Saturday, July 11, 2020

The language war in Ukraine

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Vladimir Putin, Matteo Renzi and Petro Poroshenko  |  Source: Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation  via Wikimedia

The adoption of Ukrainian language by the citizens of Ukraine has emerged as an important aspect of Ukraine’s struggle for a sovereign nation. For centuries, the Ukrainian language has played second fiddle to the dominant Russian, thanks to the mighty influence of the Tsar empire and the Soviet Union. When Ukrainian language was declared as the official language of independent Ukraine in 1991, there was finally a hope that it would gain its rightful place as a National language of Ukraine. However, despite the enforcement of Ukrainian as the official language of the state, Russian continues to be very much prevalent in the country.

While Russian language is dominant in more urban areas, Ukrainian is spoken much more in the rural areas. The ongoing efforts to convince people into believing that the Russian speaking minority are being oppressed in the countryside. The other side of the language divide believes that the Ukrainian language is in far greater need for support from the state so it comes out of the shadow of Russian language.

The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a hallmark of this complex language war that has been breeding in Ukraine for a long time. Both the Kremlin and Putin justified the annexure of Crimea, citing the need to defend the Russian speaking minority of Ukraine.

The language war has been Russia’s biggest tool in disrupting Ukraine. This was made clear when a United Nations Security Council meeting held on 16th July,2019 regarding Ukraine’s move to make Ukrainian their official language, became a heated argument between Russia and the West. While Russia made clear that they were defending the Russian speaking minority in Ukraine while respecting the official language of the state, the US, backed by its allies like France and Britain employed the meeting to demand an end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.

It was not a surprise at all when the Language Law was passed in 2019, intending to increase the influence of Ukrainian in the society, especially in spheres like media and public services. The language law states that Ukrainian shall be mandatory for all official purposes pertaining to the state as well as international treaties. This law appears to be in line with the broader public opinion. As per a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center in December 2019, 69% of Ukrainians were in favor of Ukrainian being the official language of the state, while maintaining the freedom to use Russian in daily life.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was a supporter of the law that was passed on May 15th, 2019. However, Volodymyr Zelenskiy who was elected Ukraine’s president on May 20, 2019, has described the law as a set of “prohibitions and punishments” citing that it will complicate bureaucratic procedures and increase the number of officials rather than decreasing it.

Ukraine, it seems, is emerging from the perils of the language war and looks to adopt a bilingual approach for dealing with the language challenge. For instance, Russian speaking Ukrainians have been central in Ukraine’s resistance to the Russia backed insurgents in Eastern region of Ukraine . The election of a Jewish Russian-speaker, Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s sixth president in 2019 is seen by many Ukrainians as a positive step for the country’s politics of language.

Despite all the progress, however, the language war continues to be a sensitive issue in Ukraine. A Ukranian social media user on 11th June 2020 posted an English and Ukrainian bilingual McDonalds' menu, which implied that Russian language is removed from the menu. The post became viral soon and was picked up by a pro-Kremlin politician and social media star Anatoliv Shariy, who claimed that the menu reflected on the negative attitude towards the Russian speaking Ukrainians. McDonald's issued a statement clarifying that Russian language option was never present in its menu anywhere in Ukraine, but the damage had been done.

It seems that the saga of using language for political gains will keep on running in Ukrainian as both sides on the partisan divide are progressively entrenching their respective positions.

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October 23, 2020 3:57 PM

Male gaze, their female guardians and sports-wear

In Helen Cixous’ essay, ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, she urges women to redefine what their body means to them, not just physically but also socially, emotionally and politically. This could happen by re-writing about your body in a way you deem  fit, the expression you identify with and separating it from how your body has been written about by men. The expression could be how you view your body separate from the patriarchal lense.

It is no secret that a woman’s body is subject to critique. While clothing for men is just a tool to cover themselves as per the surrounding environment, clothing for women isa social and political narrative that dictates their life or as we affectionately call it ‘culturally appropriate’.

The clothing style could vary. It could be a woman covered head to toe in a Burqa, it could be a woman who decides to wear sports-wear in a park or it could be jeans and a top. Everything is critically evaluated by men and by women who work towards protecting the male gaze.

The male gaze is a heterosexual way of looking at female bodies that sexualises these bodies into an object. It is a gaze that runs on the self-affirmative notion that the bodies of women, and what they do with it, is directly linked to how they  appear in front of a man.

In a recent incident in Bangalore, India, popular Indian actress Samyuktha Hegde was abused and threatened by senior political leader of the congress party, Kavitha Reddy,  for wearing sports-wear, in Bangalore’s Agara Lake park. She was exercising with her friend.

Kavitha Reddy initially claimed she was in indecent attire and went onto morally police and then later abused the actress and her friend.  A supposedly progressive political leader gets uncomfortable by what women are wearing. It breaks into an argument and a fight where the politician is supported by five to six men. Later on, the police appear to be appeasing the politician instead of the women who were harassed. Although she did apologise, her apology came after her video went viral, and as a protection for her own political reputation.

To look at Samyuktha Hegde’s clothing as a threat is to view her clothing as an act of obscenity therefore bullying her identity and sense of agency and reducing her to sexual object, who, by putting her in public, apparently gives the men present a right to look at her? Nevermind that she was there to workout like everyone else, her actions were confused as to how men look at her. In the video posted by the actress, the politician is surrounded by men who are championing her on. The politician choses to side with the patriarchal figures in shaming these women. Asking to protect from the male gaze is a far stretch but punishing women for the male gaze is where we should draw a line.

What roles does Kavitha Reddy play? She is the guardian of the male gaze. We find her in our mothers, in our grandmothers, in aunties and sometimes our friends. She understands a woman’s body as an object that is there to be looked at by men. She gets angry at women for wearing certain kinds of clothing but she is not angry at men for looking. The agency in this case always belongs to men.

When Cixous asks women to re-define their identity, she urges us to strangle the moral police that comes alive in such instances. It is the moral police that shames women for wearing clothes that don’t flatter their bodies or clothes that do flatter them. She urges us to reflect upon the source of such vigilance. Do we shame other women because we believe in what we are saying or our identity is partially (or  wholly) shaped by the male gaze?

Whether we chose to wear a burqa, or a dress, or variations of the new type clothing produced everyday, the crux of the matter is that it should not worry anyone apart from the one wearing it. The identity of a woman, sexual or otherwise, has to be redefined to be separated from the men and their gaze. We have to draw a line otherwise people in power will continue to abuse their power and preserve patriarchy and male gaze.

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