A short piece by Moha Ennaji
International Center for Culture and Language, Fès
Proverbs have generally a pedagogical, moral and religious function. However, the vast majority of proverbs about Moroccan women are rather negative. Here are a few negative aspects that I have come across:
- Women are recognized only through the role that they play within the family. Their destiny is linked to marriage. When childless, women have no sense of existence. Here is a proverb which shows this:
l-mra bla ulad bħal l-xema bla utad
‘A childless woman is like a tent without any support pillars.’
- Women are confined to private spaces, family and marriage. Public space, public affairs, commerce, money are usually the domains of men (see Benzakour 1997: 156 ; Iraqi Sinaceur 2002),
la-xer fe-l-mra lli tjul, la xer fe-rrajel lli ma ijul
‘A woman who travels a lot is worthless; a man who does not travel is useless.’
By and large, the image of women in proverbs is scarcely empowering, with the exception of a few proverbs. Proverbs, which offer a positive picture of women are those which address mothers and daughters. By contrast, wives, co-wives, mothers-in-law, step-mothers, widows, spinsters, old women, etc. are depicted as lazy, mischievous, cunning, useless and unreliable.
Among the proverbs that are favourable to women, we have the following:
mesxuT mratu ma te’raf ujhu mn qfatu.
‘He who disobeys his wife is a hypocrite with many faces.’
Lli ma ‘andu sidu ‘andu lallah.
‘He who does not have a man to support him has a woman.’
Ddeffa b luqfel u l’atq b l’qal.
‘A door has a locker, a woman has her mind.’
Even some of these proverbs, especially and may be interpreted as negative stereotypes about women. For example, a woman must work hard and be useful even if she is considered stupid, for a woman should be respected as a human being no matter what her physical appearance or her degree of intelligence is.
In other proverbs, women are addressed negatively in a direct way, sometimes in a pessimistic or a sarcastic style. Thus, insults made by women are often more dangerous than those by men.
ila ħelfu fik r-rjal bat naςes, ila ħelfu fik n-nsa bat fayeq
‘If men threaten you, sleep soundly ; but if you are threatened by women, you will have a sleepless night.’
Women are even represented as lazy, disobedient and plain:
La zin la fyaq bekri.
‘She is neither pretty nor hard working as a person.’
Lemra Dal’a ‘awja.
‘A woman is a tortuous breed.’
Aging women are aggressively attacked by this proverb:
l-mra ka-tehreb men shib kif n-naςja men d-dib
‘An old woman is afraid of having grey hair, like the she-sheep is scared of the wolf.’ (cited in Iraqui Sinaceur 2002)
An old woman also symbolizes wickedness and hypocrisy:
mzzin nsa b DDeHkat law kanu fiha ydumu, lHut Ii’um f l-ma, u huma bla ma y’umu.
‘Women have nice smiles if only they keep them for ever, fish can’t swim without water, but women can.’
lli ka y’amlo yiblis f-‘am, ka-t’amlo l-‘guza f-sa’a
‘What Satan does in one year, the old woman does it in one hour.’
If the researcher or reader interested in Moroccan proverbs is looking for the image that the ideal woman should have, he/she will find the following criteria:
- one should take time to decide about one’s marriage, and to know better one’s spouse for fear to make a serious mistake in your choice:
zwaj lila tedbiru ‘am.
‘A marriage of one day needs a year’s thinking and preparation.’
bu l-bnat ibat ixemmem Tul llil shma’tu megdia.
‘The father stays up all night thinking about the future of his daughters.’
xod l-mra l- ?aSela u-nam ‘la l-HSera
‘Take as wife a woman from a good family and you may sleep on a mat.’
-It’s better to avoid marrying a wealthy woman, because she can use her wealth to humiliate and subdue.’
la-t’abbi l-mra b-drahemha ta’mel lek n-nefxa utqol: sqi l-ma
‘Don’t marry a woman who has a lot of money ; she will be arrogant and ask you to bring her water.’
-good manners and the beauty of the spirit have priority over physical beauty:
zin l-mra f Dyaha u zin l’ateq f Hyaha.
‘The beauty of a woman resides in her behaviour and the beauty of a young girl resides in her politeness.’
-for a woman to succeed in her marriage and become happy, she must show a lot of patience and have the ability to persevere:
l-Horra ila Sebret darha ‘ammret
‘If a woman is patient, she will have a great marriage.’
A woman should also beware of her sisters-in-law which may harm her in her life:
kul lusa susa waxxa qed l-xenfusa.
‘Every sister-in-law is a source of trouble even if she is so young and small.’
Thus, proverbs about women are generally negative in Moroccan culture. They are similar to proverbs about ethnic groups, social class, regions, colour which are visibly different. Generally speaking, stereotypes target visible aspects like gender, age, and ethnicity. In Moroccan culture, there are a lot of proverbs about slaves, Jews, Berbers, geographical origin (jebli, alfassi, shelH, almarrakshi, assaHrawi, etc.), and these may be used for jokes for the purpose of entertainment. These proverbs were created in specific cultural contexts and transmitted from one generation to another. In this sense, proverbs represent traces of historically important periods.
Proverbs express opinions and experiences of previous generations. These proverbs, whose origins are usually unknown, are used as a safety valve, for criticism of society, or simply to laugh or express one’s feelings.
Masculinity and proverbs have an impact on social and individual behaviour; people’s conduct is influenced by stereotypes, which may, for instance, lead to the decrease of women’s self-esteem. Thus, Moroccan women may feel less empowered and more anxious in private and public spaces.
Benzakour Fouzia. (1997). « La Femme dans l’Imaginaire Populaire Marocain ». Actes du colloque «Contes et Récits, Produits Socio-Culturels et Outils Pédagogiques», pp. 151-162. Kénitra : Faculté des Lettres.
Ennaji, Moha (2009). “Representations of women in Moroccan Proverbs” (2008). In Language and Gender in the Mediterranean Region (M. Ennaji, Editor). IJSL Issue. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter 190 : 71-95.
Iraqui Sinaceur, Zakia. (2002). «Le Proverbe et la Femme », in Langues et Linguistique 9 :11-27.