People often undermine the role words and stories play in our lives. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how the dominant culture, for their own purposes, defines the stories we believe to be absolute and true. We amble along within those narratives and many of us never stop and look around and, more especially, look outside the walls of those stories to see the other possibilities. We don’t scratch the surface a bit, or carefully pick at the word choices that are the ingredients that make those stories.
I’m currently doing research for my third historical novel and one narrative various tribes around Southern Africa like to believe is the story of purity. But one thing you learn as you begin to get under the surface a bit, especially after the wars of the Difaquane and the disruptions of colonialism, individuals, no matter where their original people might have been, often hooked up with who made them safest and they became that. A deeper look makes many of the walls that divide us collapse, the narrative is only useful for the ones that require it; it is, in the end, a story.
These stories are everywhere. One story I’ve been analysing is the story of marriage. This is a story well-established and reinforced with almost dictatorial vigour through songs and films and romance novels. What is a good marriage? We all know the story. It is between a man and a woman. It is monogamous, especially on the woman’s side. It is based on trust and love. It is a partnership where the two become one; they are soul-mates. The story is so entrenched we all know a good marriage when we see one, and just as easily can condemn a bad one without a thought. We know the story. But what about a different marriage story? What is beyond those boundaries of the narrative? Shouldn’t we question everything? Are we not each unique with unique needs? Then how does this marriage-suit fit everyone the same? I suspect it does not.
Another story fed to us is the story of capitalism and the growing healthy economy. That is how a sound country is quantified. Is that the only way? Is it really a healthy way? Nothing grows forever in this practical world we live in—except the economies of countries, at least that is what they tell us. It seems unbelievable, but we all swallow it. Stories, stories, stories. Were we not taught to question? To look behind the Wizard’s door like our dear Dorothy?
And what about those pesky words. Lately the word of the moment has been defile. I understand it is a legal word of some sort, but even there I will not allow it any refuge. It needs to be pulled out into the light and analysed. It must be questioned. Words are the tools that we use to build stories, the stories that dictate our lives, that push us as a global tribe forward— or backward. Shouldn’t we be clear about the words we choose?
What does this word defile mean? To place under suspicion or cast doubt upon; spoil, spot, stain, or pollute; to make dirty.
Is that what we mean to say when we speak of a man using his position, or age, or power or money to sexually abuse a young vulnerable girl? When we say this girl has been defiled, what are we really saying?
In these words lie the seeds of misogyny and the bricks and mortar of patriarchy. What are we saying when we use defile, what charge is a man actually facing? He soiled the girl. She is now under suspicion. She is dirty.
Does this word not further victimise the victim? By using it, are we not perpetuating the virgin/whore story that attempts to define and prescribe women’s sexuality? Where is the monster who does these things, where is he in this defile word? He’s nowhere to be seen. Is this a story we believe in? Or is it one that is used to control women, much like that well-worn story of marriage? Is it not time to throw away these stories that hold us back?
Words and stories.
Undermine them at your peril.
(This first appeared in my column It's All Write, the 27th May edition of Mmegi)