collateral damage

Life of Thorka by Aisha K. Gill

In the US, the word pacifier is used to describe what we in the UK call a baby’s dummy. Yet, during the Vietnam War, pacification was the popular term used to describe the actions of soldiers entering villages, shooting domestic animals and rounding up all of the men and boys, killing any who resisted (its more official title was Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). Similarly, the term collateral damage is meant to descale the actual impact of a violent intervention making it a more ‘acceptable’ price of war. The same goes for friendly fire and many other terms. Euphemisms abound when talking of war or violence. And they are not used passively; they have political purpose. As the Encyclopaedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict states: “This instrumental approach to language, detaches language from history and moral judgement, converting it to a mere technique in the assertion of political power.[1] And it gives the example of the “Final Solution” to make its point so powerfully.

Now think of the terms shame and honour; shame can be used in a quite benign way, e.g. “ah, what a shame,” when you just missed out on something. Whilst honour conjures up bravery and sacrifice, maybe for your country or a cause you believe in. But as with euphemisms of war, set in a different context they can mean very different things and Asian Women Awardstherefore have very different connotations. Our poet today, Professor Aisha K. Gill [] is an expert on violence against black and minority and refugee women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan and India. In her work she has shown the link between honour and shame that leads to honour based violence (HBV), overwhelmingly against women. “…honour relates to the behaviour expected of members of particular community, while shame is associated with transgressions against these expectations” (Gill, 2014: 2). This HBV is driven by the expectation by men of how women are meant to act in their family’s honour, “by behaving appropriately through deference, fidelity, modesty and chastity” (Gill, 2014: 2).[2]

In her poem, “Life of Thorka” she speaks about her escape from violence. “Anxious for clues,/but, without a clear map/it’s the Midland Main Line that’s/doing the calling to bedsitter land./ Look over your shoulder, Asian woman in hiding / Keep searching, (and watching and hiding/from them).” Education is her aim but also her ‘crime’ and hence the urge to be free. However, many are not able to take this route and have their “aims ruined/robbed of ordinary experience / abandoned, starving in silence / their death even claimed. Found innocent of powerlessness.” And yet there is no sense of revenge in this story, even when completely aware of the wider political and social context, this ‘dance to sociological imaginations’. “But I won’t kill him off!/I’ll just leave him alone/in his unwise ageing/A bare old stick, let him/wither in pain.” The form of the poem is also beautifully rendered to reflect the train and the tracks taken in her escape.

What lies behind the use of seemingly benign or traditionally defined terms is critical to a basic understanding of power and how it is exerted; whether in the battlefields or in communities where patriarchy defines how a woman should act in ‘honour’ of her family.


Life of Thorka[3]

ਔਧ ਤੜਕੇ ਦੀ

Two cases stacked on the

          overhead rack.

I’d got my ticket

                  for the runaways’ train.

Anxious for clues,

          but, without a clear map,

it’s the Midland Mainline that’s

                  doing the calling to bedsitter land.

Look over your shoulder. Asian woman in hiding.

Keep searching,

(and watching, and hiding

from them.)


Under the brickworks,

(with help from Barnardo’s),

          education’s the goal  –

that’s the promise I’d made –

            the ticket to freedom

for thousands of others

          just like me!

A thousand others just like me…

          aims ruined

robbed of ordinary experience,

          abandoned, starving in silence,

their death, even, claimed.

             Found innocent of powerlessness,

sentenced for years and years

          under spiteful glares

to crisis, prisoner number,

            exposed, time for duty.


Put on the mask and

play the game.

                (Insanity pervades the

                spirit, schizo!)


(They say that the personal is political.)


So memories of make the thorka

[ਤੜਕਾ ਬਨਾ ਲਵਾ] -interlaced with a slap –

          play on

sarson ka saag banane ke liye

 [ਸਰ੍ਹੋਂ ਕਾ ਸਾਗ ਬਨਾਉਣੇ ਕੇ ਲੀਅੇ].

Intersectionality, critical conversations

          dance to sociological imaginations,

the symphony of living in Essex,

the “Masala Curry Queen”from DE23!


 Masala channa, punjabi masala, palak

                 paneer aloo, mooli, gobi or just plain



But I won’t kill him off!

          I’ll just leave him alone

in his unwise ageing.

A bare old stick, let him

          wither in pain.


author biography

Aisha K. Gill is a Professor of Criminology at the University of Roehampton, UK. Her main areas of interest and research are health and criminal justice responses to violence against black, minority ethnic and refugee women in the UK, Iraqi Kurdistan and India. She has been involved in addressing the problem of violence against women at the grassroots level for the past seventeen years and has published widely in refereed journals such as Current Sociology, European Journal of Women’s Studies, Feminist Criminology, Feminist Legal Studies, Feminist Review, Journal of Gender Studies, Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, Violence against Women Journal and Women’s Studies International Forum. [@DrAishaKGill]


[1] Source: Encyclopaedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict: Po – Z, index. 3: 308

[2] Gill, A.K. (2014) ‘Honour’, ‘honour’-based violence: Challenging common assumptions, in Gill, A., Roberts, K., Strange, C. (eds) ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence: Theory, Policy and Practice, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

[3] First published in Feminist Review, Special Issue of Food. Autumn 2016: Issue 114.  Reprinted with permission of Feminist Review