When Talking is Taboo
by Ayesha Ahmad
In this piece, I want to talk about what it was like to be a panellist at a recent event strategically entitled “Talking Taboo” at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
I spoke for ten minutes; ten minutes that represented a life time.
I began the introduction to my research on investigating trauma therapeutic interventions using traditional story-telling for gender-based violence related trauma with a few scribbles of notes in front of me about mental health, conflict, culture, and violence. I do not usually take a script for my talks; I want to communicate and convey with authenticity and I can only reach this in the present moment. But for this talk I made key points to reduce my words into points, and my points into a skeleton for the much larger body of work I was representing.
However, just after I began to speak something stopped me in my tracks. I became acutely aware that I, myself, was talking as a woman with all the identities that my freedom beholds, in a public space that was being shared across the globe by a live-streamed video, which at one point reached over 1000 viewers.
I sat next to three other panellists, all of whom were there with their lifetimes, at a table used for the education of students from all genders, ethnicities, religions, geographies, languages, and histories, with their greatest teacher being that of equality.
We were all carrying our convictions, the motivations that took us through each day and into an audience that the very faces of those we cannot forget could never be a part of. We were there as the embodied memories of women who now were buried.
I saw that table as a grave. I felt like my blood was alive and speaking the words that others had bled.
As my words started to take flight I suddenly became acutely conscious of my voice. I was speaking and being listened to. I was heard. My voice was not silent. My words were alive.
I remember looking around the room as I reflected on my realisation; on how we were gathered to talk about the taboos enwrapped in a knot of culture and tradition and religion, and to unpick these meant being vulnerable to our own lives, and being open to our bodies and minds being unravelled and deconstructed.
I invited the audience to reflect on the act of a woman talking as being taboo.
The room echoed with murmurs of “yes” and as I looked around and saw woman after woman nodding their heads, both those in cloth and without cloth, I stayed silent for a moment.
The silence was full; it was full with a book of lived experiences; the pages of which were present in the eyes that I saw as I tried to find my narrative again.
Taboos mean that there are words unspoken, stories that are marginalised and symbolise injustice and violation. A story, though, is an exchange of your world with mine. There is a landscape of the mind in the way we critique our lives.
When I spoke of the taboo of talking, my talk became a story.
As an academic I present in conferences and universities and hospitals all around the world.
Yet, in that moment so many stories embraced the space surrounding me. I was in a lecture theatre in a London university, yet a different landscape emerged that was so different from anywhere that I had spoken before.
My words reached a silence; a silence that had been forced. When we cannot talk, our words become buried. Words, when they are buried, gain an illusion of absence, but they are not absent. They are present as heavy as the soil beneath the ground. Our buried stories are our land. To talk, then, is to have ownership of our territory.
I consider there to be two injustices at play. The first is when the ways we can talk become acts that lead to persecution. Banning education for girls, prohibiting women from reciting poetry, restricting public places for women to converse, censoring publications of women’s sufferings are forms of genocide—a genocide of creativity, of stories, and ultimately of lives.
The other is to reduce silenced women as being voiceless. I consider the rhetoric of giving voice to the voiceless as perverse. Voices may be silenced, but never absent. Even in the act of silencing, the story remains. Being silent is not being story-less.
Talking as a taboo means that the modes and narratives for talking are taken away. Talking about a silenced woman as voiceless is taking her voice away.
I continued my talk but I felt that the story had been told. I was presenting on story-telling but to an audience of the greatest story-thinkers.
Culture becomes strong when concepts are part of societal structures. Thus, stories, and poems, and songs, are still surviving through conflicts and migration and changing generations.
The taboos though are not cultural elements; these taboos are the modes of weakening a culture as they cause the telling of a story to decay. The memory of who you are will never be passed on.
As I listened to the other panellists and the songs that followed, it became clear that this event was a unique and special space for creating a legacy.
There was hope; hope that talking taboos leads to telling truths. There was conviction that telling truths tackles taboos. There was indeed, danger, as well. The continuation of violence against women; their concepts, bodies, minds, beliefs, words, stories–and ultimately the voice of the woman was being threatened by the dismantling of silencing.
During that night, I witnessed true bravery, and genuineness of the human spirit and strength.
The ground beneath us becomes even more solid when we are standing on the bodies of the women who were killed before they told their story. These stories become the land before us; the soil is a book and we will keep walking until our steps have told every taboo.
I commend the organisers, the participants, the audience and even the individuals who could not bear the weight of the truth of talking taboos being brought into an academic space by women who are free to be educated and to talk. And, that night, we talked. We talked and through our words, we tackled taboo.
Link to the video of Talking Taboo: https://www.facebook.com/SOASAfghanSociety/videos/921284864673254/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE