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‘Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet’: A cultural lesson for the decade

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Mineke Schipper’s book is an intriguing analyse of the many proverbs that talk about women across cultures, geographies and time periods and how they came about.

Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet by Mineke Schipper, is a non-fiction book that explores the perception of femininity, womanhood through the literary genre of proverbs.

A famous German proverb goes— ‘as the country, so the proverb’.

Mineke Schipper dives deep into the fascinating world of proverbs and explores how women have been depicted across various cultures and languages.

Schipper’s insightful analysis, layered with wit, is a work compiled over the course of 15 years. She translates proverbs from various languages into English and compares them to other similar proverbs from different cultures.

While she reveals the patriarchal mindset of societies all over the world, which sets standards for women’s beauty and behaviour alike, she also explores the different stages of a woman’s life through languages that attempt to define them.

The finest example of this is the very title of the book— Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet— an advice that can be found in the proverbs of the Sena Tribe in Malawi and Mozambique, in the Chinese culture and even in Telugu, where men are warned about women with long feet.

She also highlights how language plays a powerful role in boosting and prompting the idea of ‘manhood,’ particularly where the individual traits may not comply with the traditional definition of a man.

Proverbs say that if a man happens to be shorter than his wife, then the man will dominate over the woman.

In Arabic and Lebanon, it is said, ‘A man, even a man of a small size, will
be called great in comparison to women’; or in Minyankya, (one of the languages spoken in Mali, Africa), it is said, ‘Even small, a man is old.’

All three equally reinstate the traditional role of men and male dominance in a family. Although she stresses that the book is not based on ‘reality’, she admits that it lays bare the ‘wide currency of misogynistic sentiment’ that is transferred from one generation to another.

Meanwhile, in various other languages, including those prevalent in India, men are discouraged to marry women who are taller than them and there are proverbs in Portuguese and Spanish, which say that ‘Women and sardines, pick the small ones.’

Be it a vivid dissection of proverbs that focus on a woman’s body parts, the culturally cultivated gender roles or demonising of a trait that deviates from the feminine standards set by the patriarchal structures; Schipper presents the ever-evolving world of proverbs in copious details.

She admits that though there are countervailing proverbs that represent women’s view on men, they are few and far between and a negligible minority, as compared to the number of proverbs which insult women. She also points out that these viewpoints are far more subtly written and hidden in public stories and lesser-known songs as ‘concealment strategies’.

The author manages to be critical yet respectful of the cultures which coexist, but are unrelated to one another.

This makes the book very engaging, and at the same time engrossing too, in an astonishing way. It prods the reader to think about how the oral tradition still holds a sway over our mind and brings forth ‘the world’s smallest literary genre,’ to a larger audience.

While she is clearly very passionate about the subject and produces a detailed study, she never lets the reader’s attention slack through her fast-paced prose.

It makes for an interesting read in the backdrop of the rising feminist voices. Although it can be discussed and debated at length in the classroom, it should be read by every individual as a testimony of patriarchal gender roles and its legacy.

The author is a postgraduate in Journalism and English literature from Indian Institute of Mass Communication and the University of Delhi, respectively.

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