25 September 2020 03:50 PM



#HappyWoman'sDay: Speak in Soft Tones, Better Still Do Not Speak At All!

KOLKATA: Has it ever occurred to us why, till the switchboard operator was a mandatory presence as the only source of communication with the outside world within an office, the operators were all women? Before the invention of automated systems that made the job of the switchboard telephone operator obsolete, these posts were almost exclusively held by women. The few males appointed were not only shirkers and moved away from the switchboard but there were incessant complaints about their rude and arrogant telephone behaviour with clients and customers

Few have cared to find out that the job of a switchboard operator demanded a high level of communication skills and an exceptional grip over the English language besides decent telephone manners. This is a major reason why switchboard operating was one of the first careers completely dominated by women. Yet, the lady telephone operator has been parodied, often in bad taste, in the media, in films and on television soaps.

One important reason why women were preferred is because they talked in soft tones, sometimes in whispers and had excellent telephone manners. This has been a trait injected into the female of the species almost from the time she learns how to speak. Imposing silence on women is one of the most invisible forms of violence imposed on girls and women across the world.

However, Karl Smallwood in The Curious Reason Women were allowed to work as Switchboard Operators (www.Factfiend.com July 10, 2014) adds that two other important reasons for appointing women on these jobs were (a) that they worked for less money and (b) that they could be easily controlled!

From classical Victorian novels to the contemporary Mills and Boons pulp fiction, many leading ladies of literature are soft, fragile, delicate and tender with voices to match. Every negative female character screams at the top of her voice, at the drop of a hat, has a shrill voice and tends to gesticulate madly. Screaming and a shrill voice, though women are more easily identified with these qualities than men, are considered ‘unladylike’ and ‘indecent.’ Remember Nadira in most of her roles? She screamed at the top of her voice, immediately carrying the ‘bad woman’ tag even if her intentions were good as in the hot hit film Julie. Manorama is another example and so is Lalita Pawar.

Note that even William Shakespeare made Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice disguise themselves as men before they arrive at the court in Venice. Portia pretends to play the young lawyer Balthazar and tells the Duke she has been briefed by Dr. Bellario and is prepared to face Antonio and Shylock’s case. Why? Because the male disguise would automatically ‘empower’ her to talk as loudly as any man would while arguing her case against Shylock and defending Antonio.

Literary representations of women as ignorant, loquacious and incoherent have produced well-known comic figures like Fielding’s Slipslop, Sheridan’s Mrs.Malaprop, Dickens’ Flora Finching and Joyce’s Molly Bloom. As Olivia Smith observes, “if one’s language is condemned, no means exist of refuting the charge.” (quoted by Rajeswari Sunder Rajan in Real & Imagined Women, 1993.)

A woman, who talks loudly all the time, is often labelled ‘unfeminine,’ ‘loud’ and ‘crude.’ A man with a loud voice is said to be ‘manly’ and ‘authoritative.’ A daughter in any family is trained to ‘talk softly’ while the son is castigated if he is shy and therefore, tends to talk in whispers. These are such casual occurrences that one does not even notice them. But a girl with a loud voice is castigated and scolded and punished for talking loudly because it is unfeminine.

Terming this castigation as ‘violence’ might be responded with either shock, or amusement, or both. Why? Because girls and women are expected to, trained to and psychologically conditioned to talk softly, or to remain silent or, to talk only when spoken to.

Another example of gender-bias against the woman’s voice is visible in how male film actors are almost immediately identified through their macho voices. Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Om Puri, Shahrukh Khan, Amir Khan, etc are classic examples of this strain. They do not need to be ‘visible’ to be identified by their audience – their voices do the needful.

Pitted against these bass voices, the only actress whose voice was as important as her face and her screen persona was Meena Kumari. There is no one to take her place today. Yet, when one ‘listens back’ to her voice, one recalls her as being soft-spoken even in her anger and her revenge in films like Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam or Pakeeza. More contemporary women’s voices recognizable off-screen are those of Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, and today’s actresses Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Rani Mukherjee all known for their strong women roles in films.

The proof of ‘masculinity’ is often signified by a deep voice. This supports and reinforces cultural over-emphases on real, biological differences between men and women. Vocal gender images directly affect the lives of women whose voices are perceived as lacking authority. Women speaking in public often call upon their bodies – specially their hands – to make a point, or, to support their vocal statements.

But this very waving and gesticulating is often used and understood as a source of comic disturbance, thereby, belittling and ignoring the content of the speech. Male dance teachers and men with effeminate characteristics are identified by their manner of speech complemented with hand movements and gesticulations which again, is a conditioned stereotyping of males in a negative way.

Film actress and theatre personality Mita Vashisht, who attended a voice training course in London, says, “Women tend to talk loudly when in a group because at any moment, they either expect to be interrupted or silenced or not heard at all.” So, they seem to be in a teeming hurry to make their point. D. Gradoll and J. Swann (Gender Voices, Blackwell, 1989) cite how Margaret Thatcher had to take a programme of voice-training when the broadcasting of the Prime Minister’s Question Time characterised her as ‘shrill’ and therefore, lacking in authority. She went through a voice training drill to reduce her pitch to 46 Hz, which is half the average difference between male and female voices.

Forced silence among women is a manifestation of violence against women, very subtle, absolutely silent, and therefore, more ingrained into the social system where women are secondary. This enforced ‘silence’ is almost impossible to identify and control, because it is melded into the very infrastructure that divides people into men and women and positions them hierarchically along a vertical ladder with men at the top.

Mary Anne Doane states that this gender discrimination between the male and the female in terms of being loud and remaining silent begins with the birth of the child. She writes, “the first differences are traced along the axis of sound: the voice of the mother, the voice of the father…the mother’s soothing voice, in a particular cultural context, is the major component of the ‘sonorous envelope’ that surrounds the child and is the first model of auditory pleasure.” (The Voice in the Cinema – The Articulation of Body and Space, 1980.)

This ‘ideal’ of a ‘soothing’ voice in a female carries through the growth of the child. If it is a male child, he grows up with the conviction that all women must have ‘soothing’ and ‘soft’ voices. If it is a female child, she begins to identify with this ‘soothing’ voice and feels dissatisfied with herself if she does not ‘conform’ to these ‘norms.’

This piece should aptly close with the tongue-firmly-in-cheek comments of Kate Gale, a writer/editor. In Why Some Men Prefer Sweet, Quiet Women (January 29 2010) she tells husbands, “If you want to be king of your castle, then you need an obedient princess and you should choose your princess wisely, ideally someone who will follow orders, be awed by your accomplishments and be willing to watch pictures / slide shows / DVDs of your travels and impressive leaps and jumps. She should like hearing you talk and not talk too much herself. She should be willing to give up her name / favourite foods / weird friends to be with you.”

So, is the ‘enforced silence of women’ in and by patriarchy an invisible form of violence? You decide……..

(This is the third in The Citizen series for March 8, International Women’s Day)

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