The image of women in Yemeni proverbs [Archives:2007/1050/Culture]

May 14 2007

By: Nisreen Shadad
There are many Yemeni proverbs about the position of women. Most give women inferior status and very few give them self-esteem. This series aims to discuss Yemeni society's projection about women's status, as well as how cultural and social factors affect mechanisms that perpetuate women's under-representation in managing and controlling power levers.

Since Yemen is an Islamic country and Islam plays a vital role in shaping its people's perspectives, it's essential to gauge to what extent Islam affects their understanding about the status of women. Most important is how Yemenis interpret the religion to justify their individual interests.

“Walad asi khayr min ashr banaat mutee'aat”

“A disobedient son is better than 10 obedient daughters.”

Although many Yemenis said it was the first time to hear such a proverb, most agreed about its existence in their lives. Sana'a University student Umm Ahmed remarks, “It's the first time I've heard this proverb; however, it somehow is applied in our society because fathers always want to have boys to bear the family's name, even if they're disobedient. The other reason is that fathers mostly depend on boys to assist them in supporting the family

“Nowadays, many girls are independent and can support their family, but fathers still long to have sons more than daughters,” Umm Ahmed observes

“Sometimes when they have disobedient sons, fathers say they hope to have only daughters However, on the inside, I think they're only words spoken in anger and therefore, untrue,” she concludes.

Hafsa Al-Tayyib agrees, saying, “Yemenis usually are interested in having sons more than daughters for numerous reasons, such as thinking that girls bring trouble and shame to a family and believing that boys are capable of supporting the family more than girls. Moreover, even when they're defiant, at the same time in their point of view, boys are the only ones who carry on the family's name because girls will marry and their children will carry the husband's name.”

However, Al-Tayyib points out that Muslims mustn't consider these as reasons because in Islam, what makes one better than another is righteousness, so other criteria should be neglected. “We're all humans and neither our color, race, nor sex makes a difference to Allah. The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said Allah doesn't look at our faces, but rather at our hearts. Whether we're, boys or girls, we're all asked to be pure inside.

She continues, “More importantly, I can say to all of those with daughters that the Prophet speaks of such individuals entering paradise if they educate them well. 'Whoever takes care of two girls until they reach adulthood, he and I will come together on the Day of Resurrection like this – and he interlaced his two fingers, meaning in paradise. Can we find any greater honor given to daughters and their parents?' he asked.”

Kawkab Al-Thaibani, a journalist at the Yemen Observer, responds, “This proverb is a real reflection of the ideology of Yemeni society, wherein women are totally dependent on men, they can't live independently and they must have a man in the form of a close relative – a father, brother, husband or son – to protect them.

“Therefore, according to this ideology, what's the use of having so many daughters, if there's no man to protect them? On the other hand, some people feel that it's easy to raise boys, but the opposite with girls because they're a source of shame, even if they're good.”

She continues, “The phobia about a woman being dishonored is overwhelming to the extent that a bad man is better than a woman because people are worried about any reaction, but I believe this is due to lack of faith in Allah. People think men can protect their daughters and they forget God's will.

“Additionally, they also forget that no one can force anyone to be good or bad and if they aren't the Creator, they don't have the right to accept women begrudgingly. If a man or a woman isn't totally convinced about being good, nothing will force them to do so. So rather than wasting time on the phobia about preserving honor, they should teach them how to be real human beings, bearing every elevated human principle, including honor,” Al-Thaibani concluded.

Fathiyya Hazz'a, public relations officer for Al-Fatah Foundation, said according to the book, “The Women's Movement in Yemen,” written by Anwar Al-Khadhri, “The call of women's liberation leans on the principles and values of the French Revolution. The philosophy and arguments that came after it are due to the oppression in which women lived. The image of women that was widespread in Europe at that time in the Romantic or Middle Ages was so bad – they were evil, inhuman and the source of iniquity, a philosophy essentially based on Greek philosophical heritage.

“After that, the call for women's liberation took place and big changes encroached powerfully in Europe, especially France and Britain, and America during the 18th and 19th centuries,” Hazz'a continued.

“As stated in the book, this movement came for a particular purpose. What fits in Europe isn't important to fit in the Middle East. Not everything new means it's right and not everything old is something backward. We need to think and rethink, not follow the blind and the deaf,” she concluded.

Abduaziz Atiq, a teacher at the Science and Technology University, confirmed that proverbs such as this are adopted from other cultures, explaining, “Man was influenced by the milieu and his surroundings, so he adapted and imitated it without investigating its accuracy or fabrication.

“Nowadays, people still worship what they inherited from their ancestors in the Dark Ages, and unfortunately, they're uninspired by the scientific revolution of the 21st century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment. Man simply and blindly follows his intellectual heritage dominated by illogical thinking, yet approved in the name of freedom of religion,” he continued.

Atiq further explained, “When Islam arrived, people had reached a state wherein they worshipped idols and exercised much injustice against their relatives, including women. With the teachings of Islam, Muslims had become the leaders of the entire world in the field of human management and social etiquette, especially between men and women. They treated women equally like men, taking into consideration the physiological differences between them.

“However, Muslims deviated from their sublime teachings and drifted via the current of many religious denominations, such as those of the Greeks, Jews and Christians. Muslims inherited the idea from Christian sources that Eve is the one who tempted Adam to eat from the forbidden tree,” he added.

Atiq quoted an excerpt from Genesis 3, verses 12 and 13, in the Bible (New American Standard version) clarifies the point: “The man said, 'The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.' Then the LORD God said to the woman, 'What is this you have done?' And the woman said, 'The serpent deceived me, and I ate.'

“Then God punished her in verse 16: 'To the woman He said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children; yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,'” Atiq said.

Muslim scholars' response

Abdullah Al-Hashidi, a teacher of the Hadith and its sciences at Iman University and the Scientific Da'awa Center, says, “This proverb is humiliating to women and belittles their value. This is an ignorant, pre-Islamic belief from when they used to bury girls. Allah said, 'When news of (the birth of) a female (child) is brought to any of them, his face becomes dark and he is filled with inward grief! He hides himself from people because of the evil of that whereof he has been informed. Shall he keep her with dishonor or bury her in the earth? Certainly evil is their decision'

“However, Islam came to place her at a high level as a mother, sister, daughter and wife. He recommended people deal with women gently. Allah also legislated many regulations to save women from being exploited,” he added.

“This proverb and others can never reflect Islam, nor can they be proof against Islam because people simply say them out of ignorance of the religion,” Al-Hashidi concluded

Murad Al-Qadasi agrees with Al-Hashidi. “This proverb can be neither an example, nor a wise saying circulated by people because it's against Islamic law. First of all, Islam forbids a person to wish for a disobedient son. Righteous people used to ask Allah to give them virtuous progeny. 'At that time, Zakaraya invoked his Lord, saying: 'Oh my Lord! Grant from you, a good offspring. You are indeed the all-Hearer of invocation.' (Surat Al-Imran, 3:38)

“Secondly, this proverb is negative about girls, even when they're obedient. How can it be acceptable for a society to prefer someone disobedient and unvirtuous, but hate having virtuous children, who actually are a blessing from Allah?” he concluded.