Posted by Asavari Sharma
From the Aunty at that family dinner who will force that extra roti on your plate even after you’ve said no, to the friends who will coax you to have a hit from their joint even when you tell them you don’t want to, to the crazy acquaintance at a party who will shove vodka down your throat the moment you enter, to the marriage and career proposals that so many “agyakaari” kids need to accept despite their desire not to – every inch of our culture is built upon foundations of interaction that lack any conception of choice and a refusal to hear the word ‘No’.
In the recent times we inhabit, we’ve all found innovative ways to decline an invitation, cancel a plan, refuse an offer of chai, and find a way to dodge an arranged marriage proposal. We can come up with convoluted explanations and apologetic excuses but we can’t bring ourselves to mouth the two letter word that starts with an ‘N’. Because no one ever allowed us to say it in the first place because when we did, our consent was seen malleable or renewable just short of a bit of convincing. And this convincing wasn’t overbearing or disrespectful; in fact it was loving and affectionate. This is the propaganda against the word ‘No’ that we all grew up with.
What impact did this propaganda against a simple two letter word have on the agency of women who formed a part of society that was entirely unrepresented in a few areas of life (mostly those areas that involved action and power) while overrepresented in others (those involving over-sexualisation, submission and obedience)?
We can come up with convoluted explanations and apologetic excuses but we can’t bring ourselves to mouth the two letter word that starts with an ‘N’.
They simply forgot that it even existed in their vocabulary. Convoluted routes to avoid sticky situations was their best bet. Didn’t want a man to buy her a drink at the bar? She’d just say she has a boyfriend. When said entitled man would ask where that boyfriend is, she would pick on one of her male friends to play one. Easy no?
Why most of us, especially women and other minorities, choose to dodge the word ‘No’ is because of the assumed violence – physical and social (by means of ostracisation or exclusion) that it would bring them. And both threats are enough reason to internalise a lost sense of agency.
A great description of the word ‘No’ that I found in The Atlantic really shows us the ripples of disruption it throws in the working order that discourages people from using it – “‘No’ is, in theory, available to anyone, at any time; in practice, however, it is a word of last resort—a word of legality. A word of transaction. A word in which progress collides with reticence: Everyone should be able to say it, but no one really wants to.”
This fear for the consequence that the word ‘no’ is accompanied by brings the most vulnerable populations of the world (not savvy enough to conceive of convoluted routes of avoidance) to drone through their lives, doing what they are being told to do instead of what they actively want to or choose to do. Sometimes, the active choice isn’t even conceived mentally forget verbally because there is no knowledge of such choice being available. People suffer from not being able to distinguish between what they would like and not like, forget what would be an invasion to their space and what wouldn’t because they were never allowed to, forget verbalise, but even make a choice.
This is the foundation upon which we rear our children, especially our girls – obedience and an avoidance of conflict instead of those that encourage us to verbalise, confront, and discuss by the strongest weapon in our vocabulary – the word ‘no’.
So when we question women who report assault retrospectively, especially those who didn’t show any form of resistance during said assault, we must remember that an entire society of overbearing aunties, uncles, relatives, and pushy friends were cultivating an unsafe space for this individual where any form of non-compliance was immediately shut down and accompanied by some form of emotional blackmail, ‘friendly’ coercion, and a threat of, perhaps, losing social face.
Why most of us, especially women and other minorities, choose to dodge the word ‘no’ is because of the assumed violence.
When people aren’t allowed to make basic choices by annihilating individuals in their life, it leaves an immense impact on their agency. They lose their voice. If that isn’t enough, the invasive nature of an assault paralyses an individual’s agency. And the paralysis of individual agency is much more likely when it has been regulated in the past by means of subtle institutions of obedience that has been manipulated to look like love, care and even, perhaps, friendly banter.
So watch this video that explains consent through a cup of tea once again, and imagine just how ridiculous it would be to force absolutely anything upon anyone – from tea to food to drugs to alcohol to a plan in the evening and of course, sex.
And maybe if we stopped cultivating such a hostile attitude against the word ‘no’ and this idea of obedience that helps keep in place the power dynamic, then we may enable our children to assert themselves in most spheres of their lives and for those assertions to be respected and valued by one and all.
So please allow your children and friends to say ‘no’ to you. Make that space for them because our seemingly inconsequential actions can have an impact that is very distant yet quite profound.
Asavari Sharma is a feminist writer trying to take up space, exhausting herself attempting to do so, and starting once again.
Featured Image Source: Womenkind