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A Thousand Proverbs Later, It's Still a Brutality

Wife-beating 'maxims' exist in most cultures.

April 20, 2004|Mineke Schipper | Mineke Schipper is the author of "Never Marry a Woman With Big Feet: Women in Proverbs From Around the World," forthcoming from Yale University Press.

Earlier this year, the Spanish Roman Catholic Bishops Conference foolishly declared that violence against women was the "bitter fruit" of the sexual liberation of the 1960s.

But cultural history suggests otherwise. In fact, males and females have always been at odds with each other, as I learned while collecting many thousands of proverbs about women over the years. These proverbs, which come from all parts of the world, are sometimes hilarious, often politically incorrect and, in some cases, reveal quite shocking ideas about women, especially as far as violence is concerned. My oldest examples are more than 4,000 years old, but the sentiments, in many cases, are still part of the daily conversation in many societies.

Many of the proverbs reflect considerable male anxiety. "Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own," is the way they put it in Malawi. That's a reference to women's talents, of course -- a warning not to take a wife who is smarter or more talented or successful than you are. The same metaphor exists in China and India, and the same warning is echoed in many variants in numerous cultures.

All over the world and throughout the centuries, proverbs present beating as a "natural" way to overcome male fear and to force women -- especially wives -- into subservience and virtue. They are strikingly frequent (and similar) in cultures around the Mediterranean, and their echoes resound elsewhere. Originating in Spain, the following proverb is also found in Puerto Rico: "To keep your wife on the rails, beat her -- and if she goes off the rails, beat her." Some popular proverbs about wife-beating in the Arabic world can be heard in Africa, south of the Sahara, such as: "Beat your wife regularly; even if you don't know why, she will."

"Women and chops -- the more you beat them the better they'll be" is a German saying; "Clubbing produces virtuous wives" is Chinese. In England and the United States, it is said, "Women, like gongs, should be beaten regularly," while in Korea, a proverb states, "A woman who is beaten is going to be a better wife."

The list goes on and on. "Do not spare a bullock or a wife" (Myanmar). "The nails of a cart and the head of a woman, they work only when they are hit hard" (India). "For the man who beats his wife, God improves the food" (Russia). "A woman, a dog and a walnut tree -- the harder you beat them, the better they be" (Europe).

Violence is often recommended as the way for men to prove their manliness, for example in an Arabic proverb: "The man who can't slaughter his sheep or who can't beat his wife [when she deserves it], is better dead than alive."

Apparently, violence and fear often go together, and loss of control over a woman whose feet grow bigger than her husband's arouses uncertainty. Hundreds of proverbs reflect this obsessive fear of a scenario in which a man would be a woman's inferior.

In the past, it was either considered normal to beat one's wife, or, in some societies, the problem was ignored as embarrassing. Neither neighbors nor governments were expected to interfere with what happened behind closed doors. "When husband and wife quarrel, keep your distance," says a European proverb.

And what about today? Where are all the real men who love female feet extra large? Despite the fact that ever more countries have developed legislation to criminalize violence at home, the threat of violence against women still looms large.

We must strive for a world in which women no longer fear being belittled, degraded or beaten up, and in which men need not be apprehensive of a wife's success in the public arena. Our best possible future as humans has been defined by a Tibetan proverb: "A hundred male and a hundred female qualities make a perfect human being."

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