New Books | Female Fear Factory

Pumla Dineo Gqola shows that becoming fluent in the ‘women’ fear of men requires constant exposure through repetition of messages, warnings, inducements, symbolic lessons and explicit statements.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Female Fear Factory (Melinda Ferguson Books, 2021) by Pumla Dineo Gqola. 

Fear, fluency and control 

“I was thinking all the time that shall I put a knife under my pillow? The time was of fear, but some people can overcome fear and some people can fight.” – Malala Yousafzai 

“Apparently fear is expected of women.” – Caroline Paul 

When author and former firefighter Caroline Paul finds herself constantly confronted with questions about whether her line of work frightens her, she is never confused about the difference between the way she is confronted with these questions versus the very different way her colleagues, who are men, are asked questions about their work. In this chapter, I endorse her statement that “fear is expected of women”, recognising this as a sentiment that will be familiar to women across the world. Beyond agreement, however, I am interested in how this expectation – which is a test of fluency on the Female Fear Factory – is set up. To do so, it is important to pause and reflect on fluency, its meanings, its processes and its expectations. 

Language is simultaneously a most mundane and most complicated aspect of human life. As such, then, fluency is both home and minefield. When I initially wrote of rape as a language and fluency as an integral part of how fear is reproduced and normalised, I imagined myself to be saying something quite straightforward. I live in a part of the world where speaking multiple languages from different language family groups is the norm. It is an experience I share with people from many – albeit not all – other societies that live in the shadow of colonialism. To speak multiple languages brings with it the awareness that language is not just a carrier of meaning and values, but also access to very specific realms of possibility. This is not a matter of words and concepts. When I say the words “family” and “home” in English or German, I mean something radically different from what I evoke when I say the linguistically equivalent in isiXhosa. This difference is so much more than the easily available gradations of nuclear and extended, birth, marital or chosen family. While translation is always possible, a polyglot understands that what is transferred may be planet-wide, but what is lost is oceans-deep. Incompleteness is not impossibility. It is the playground of the imagination for those who occupy language multiverses. 

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In South Africa, an inordinate amount of time is spent privately and in public discourse on the many ways in which language is political, contesting what things mean, discussing proper and inappropriate ways of occupying language, and accent (as emphasis, as a way to place a speaker socially, or both). We understand that fluency is not as a final destination, but a range of positions. Even as a child, I laughed when I watched US films about undercover agents who learn a language in a few months, travel to the USSR, and convince mother-tongue speakers that they are one of them. Even as an adult, each time I encounter this in a film, my suspended disbelief is interrupted, and I am made aware that this is a product of a mono- or bilingual imagination. Polyglots know that fluency does not a mother tongue accent create. Because home is not a “permanently unchangeable address”, to use Pier Paolo Frassinelli’s wonderful phrase, there are many ways to feel “at home” in a language. To feel at home in a language is to attain fluency, but this fluency is a continuum. I will return to this briefly, below. 

Importantly, it is not simply the biographical fact of being able to take up home in different homes that availed fluency as a framework for explaining aspects of the Female Fear Factory. My formal exposure to linguistics as a discipline has been minimal. Combined training in literary theory and fluency in five languages, basic conversational skills in a sixth, and an inability to learn a seventh despite bombarding it with willpower for two years, mean that I have complicated experiences of fluency. It is precisely this migratory perspective on fluency that clarifies the way initially rape, and now, the Female Fear Factory, makes sense as a language. In patriarchal societies, we are socialised into the Female Fear Factory in ways similar to how we are made fluent in language. Before I turn to what scholarship teaches us about fluency, I want to discuss how we are conditioned into different kinds of fluency. It can be a very slippery word. For many bilingual people, it seems to mean command and mastery of a language. For many polyglots, it can mean significantly more than this. 

Fluency, homes and landmines 

The four languages in which I had attained fluency by the time I left primary school are windows into distinct conceptual universes. They also messily reach across boundaries to intersect or collide in numerous ways. I speak three of them regularly and with abandon, but choose when to converse in the fourth carefully, for political reasons. By the time I was 20, I had been formally taught two additional languages. I completely failed to master the sixth. In the end it lay discarded with no regrets. In my late 20s, I would acquire a replacement sixth language in a foreign country I lived in for a few years. I am not at home in it, and do not watch films, read novels or attend theatre productions in it, like I do with the others, but I can make myself understood in conversation, read instructions, complete forms and watch the news in it.

There are possible explanatory bridges for the rate of acquisition patterns. In high school, the new language (isiZulu) which I was taught linguistically and studied literature in, belonged to the same cluster as one of my mother tongues. When I started learning German, the grammatical structure and rules of Afrikaans I had learned made a significant difference. The language and fluency landscape I want to evoke, then, is a continuum. On the one end, fluency encompasses feelings of ease, where language can be a place of ease (home). On the other end exists enough familiarity to function well in it, but it is emotionally fraught (a landmine). 

Let me turn to what the scholars of language and fluency have to say about the terrain. Francine Chambers points out that even among linguists there are variances in the accepted understandings of fluency. In her essay, “What do we mean by fluency?” she distinguishes between “lay” understandings of fluency as referring to “overall oral proficiency” in a language on the one hand, and the more academic definitions among language researchers – most of whom are concerned with “efficient processes of speech production” – and advanced progress in language learning on the other. In other words, within linguistics, “fluency” signals a very high competence in a language as clear from demonstrated ability to comprehend, articulate and function in a language. 

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Taking this a step further, the title of John Pikulski and David Chard’s article, “Fluency: the bridge from decoding to reading comprehension”, reveals even more about the processes of fluency, as well as the connections between different processes. Pikulski and Chard write: “Reading fluency refers to rapid, efficient, accurate word recognition skills that permit a reader to construct the meaning of a text. Fluency is also manifested in accurate, rapid, expressive oral reading and is applied during, and makes possible, silent reading comprehension.” 

In other words, it is not only recognition and comprehension that matter. They explain that fluency is achieved when you can recognise the words quickly, accurately discern meaning (“identification-decoding”) and successfully articulate yourself (“comprehension-meaning construction”) in a specific language. They further clarify that a “non-fluent” person is one who has “not yet developed automatic decoding skills”, and therefore hesitates, repeats the same process, or is unable to attain accuracy. 

While many scholars who write on fluency focus on speech, Pikulski and Chard’s stress on reading fluency is particularly important for understanding fluency as it works in the Female Fear Factory. This is especially the case if we substitute “sign” for “words” in the passage below: “Constructing meaning – which involves putting words into meaningful thought units, making inferences, relating information being derived from the text with background knowledge, and responding critically to the meaning that is constructed – always requires attention. For readers who must alternate between attending to the decoding of words and the construction of meaning, reading is a slow, laborious, inefficient, ineffective and often punishing process. If the limited attention and cognitive capacity is drained by the process of decoding words, little or no capacity is available for the attention-demanding process of constructing and responding to the meaning of a text. Therefore, automaticity of decoding fluency is essential for high levels of reading achievement.” 

Applying the above, fluency in the Female Fear Factory requires interpreting and clustering signs into “meaningful thought units”, activating background knowledge and existing knowledge, and acting accordingly. Those people who are not fluent in the Female Fear Factory may focus on minutiae and miss the overall messages performed for their benefit. This can occur in cases where we are confronted with unfamiliar cultures, although the Female Fear Factory is a global phenomenon. 

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Many other scholars, such as Roxanne Hudson, offer a combination of the approaches above, although there is wide variance on how fluency is achieved, and numerous theories to explain the processes and make suggestions on how best to teach, in order to ensure learners achieve it. There is nonetheless relative consensus among scholars that fluency is achieved once the process of discerning and making meaning is “effortless”, “fast”, “remembered” and confirmed by other aspects of context. These scholars also agree that fluency is achieved through explicit teaching, repetition, modelling, coaching and prolonged exposure. 

Linking back to the Female Fear Factory more explicitly, patriarchal societies teach a specific logic around gender. For example, ideas about boys and girls are very different, and specific realms of what is permissible are often taught to children as lessons and as correction. Adults in various contexts will often teach these lessons to children, which range from the seemingly mild (“sit like a girl”) to the aggressive (“dress like you want to be treated”). As children watch people around them perform gender in specific ways, including what to tolerate (“boys will be boys”), they also learn how to behave in accordance with patriarchal norms. 

To think about fluency in the Female Fear Factory in line with the scholarship above brings to light several dimensions. Fluency in fear requires exposure through repetition of messages, warning, inducements, symbolic lessons and explicit statements. Such exposure eventually inures a person to the environment which eventually becomes easier and easier to decipher. Consequently, she is able to read, decode messages quickly and effortlessly, not for individual attention but as a smooth process of communication. 

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To refer back to examples already used in this book, when Saudi women repeatedly witness and are exposed to the consequences of them driving, and are warned against the dangers of driving women, many understand that they are not meant to drive, in a process that carries threats of imprisonment, deepening confinement and social exclusion. Similarly, the university student who speaks up in my class has learnt that danger lies everywhere, and this influences how she navigates the streets, by not responding to every encounter she has with sexual harassment. It is not only compliance that sees women ignore street harassment some of the time, it is also fluency in what those threats mean and how quickly that violence can escalate in public view. As Jennifer Wright writes in “Women are afraid men will murder them”, “by the time women reach sexual maturity, pretty much every woman has learnt that you don’t want to make men angry. Ever.”

Patriarchy says men are volatile and that their anger is legitimate grounds for unleashing public violence, or just violence on the bodies of women, privately or in full view. Indeed, in what will also be brought into stark contrast in later chapters dedicated to the Female Fear Factory in xenophobic and femicidal contexts, Wright continues: “Periodically, after men kill women they explain it was because the woman ‘made me mad’. Rest assured, if anything happens to you that you do not regard as fun, and you are a woman, you will be blamed for not, somehow, making it not happen.”

The lessons in patriarchal fear are not random. They form a very specific pattern designed to inculcate fear.

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