself. How do you not read the signals when someone does not want you near them, touching them, on them or in them? How self-obsessed do you have to be? How entitled?

And that's really what it is. Entitlement. Entitlement makes consent irrelevant.

"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

It's not the 'no' that is feeble. It's the inner "But naturally!" in the assailant's mind that is too loud.


The distaste for 'no' runs very deep. We wanted to make a word-cloud graphic for the Twitter chat Prajnya had today on consent. Several attempts later, we realised that the various softwares we were trying were filtering out 'No' and 'Not' from the artwork. We figured out how to re-set the filters to get the image below. But... art imitates life?


As I write this almost-frivolous blogpost, Hadiya's right to choose has been dismissed as irrelevant. Rather than allowing her to pick where she wants to live and what she wants to do, she has been assigned a guardian. Women are too silly and emotional to choose and must be infantilised and protected. So not only are men entitled, but women are also less than human. How then can their assent or dissent matter to anyone?

And this is exactly why people feel free to make decisions for women--including whether they should have intercourse forced on them. They couldn't possibly be able to arrive at a preference on their own. And as for rights, those are for equal citizens.


The tone of these blogposts is a little flip, maybe, but I realise as the words tumble out that there is a clutted and overgrown forest inside my head, accumulated over the years of reading about these issues. I get to write and speak about them all the time but in sanitised, palatable and formal ways. Where does all the clutter and confusion and incoherent fury go--because, believe me, it is in there, dictating these words faster than my fingers can make them appear on this screen.... they must find a home in order for better ones to appear.

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