Hello and Goodbye, Mr. Atom

Languages can be violent without being violent. They serve as a manifestation of power without physically asserting it – or even needing to. If one wants to assess how much power a person – or a state – has over another, listen to the way they speak about them, especially when they are not around.

If there is a crass display of lingual lethality, ridicule, and muscle, it lies in the “language of nuclearization” that depicts a relation of starkly unequal power between the state that typically launches a nuclear weapon and the state that is victim to it. Professor Glenn D. Hook states in his journal article titled ‘Making Nuclear Weapons Easier to Live With: The Political Role of Language in Nuclearization’ that the language of the “hegemonic nuclear discourse” pilfers the humanizing agency and standpoint of the casualty-bearer with a conquest-like attitude towards the death of civilians that is covered through verbal brandishing. The choice of words, both literary and literal, in this language – also known as “nukespeak” make the act of attacking civilians with a nuclear weapon seem justified. He provides an example and says that the choice to use the phrase “collateral damage” instead of a “massacre” marks a notable difference between what could be taken as “unintended damage” in the place of “willful murder on a mass scale”. It also takes away from a sense of suffering from the target. As if everything is okay and nothing went wrong.

Nukespeak is a language that is packed with a very laddish, toxically masculine locution and also extends to relatively small-scale weapons and unmanned aerial vehicles like drones. This verbatim has been deliberately constructed and habituated the way it is for a reason; to maintain “an explicit manifestation of power in a communication setting”. Long before Donald Trump became infamous for using derogatory and violent language against women, Senator Brien McMahon – a self-professed advocate of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the mid-1950s, came to be known as “Mr. Atom”. Such is the titular reputation that some powerful people (especially militarily) have enjoyed in history – to the distress of those who were victims of it.

Nukespeak phrases including (but not limited to) “technological ‘gestation’”, “‘generation’ of weapons”, “it’s a boy”, “atomic sons” and “payloads” not only brandish masculine, military might that is metaphor for the birth of a boy, but also depict what a boy is supposed to do to prove to his buddy-buddies that he has become a man. This article refrains from quoting the sexual connotations that are part of nukespeak but for those who are curious, there is plenty of information available online.

For those of us who live in a terror-stricken country that has had drone attacks on its soil, nukespeak probably feels somewhat personal or familiar at some level. It feels like a mockery of our losses. However, if we were to look around us, we would find many versions and replications of our very own Mr. Atoms using similar language day and night. Some in front of us and others in our absence.

There is a distinguished group of people who are not just ‘too’ comfortable with but also seemingly entitled to using the kind of vocabulary that is akin to that of nukespeak every single day. To the point that their day might feel incomplete without the due indulgence of this kind (amongst many other kinds): our beloved Pakistani men. And as with so many offences that we Pakistani women are expected to get used to or casually ignore, we are told in regards to the lingo of our male counterparts that everything is okay and nothing is wrong. This is what ‘real men do’. Except, in this case, it is slightly more probable that the recipient of this language would not be dead when it is spoken. But since this is Pakistan we are talking about, who knows?

Languages are symptomatic of power dynamics not just within the international world order but also within societies, one of which is ours. The reason that this article did not jump straight to the topic of gender (caught you!) and made good use of academic resources on what is mostly a very specific American vernacular is that:

1) As a society, we sometimes tend to feel more infuriated at the same things that Westerners or Americans do as compared to when we do them ourselves.

2) It makes for a valid comparison between the ‘locker room talk’ that people like Donald Trump engage in and the language that Pakistani men use.

3) Language translates directly into power. If we choose to see the lingual power dynamics in nukespeak and ignore the language of Pakistani men who verbally abuse women as everyday ‘casual jokes’ or an expression of their male friendships then there is something wrong with us. 

4) I already know there is something wrong with us; I would not have written this long article if I did not know that. The purpose is to make my readers come out of denial. And annoy them with weird comparisons, maybe.

Coming back to the subject:

Thousands of Pakistani men give gaalis to their friends and foes – alike – every day, that if looked up in the slang dictionary, translate directly into violence. But not any kind of violence. The kind of violence that goes against the bodies of mothers and sisters. You know what I am talking about.

This language – that is used in a country where violence against women has been termed “endemic” – is a dual sign of friendliness as well as anger and hence more of a confusion than an elucidation of how a man truly feels inside: a burning question of our times indeed. A culture that fears the slogan of ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ far, far, far more than it fears the language that it allows to be exchanged between people every single day is a strange one. We all live in a strange culture if you have not realized it yet.

Before the influx of ‘radical, angry, Westernized feminists’ who started ruining the ‘culture’ of our country, some of us probably felt insulted at this language (it is okay if you were conditioned not to) but did not have the audacity to call it out as openly. It is feminism and its global and local movements that empowered us to not politely negotiate, pleasantly ask or desperately beg but rather to declare that this language is wrong; to speak our minds and hearts out loud in the face of Pakistani society and Pakistani men. This female-targeted, violent manner of conversing needs to stop, regardless of whether women are or are not around. The absence of women from a dialogue does not take away from the sexual misogyny and violence of its lingo.

The power of feminism or our empowerment is not in bringing new ideas to our lives; we already knew before what we know now. It is the strength that it has given us to tell the men in our lives – some of whom are very dear to us – to stop doing things that we are not okay with. On the other hand, the real danger of feminism that many Pakistani men – some of whom are very dear to us – see and fear is that we are ready to fight or worse, leave them for the values that we believe in. Now, this is the real bomb that has hit Pakistan. And our men are baffled. Uffff!

I, frankly, never thought that there would come a day in my life when women from all over Pakistan would be able to march, sing, dance, cry, recite poetry, tell their stories, and question the very culture and narrative that we have lived under for centuries. It is not just the act of questioning but also the attempt at redefining it that angers so many around us. It has taken us a long time to be able to say that the language, relationships, expectations, responsibilities, attitudes, and thoughts that come our way and are expected to be reciprocated are not okay. If Pakistani women have ever been able to come together on a unified platform and say ‘no’ to the injustices that have been forced on us for years in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘traditions’, it is now. This moment in history, whether we realize (or support) it or not, is far-reaching and momentous.

So, I for one, take every liberty to say no. To your language. To your gaze. To your dictations on our clothes. To your ideas of an ideal girlfriend. To your ideas of an ideal wife (the two are different in our culture, if you please). To your ideas of an ideal ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, haha! To your mansplaining on what is wrong and right for us. To your questioning (or disregarding) of our narratives and feelings. To your culture and your traditions. To everything that you ever did to control us, our beliefs, our choices, and our bodies. To this entire system.

Are we out of control? Very much so, Mr. Atom. And there is no going back.

So, better get used to our anger. Our feelings. Our happiness. Our liberation. Our sorrows. Our tears. Our perseverance against this unfair arrangement that you say is ‘culture’.

We have had enough. Now is the time to self-reflect and decide if you want to live like your forefathers did or change. For it is in the best of everyone’s interests – especially your own – that you do change.

May we never be the friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, casual hook-ups (yes it exists bro and you know it better than I do) colleagues, or rather, individuals that the Mr. Atoms of our lives want us to be. May we be something reckless, boundless and beautiful in our own way and our own right. We deserve to be respected and it is time that we got that respect. Let’s start with language.

یہ ہم گنہ گار عورتیں ہیں”

کہ اب تعاقب میں رات بھی آئے

تو یہ آنکھیں نہیں بجھیں گی

کہ اب جو دیوار گر چکی ہے

!اسے اٹھانے کی ضد نہ کرنا

یہ ہم گنہ گار عورتیں ہیں

جو اہل جبہ کی تمکنت سے نہ رعب کھائیں

نہ جان بیچیں

“!نہ سر جھکائیں نہ ہاتھ جوڑیں

~ کشور ناہید

Loose Translation with some edits for clarity:

“It is us sinful women

Now, even if the night gives chase

these eyes shall not be put out

For the wall which has been razed/fallen

Don’t insist now on raising it again

It is us sinful women

Who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

Who (we) don’t sell our lives

Who (we) don’t bow our heads

Who (we) don’t fold our hands together (a metaphor for pleading).”

~Kishwar Naheed

Author: Iqraa Bukhari

Bio: The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter’s Politics Department, where she works as a Postgraduate Teaching Associate (PTA). She is the recipient of the fully-funded SSIS PTA Studentship.

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