How language enables oppression

  • How we say something is as important as what we say

As a writer whose job is to convert chai into newspaper articles, I’m familiar with the power of a word. Behind every poem, song, textbook, or propaganda that influenced your worldview, is a writer who knows how to choose the right words for the right situation.

Words enable an exchange of ideas. Imagine meeting a group of friends at a tea house, where you miscalculate each person’s share of the total cost of food. “O marran!”, your friend calls out to you when he catches your mistake. Through his use of a largely misunderstood and misused Pashto expression, he casually implies that error or unintelligence is a ‘Pashtun’ feature. Your friend becomes a conduit to a racist notion that Pashtun people are prone to making silly mistakes.

Other examples include associating pettiness with femininity. Why would someone laughingly call his male friend “bibi” (woman) or “kurri” (girl) when he makes a fuss about something apparently minor? One’s casual usage of these words in a derogatory sense, offer us a peek into one’s mind. This is what he thinks of women. This is what he thinks of Pashtun people. Not only is this what he thinks, he is – probably without intending to do so – normalising this way of thinking for others as well.

Just as languages can be used to transmit oppressive ideas, they can be used strategically to create informational and economic barriers.

Given the chance, would you rather send your child to an English-medium school, or an Urdu-medium one? A vast majority, if not all, would pick the former. Urdu-medium education is generally only tolerated by those who through the lack of financial or geographical opportunity, are unable to choose English-medium education. Separate languages allow easier separation of classes. While English allows access to a world of information, Urdu offers an opportunity to filter the information that trickles down to the masses.

There’s an adage in the journalist community that they needn’t fear violence for criticising powerful political organisations, as long as they write in English only. Generally speaking, the question isn’t very much about content, as it is about the demographic being addressed. Once a Pakistani writer oversteps the barrier from English to Urdu (or one of the other local languages, like Pashto), he acquires access to the masses. His words no longer reverberate in a small, tightly-regulated class of English-speakers for whom poverty, terrorism, mob violence, and land grab are mostly theoretical political topics. The words are at risk of being transmitted to an ocean of human ears, whose aching bodies may be mobilised against power centers.

The barrier works both ways. A few years ago, a viral video emerged of a Pakistani beggar speaking perfect English. How was this man less worthy of empathy than countless other beggars who roam our streets? It is as if the cries of the destitute hit a ceiling, and did not reach the English-medium populations above. How many voices remain unheard to this day, because they speak in a language that the Pakistani upper class – and the world – doesn’t understand or appreciate?

Our national focus on Urdu itself has deep, sometimes ominous, meaning. When East Pakistan pushed for the recognition of Bengali as an official language, the campaign had little to do with irrational romanticism with the language. The installation of Urdu at the seat of Pakistani power effectively placed all non-Urdu speakers at a politico-economic disadvantage. The reason for the Bengali Language Movement had little to do with culture and tradition, and nearly everything to do with their political alienation. When you are ruled by people who don’t speak your language, and to whom you cannot efficiently convey your grievances, you ought to be concerned.

West Pakistan, however, did not budge for the opposite reason. How do you synthesise a national Muslim identity in a subcontinent where people of many ethnicities and religions have existed side-by-side for centuries; with elements of language and culture being exchanged fluidly from one side to the other? How do you get a Bengali Muslim to love a Punjabi Muslim that he’s never met, more than he loves his Bengali Hindu neighbour?


When you are ruled by people who don’t speak your language, and to whom you cannot efficiently convey your grievances, you ought to be concerned

We do so by synthesising a language: Urdu. Forget your ethnicities, your cultures, and your geography. Forget your neighbours and your ancestors. Suddenly, the only identity you wear, is that of an Urdu-speaking Muslim, walking hand-in-hand into the future with other Urdu-speaking Muslims; leaving behind all the cultural, ethnic, and territorial baggage.

While languages can be used to isolate and oppress a certain group of people, languages can be used to forge resistance movements. Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, for instance, is nothing without the Pashto language. As Urdu held together Pakistan in the Indian subcontinent, it is Pashto that cements the Pashtun identity and any political force based on this identity.

How we say something is as important as what we say. Languages allow establishments to control the flow of power and create identities of their choosing. Languages can also be used to carve safe spaces that are impervious to propaganda.