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Sit girl, in the corner: Across the world, the many proverbs that keep sexism alive

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Around the world, through the ages, there have been norms for how women should conduct themselves. Dutch author Mineke Schipper in her book ‘Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet’ explains how proverbs carry the tradition of misogyny forward. Read the edited excerpt here:


                                 Not To Be Seen and Not To Be Heard

            Sit girl, in the corner; if you are virtuous, they will find you. (Czech)

Ideal female conduct could actually be summarised in this one commandment: thou shalt not draw attention to thyself, especially not from any man other than thy husband. ‘For a woman, display is dishonour’, in the words of a Swahili proverb from Tanzania. Even though the definition of display may differ in different cultures, the principle widely applies. The two main commandments: women are not to be seen and not to be heard.

Not to be seen means hiding oneself from the eyes of the world, sticking to the background, silencing oneself, or rather being silenced, covering oneself, and sitting behind three thresholds, as recommended to Russian girls. An Arabic proverb from the Maghreb advises girls ‘To stay with their dust until their day arrives’, that is to avoid dressing up before the wedding day. However, the rule does not only apply to girls, but more generally to the female species. Here is a Burmese example observing that ‘A good dog keeps his tail tucked in; a good woman remains in the background’.

What then happens to those who break the mould and put themselves ‘on display’? Here, the Arabic Moroccan proverb applies: ‘People wonder at a camel if he climbs a roof’. It refers to a married woman who is seen on the roof terrace by people passing by. Being seen is almost equated with offering oneself as consumption goods for passersby, in other words, being a prostitute. Examples from various origins in Europe and the Americas abound in the same sense:

The woman who sits at the window gossips about everyone and everyone about her. (Portuguese, Brazil)

A woman who loves to be at the window is like a bunch of grapes on the wayside. (Italian/English, USA)

Woman at the window, mulberry on the wayside. (Portuguese)

Woman at the window wants to sell herself cheaply. (Spanish)

Woman at the window and peas on the pavement are hard to guard. (Danish)

Borderlands of a river, a vineyard along the wayside and a woman passing her time at the window have no happy ending. (Catalan/French)

If not allowed to leave the house, what else can one do other than connect with the world through the window? Women inside know everything that happens outside, Arabic proverbs suggest:

If you have missed some news, ask the cloistered. (Algeria)

If you lose a donkey, ask the women who never go out. (Maghreb)

No display also means not to be heard. The beautiful ornament of silence is not women’s favourite necklace, as we have seen. Well-behaved girls do not talk, nor do they ask questions, let alone give orders. What utterances other than speaking or arguing are declared taboo? Singing is frowned upon: ‘A singing hen and a laughing girl bode no good’, as it is said in Finnish. In fact, all female sounds that exceed silence and soft whispering are disapproved of in one proverb or another, as they make girls draw attention to themselves:

A girl should not have too many conversations nor greet too many people. (Arabic-Jewish, Yemen)

A singing bird sells itself. (Russian)

Maidens should laugh softly that men hear them not. (English, UK) 

Laughing, especially, is a bad presage, from America to India and Africa:

A maid that laughs is half taken. (English, USA)

A woman who laughs and accepts your presents, you kiss her whenever you want. (Greek)

She who laughs often or walks with bold steps is a harlot. (Bengali)

A laughing young woman; a whore or a gossip. (Spanish)

Laughing she got pregnant, crying she delivered. (Oromo)

It goes without saying that shouting and whistling women are sharply disapproved of, as in the following Arabic example from the Maghreb and West Sahara: ‘Good woman speaks discreetly, gives with measure, walks and wins [sympathy]; bad woman shouts, gives in extravagance and makes dust fly around’. In Europe and the USA there is even a whole series of proverbs crying out against whistling women; half of the variants equate women who whistle with crowing hens, as quoted earlier, others offer dire consequences of one sort or another:

When girls are whistling, the holy virgin cries. (Letzeburgish)

Where a woman whistles, seven churches tremble. (Czech)

When a girl whistles the angels cry. (English, USA)

In fact, there is a paradox here: how can girls decently hide themselves, and still fulfil their only ‘sacred’ duty, before they grow too old? ‘The singing woman needs a husband’, as an Albanian proverb says, by way of excuse. Nevertheless, modesty for girls, and for women at large, is consistently stressed, as in this Kru proverb from Liberia: ‘Mind your behaviour as long as you are a girl, and the world will be interested in you’.

What happens when the prescriptions are not respected, when the proscriptions are flung to the winds? When wives break out of the moulds husbands have so carefully tried to harden into the desired shape? What can still be done when a woman’s power, verbally, sexually, mentally, or otherwise, is experienced as more than a man can handle? As frustration is a bad adviser, proverbs are inclined to recommend aggressive solutions.

The book ‘Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World by Mineke Schipper’ has been published by Speaking Tiger. Excerpted with permission from Speaking Tiger.

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