War on wordsBranding feminists as terrorists may be libellous because ‘terrorist’ is a highly politicised term
Senior journalist Kishore Nepal wrote a feature on Uma Subedi, a prominent woman fiction writer, in the June 16 issue of Saptahik weekly with the headline ‘I am not a terrorist feminist’. This raised many eyebrows. Irate comments soon began flooding social media sites and both the interviewer and interviewee were criticised for branding feminists as terrorists. Subedi denied using the word on her Facebook wall. Following the uproar, Kishore Nepal also replied on the same Facebook comments chain by saying that “it was casual word play”. He also made a patronising remark at a prominent woman poet, “I have been playing with words even before you were born.”
Creation of propaganda
His contradictory remark was confounding. Do journalists, who have been playing with words, get the privilege of misusing them to create propaganda? Can they exercise media power under the name of ‘casual word play’? My immediate reaction after reading the title ‘terrorist feminist’ and the subsequent comments on social media was to ignore the topic, especially because this was not an isolated case where feminists have been mocked or misrepresented, not only by men but also by many women.
My reason for not engaging in the issue was based on the logic that feminists do not need to fight defensive missions. Later, realising that he was on a propaganda mission, I changed my view and thought that if we do not retaliate against journalists like Kishore Nepal with obvious propaganda missions, branding feminists as terrorists would become normal. Also, remaining silent in such a case would be equal to accepting the wrongful appropriation of the word feminist.
Knowing too well that journalists do not take their words lightly, some questions came to mind: Are non-feminists really terrified of feminists? Have feminists’ efforts to achieve gender justice become a matter of mockery? Even in his casual word play, the implied meaning is that ‘feminist terrorists’ are zealots and extremists. Whether the words were used metaphorically or literally, the combination presented two semantic possibilities: First, he is terrified of feminists; and second, he is caught up in his own misogynistic patronising mindset. His casual word play created a scandalous term and implied linguistic meanings that vilified all feminists as dangerous extremists.
Who knows better than journalists that words should be taken seriously because they constitute a world of reality? Language shapes meanings, perceptions, cognitions and emotions. Linguists and anthropologists have argued for ages that the world of words neither serves a unitary purpose nor can they be implied in an absolutely objective sense. Linguists also contend that each word creates its own binary opposition. Day and night, man and woman, and sky and earth are only a few of such innumerable semantic oppositions. This also means that if a word favours one meaning, the binary devalues it. Politicians, people working in advertising and marketing and propaganda planners know it well, and they distort the meaning in their favour while simultaneously camouflaging the damage they have done.
In the same manner, some journalists also manipulate words for propaganda purposes. As far as the term ‘terrorist’ goes, a major strategic intent of modern-day terrorism is to create great psychological panic by means of large-scale attacks. Branding feminists as terrorists is arguably libellous because ‘terrorist’ is a highly politicised term used to describe the behaviour of forces opposed to state power.
In this case, whatever Kishore Nepal’s intention, his love for casual word play unmasked his misogynistic ego and showed which side he is on. One cannot confirm if his labelling was a deliberate effort to demean feminists as extremists, or merely a casual remark that exposed his valorisation of women who silently submit to the patriarchal status quo. His choice of words exposed his normative mindset that mocks gender justice fighters as ‘terrorists’ and his casual word play implies that gender oppression, injustice and inequality are normal, acceptable and inevitable.
Some would argue that the term ‘terrorist feminist’ is not an insult to feminists because it was used metaphorically. But we cannot deny the unfavourable meaning such terms can generate, especially in young readers’ minds. It is obvious that the negative connotations of the word ‘terrorist’, and the way it was tied to feminists in his ‘casual word play’, can devalue and deflate the gender justice movement, normalise gender discrimination, validate the patriarchal mindset, discourage women who believe in equality, and worst of all, push many women into silence. Whatever his intentions, the fact cannot be denied that his choice of words defines feminists as being equivalent to extremists.
Silence isn’t the solution
Power is a social phenomenon that needs to be legitimised perpetually, and language is the obvious medium through which such legitimation occurs. The use of the term ‘terrorist feminist’, that too by a senior journalist, shows how some people with media power can manipulate and distort social meanings. If this is not the case, why would anyone brand feminists as extremists? Are feminists destroying society by provoking intense fear and shattering citizens’ security in the same way that forces resisting state power do? Is it a deliberate attempt, on the part of the senior journalist, to troll and silence feminists who work for the cause of gender justice?
His branding of feminists as terrorists shows his limited knowledge about feminists and feminism, and also exposes his male chauvinism. In addition, his patronising masculinist remark on social media not only reveals his likening for the patriarchal social order, but also his appreciation and valorisation of normative feminine virtues, such as receptivity, passivity and silence.
In our daily life, women and oppressive subjects often ignore offensive remarks because they are just too many of them circulating around, and also because such confrontations are excruciatingly exhausting. More often than not, such remarks tend to drag their recipients towards dark psychological dungeons. Despite that, retaliation becomes essential because silence becomes acceptance or submission to troll.
It would be wrong to believe that words are innocent of crimes. Words can entrap users in their own trap. Words can be lethal; they can cause war, intentionally or unintentionally. In this case, a specific word was used to despise and stigmatise feminists, and this casual word play also exposed the user’s misogynist mindset. This is an example that shows that people who proclaim themselves to be a master of words should be cautious about their use. This is because a word has manifold meanings, and the power of the word can denude the user in public without warning. Having said this, I strongly believe that no troll used against feminists—the gender justice fighters—is derogatory enough to incite psychological fear to push them into silence.
Thapa holds a PhD in English literature with a focus on gender