Excerpts from Never marry a woman with big feet: women in proverbs from around the world By Mineke Schipper
When her eyes are radiant, the grass withers. (Russian)
'The eye is the pupil of the body,' the Yoruba in Benin and Nigeria say to express the essential importance of the eye, although they mainly quote this proverb to refer to its mirror function in matters of love. It is indeed the eyes that reflect (or rather betray) love's beginning and end. Through the eyes the world enters our body and mind, not only the physical world we live, but also the people we meet. According to proverbs, what we see provokes immediate feeling, and it is through the eyes that vehement emotions such as desires and love are conjured up, since eyes are the gates of love, as it is said in German as well as in Russian. Significantly, seeing women is compared to seeing food, and women are 'eaten' with the eyes:
« Food and women enter first through the eyes. » (English, USA; Spanish, Mexico) « Watching feeds the eyes. » (Creole, Guadelope)
The eyes are referred to as a mirror of feelings, but the mirror may turn out to be rather deceiving. In proverbs it is therefore often advised to see whether various body signs confirm one another's message: 'When a women is speaking, listen to what her eyes say.' (English, USA) Alas, in a number of cases, body signs appear to be confusing. Apparently, the signs given by various body parts of one and the same person, such as eyes and heart, or eyes and mouth, do not match: 'Cries with the eyes, laughs with the heart' (Russian).
One part of the body may seem better equipped than another one to detect the truth about the beloved's feelings, although there is certainly no common opinion about which one is taken to be the most reliable. A special link is suggested to exist between the eyes and the heart when referring to feelings, and between the eyes and the ears when referring to the effect of reliable or unreliable words. The impact caused by the eyes on the mind or the heart is strongly emphasized. Their close links are also reflected in warnings against the chagrin that love may cause, and therefore not seeing may be preferable to seeing. This is expressed in proverbs from widely different areas:
« That which does not enter through your eyes, does not get to your soul. » (Spanish, Chile) « If the eyes don't see, the heart won't care. » (Creole, Haiti) « What the eye has not seen will not touch the heart. » (Greek) « The most effective defence against temptation is this: shut your eyes. » (Hebrew)
Eyes enable us to see the world and its beauty. However, they never see objectively as people project their own ideas onto what they see, and therefore usually see what they want to see:
« Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. » (English) « Leila must be seen through Majnun's eyes. » (Persian)
Beauty is pleasant to the eyes, but eyes are also presented as a thing of beauty in themselves: 'A person's beauty is the face; the face's beauty are the eyes', a Turkish proverb argues, while the Hebrew proverb 'If a bride has beautiful eyes, do not study the rest of her body' is used in situations where, in spite of an obvious good point, someone concentrate on negative aspects, while once more underlining the importance attached to eyes.
The powerful impact of the eyes may well be, at least partly, due to a woman's matching eyebrows, as a special finishing touch to the female eye. The ideal Chinese eyebrow, for example, ought to look like a willow leaf.
« A horse's beauty is in [the use of] water and a broom; a girl's, in her eyes and eyebrows. » (Persian) « A house without curtains is like a woman without eyebrows. » (Romanian) « If eyes and eyebrows did not exist, there would be neither sin nor love for women. » (Romania)
Proverbs pay some attention to the colour, size, beauty and shape of a woman's eyes. Proverbs referring to either black or blue eyes come from countries where both kind exist, such as in Europe, the Americas, and also sometimes in North Africa. I found no proverbs about eye colour in Africa south of the Sahara, in Asia and Oceania, where people mostly share the same eye colour. There is usually not made much of a difference between women with blue or brown eyes:
« If there are no black eyes, kiss the blue ones instead. » (Moldovan) « Women's eyes cannot be trusted, neither the black nor the blue. » (German)
In just one Arabic proverb from Morocco, women with blue eyes are explicitly warned against: 'Don't marry a blue-eyed woman, even though she has money in her box.' A blue-eyed person is reputed to have an evil eye, meaning that she has destructive powers. The negative connotations of beautiful eyes are often associated with the (evil?) power of the female gaze, and this power is in the first place associated with eyes of a 'deviant' colour, but not exclusively. Two examples:
...recommended in Arabic: 'No-one ever smelled her lips except her mother', means that her honour is guaranteed, but how can one be sure? A torturing question! Proverbs are never short of warnings agains the everlasting dangers projected onto men's association with women:
« Women have honeyed lips, but their heart is full of poison. » (Bengali) « The mouth is a rose, and the tongue a thorn. » (Hungarian) « Free of her lips, free of her hips. » (English) « If it is not beauty of her lips, it is beauty of her sex. » (Bisa)
How to be sure that a woman is really in love with you? The Mongolians provide a simple proof to be taken: 'The lips of a woman who does not love, are cold.'
Proverbs associate women's lips and mouth not only with love but also with talking and eating. There are many proverbs specifically addressing the female mouth. If, according to an earlier-mentioned Dutch proverb, a good woman does not have a head, a Beti proverb from Cameroon states that 'Woman has no mouth', meaning that women are not allowed to speak publicly.
In several countries and cultures, it is explicitly emphasized that a woman's mouth is only meant for taking food: 'A woman should not open her mouth but to eat' (German and Albanian). In the Arab culture, a taciturn girl deserves high praise, for belonging to 'the good and quiet type.' It is of her that people say: 'She has a mouth which eats but does not speak' (Lebanon) - a warm recommendation. However, to be sure, you need to put her to the test. Another piece of Arabic advice, this time from Syria, is therefore: 'Break a woman's spinning thread and you'll see what language will come from her mouth.' If her mouth remains silent even under those trying circumstances then, yes, she deserves the First Prize for total tolerance and submissive self-control. Sometimes the occasions for women's right to use their tongues for speaking are specified:
« No hen is allowed to sing in the cock's presence. » (Rwanda) « Where men are speaking, women should keep their mouths shut. » (Dutch)
As the Frisian motto to this section jokingly argues, it is not so much a question of a woman's being right or wrong. The main message dictated in such proverbs about the mouth is that it would be against the rules for women to use their mouths in the discussion, nor should they comment or talk back on an equal footing with men. In order to prevent this from happening, women are told to be silent, or, as a Rwandese proverb states: 'No woman is called upon to speak', arguing that a female opinion has no weight. Women sometimes also quote such proverbs for strategic reasons, when they prefer not to giver their opinion on certain matters.
All sorts of beliefs surround women's teeth. A Jamaican proverb warns, for example, that 'A woman has teeth and her bite is dangerous', whereas a French proverb reassuringly states, that 'The woman who dresses herself up, loses her teeth', meaning that she is no longer 'dangerous' when she wants to please. The Quechua in Ecuador believe that a woman who has given birth should fast, the poor thing: 'A woman who does not fast will be nursing rotten teeth.' Fasting after childbirth is common amongst Quechua people, and prescribed by traditional doctors, and bad teeth are believed to be due to the transgression of this unwritten rule. Finally, the Romanian proverb, 'A woman cuts her wisdom teeth when she is dead' argues once more that a woman will never come to her senses during her life and will therefore have to be excluded from 'serious' business.
The Kweli in Cameroon seen an analogy between wedlock and the extraction of teeth in the sense that both spoil beauty. However, a man can also lose his teeth in a fight with his lover. To indicate that a man has power over his wife and not over his lover, the Oromo in Ethiopia use the followign said-saying or wellerism: "'Break some firewood', the man said to his wife and she did so; 'Kiss me', he said to his lover and she broke his teeth.' Teeth also serve as a metaphor for the unity in marriage, for example in Ossetian: 'Husband and wife have the same teeth.' Every society has its rules for relationships, and in most societies it is just not allowed for a man to touch another man's wife. The Yaka in Congo express this as follows: 'Other man's wife, teeth pleasure' - meaning that, if you feel attracted to her, there is nothing much that can be done about it. As my Yaka commentator explained: 'One can just smile or laugh, and that's all...'
In proverbs, a woman's tongue is often warned against as a powerful and dangerous part of her body. The dimensions and dangers of a woman's tongue and talking are sometimes expressed in exaggerated terms, as in the following Creole example from Saint Lucia: 'A woman's tongue is more than seven meters long.' A woman's tongue is indeed a factor to be reckoned with, at least as far as proverbs are concerned. A Moldovan proverb sighs that 'If a woman's tongue were shorter, the life of her husband would be longer.' Another example from the Maghreb - 'Who can have the last word with his wife since her tongue goes around her neck?' - is in fact an Arabic acknowledgement of male verbal submission or defeat. In the context of the earlier discussed metaphor of wringing necks, the female tongue can be interpreted as literally serving to prevent the neck from being twisted. In other words, her tongue protects her neck, which, figuratively, stands for her body, a vulnerable body that badly needs such preventive measures. However, the other side of the medal is shown in an Estonian proverb: 'A tongue of flesh cuts through a bony neck', expressing that the strong necks of the verbally less gifted feel threatened by the sharp and wounding words uttered by the strong tongues of the physically weak in society.
« A husband should use his wife's shoulder to cry on. » (Irish)
The rare proverbs regarding the shoulders all point to different things. That 'The shoulders carry the head' is a Kundu proverb meaning that a leader or high official needs other people to support him - or that man needs two wives. The shoulder is considered a reliable part of the body: 'If a modest woman's livelihood is gone, her shoulders are not gone.' This Arabic proverb is quoted to encourage her to carry on. We already met the shoulder in the Kweli proverb used to metaphorically confirm that a wife should submit to her husband. Hierarchy or not, man and wife are linked to each other like shoulder and arm, for better and for worse, in a Congolese Yaka proverb: 'The shoulder does not run away from the arm because it is sick.' A Russian proverb, on the contrary, associates shoulders and arms with the freedom of love and the shackles of marriage respectively: 'Love has wings on its shoulders; matrimony has crutches under its arms.'
Descending from her shoulders to her arms, proverbs reflect that a woman's arms are a comfortable place to be. Inevitably there are proverbs about the mother's arms as related to child care and mother love, but there are also other women's arms and wives' arms. 'While during the day he is a monk, at night he is in our arms', is an ancient Sumerian example from Mesopotamia, from a female perspective. It is not always easy to say whether the perspective in a proverb is gender bound. The following North American proverb might be quoted by men (as a warning) as well as by women (tenderly or even complacently): 'Strong men-of-arms become like putty in the arms of women.'
There is often an undertone of fear in proverbs about women, fear of losing control. How can you be sure about the other's feelings, and what will happen next? These are torturing questions that both sexes, of course, ponder. From a male perspective, a Rwandan proverb relates a man's suspicions: 'An unworthy woman betrays you while offering her arm as a pillow.'
Anguish and disappointment are expressed in many ways, e.g. in the following Jewish proverb from Morocco: 'Before a girl gets married she has seven arms and one mouth; after she is married she has seven mouths and only one arm.' How to prevent this from happening? A man's fears of the consequences of falling in love and throwing himself into a woman's arms must have inspired the following North American proverb: 'A woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.' Falling into someone's hands without being able to get away holds equally for both sexes. The question is: who falls into whose hands?
« The wife is a wife because of [her] hands. » (Zulu)
Usually people have a left hand as well as right hand, but in most, if not all, cultures the right hand seems to be more positively viewed than the left hand:
« What resemblance, more perfect than that between our two hands! And yet what a striking inequality there is! To the right hand go honours, flattering designations, prerogatives: it acts, orders, and takes. The left hand, on the contrary, is despised and reduced to the role of a humble auxiliary: by itself it can do nothing; it helps, it supports, it holds. »
This quotation reads as metaphorical reflection on gender relations. How is the relation between the two hands expressed in proverbs? 'The left hand should not know what the right hand does' is originally a saying from the Bible referring to the giving of alms that should be done modestly and without any fuss. In a Creole proverb from Martinique it has got a different interpretation: a wife should not meddle in her husband's affairs. The husband is associated with the prefereable right hand, and the wife with the left.
In other proverbs, the wife is sometimes referred to as the right hand: 'A woman is her husband's right hand' (Mordvin). The hierarchy is kept intact nonetheless...
In proverbs related to hands one finds messages similar to those associated with earlier discussed parts of the body. First, existing hierarchies have to be respected and a strong woman should remember that 'Even though her hand might hold the reigning sceptre, she remains a woman' - as an Arabic Jewish proverb from Yemen insists. Second, 'A man shouldn't wash his wife's hands', as a Kenyan Nandi proverb puts it, meaning that he should never ever spoil her.
Ideally, instead of being difficult, a woman 'asked for her hand' offers this hand willingly to the man who wants to marry her, whereas men are warned not to 'fall into the hands of women', because 'He who has fallen into a woman's hands, has falledn on burning coals', as a Ladino proverb from Morocco states. A man, then, must keep all control in his own male hands.
In many cultures, a girl's finger is given a ring as a symbol of betrothal or the promise of marriage, and a number of proverbs refer to this . Here are three examples from widely different parts of the world:
« The handsome finger gets the ring. » [lit. A ring around it]. (Swahili) « When the finger is ringed, the girl is occupied. » (Danish) « The promises of marriage are wind, the only thing that counts is the ring on the finger. » (Creole, Guadeloupe)
Other proverbs associate a woman's working capacities with her finger or fingers:
« When a woman wets her finger, fleas had better flee. » (English, USA) « To her every finger is a man. » (Hebrew)
This last proverb expresses the highest praise for a housewife, because she works for ten, and to have such a wife is of course most profitable to her husband. In an Arabic proverb with many variants the importance for a woman to be on good terms with her husband is expressed in the metaphor of the finger:
« She who has her husband's agreement can rule the universe with her little finger. She who has her husband with her shall turn the moon with her finger. » (Syria)
This proverb is obviously very popular, as I found it in many versions, sources and countries all over the Arab world. Evidently, such a good relationship blesses a woman with both power and possibilities, although they all seem to depend exclusively on this partnership.
« God protect us from hairy women and beardless men. » (Arabic)
The number of proverbs devoted to female sexual characteristics varies in different parts of the world. Depending on the culture and the context, breasts are either taken for granted, seen as a pedestrian, functional body for nurturing, or considered as objects of erotic arousal. In China no special attention seems to be paid to the female breast as an erotic object. The Chinese phrase for breasts, ru fang, means 'house of milk', referring to nursing and motherhood. In Chinese classic poetry, unlike the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, the praise of its beauty seems to be lacking, even the Book of Odes contains no mention of breasts. Why should this be? Perhaps it is due to the fact that in the rural areas (especially in rich families) Chinese boys (not girls) are breastfed for a relatively long time, often until their sixth year. It may well be that, rightly or wrongly, Chinese men consider breasts as something of importance for children only.
Could this be the reason why I found no Chinese proverbs about breasts? In fact there were conspicuously few proverbs on breasts, wombs, and vaginas from Asia in general, particularly in comparison with Africa. Is this a matter of decency to be respected in the written sources, as in the United States? In my collection of North American proverbs I found hardly any references to breasts either, and none to wombs or vaginas. In this case, it does not necessarily mean that breasts are not considered to be exciting nor that such statements did not exist but that they have been kept out of collections for reasons of puritanism, austerity, decency, or as a form of political correctness avant la lettre. In fact, the North American proverbs on women are the most 'decent and respectable' (and therewith on average also somewhat 'sterile'): it is possible that the original oral traditions were censored and 'cleansed' before being published in official collections, although this cannot be proved. In Europe, a number of proverbs on breasts and wombs have survived in spite of Victorian prudery.
Where does discretion end and prudery begin, as far as the exhibition of female nudes, and breasts in particular, are concerned? Breasts are sexualized as aesthetic objects, at least in the contemporary Western world, and only occasionally looked at from the functional perspective of breastfeeding. In Africa, south of the Sahara, a striking abundance of proverbs are related to breasts - in the two senses: on the one hand they deal with breastfeeding and motherhood, on the other hand, with beauty and sex appeal. Those two aspects are also found in the other continents (with North American as the exception), although to a lesser extent than in Africa.
Proverbs present the male beard as a sign of time-honoured respectability in many cultures: 'Under a white beard lives an honest woman', according to a Mexican proverb meaning that she will be well protected by the social esteem he enjoys due to his respectable age. It is significant that she is situated 'under' his beard.
Incidentally, young women themselves do not necessarily feel attracted by the wealthy old 'man with the white beard.' An Arabic proverb looks at the matter from a young woman's point of view: 'A woman flees from a white beard like a sheep flees from the jackal.' Apart from that, the respected whiteness of the beard may well be caused less by the man's wisdom than by his worries: 'If the wife is bad, the husband's beard will soon turn white', as a Tati saying from Iran observes. However that may be, having a beard is having power, and sharing that power with one's wife is strongly advised against in the following Spanish proverb: 'To a married woman don't give a piece of the beard.' Or in Persian: 'Rather pull the beard off than give it to your wife.' A beard makes a man worthy of respect - but not a woman. On the contrary, a beard on a woman's face is considered unbearable, figuratively no less than literally. It is a sign of 'maleness' and female 'maleness' risks overthrowing the existing order.
A woman who grows a beard or moustache 'naturally' is obviously very disturbing. Proverbs see it as a sign that something is very wrong:
« A woman with a beard is of wicked kind. » (Dutch) « When a family is going to ruin, a beard grows on the face of the eldest daughter-in-law. » [a bad presage] (Koran) « A bearded woman, God help us! » (Portuguese, Brazil) « May God spare me from a bearded, old woman. » (Spanish, Argentina)
A proverb even blames a woman who accommodates to the requirements by taking the trouble to shave her face. No way! 'From a shaved woman you should turn away your face' (Spanish). Finally, a proverb about the moustache has obviously travelled from the Iberian peninsula to South America: 'A woman with a moustache: greet her at a distance' has variants in Spain and Portugal as well as in Colombia and Brazil. It is a warning to men who do not want to run the risk of being kissed by such a woman. Apparently a female with hair on the face is the absolute in repulsiveness for Iberian men and their South American descendants.
'If my aunt grows a moustache, she will be my uncle', the Tamil in India say, to express that changing roles in life is unlikely, especially in the field of gender. This idea is confirmed by proverbs from other areas, for example, the following Dutch one: 'Beard, breeches and billfold, these are a man's three b's that a woman should avoid.' A Danish proverb jokingly explains women's smooth skin by referring to another presumed stereotype female quality: 'Women don't have beards because they cannot keep their mouths shut while shaving.' If having a beard means having power, could the derision about a woman's facial hair be seen as an encroachment of the male privileged domain?
In some cultures men do not shave, e.g. Orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Muslims. An Eastern European proverb pretends that: 'It is easier to bear a child once a year than to shave every day.' Whether such claims are being made by men or by women, or indifferently by both, is difficult to know.
In spite of cultural differences, there seems to be a rather general agreement that a woman needs to have an abundance of hair on her head, but that most, and in some cultures all, of the other parts of her body should ideally be hairless, and depilated if they are not 'naturally' smooth. Depending on the culture, she may therefore have to smoothen her arms and legs, and to shave her armpits and even her pubic hair. So much time-consuming work!
There are indeed some proverbs about such undesirable hair on body parts other than the head: 'Only on horseback did she realize she had forgotten to shave herself' originates from Morocco. It refers literally to a bride who is on her way to her new home; in the Berber culture it is unworthy for a bride not to depilate her armpits and pubic hair. The proverb is figuratively used to express that people usually think of doing something when it is already too late.
So far we have seen that breasts are female attributes, and a man is not supposed to have them, just as a woman is not supposed to have a beard or a moustache. There should be no confusion about the order of things: 'Sky is adorned with stars, man with his beard, woman with her hair', insists a Tatar proverb from the Russian Federation. A man may have, and in some cultures is highly recommended to have, a fully-grown beard. As for the rest, his hair is allowed to sprout at will, which is not at all acceptable in a woman's case. In North America, this is expressed as follows: 'A hairy man's rich, a hairy wife's a bitch', while in an Arabic proverb the difference is maked in slightly more elegant terms: 'God blesses the hairy man and the smooth woman.'
Women are really caught by those various unwritten norms and rules regarding female face and body hair. The main line of argument is that the differences between men and women need to be made unambiguously clear. Echoes of the above prescriptions make the slightest trace of female hair on the wrong part of the body, undesirable. Therefore, even a faint moustache on a woman's face begins to look like a serious disaster, as two Portuguese proverbs from Brazil state:
« Not even the Devil can handle a woman with a moustache. » « Not even the Devil can put up with a woman with hair in her nostrils. »
Again, for a man this is a completely different matter. In Japan, even a man's nostril hairs are obviously interesting: a geisha who is allowed to count the hairs in the nostrils of her favoured patron feels very flattered, because this privilege is considered a sign of respect and trust. It grants her power as well: 'A woman can do what she pleases with the man who lets her count the hairs in his nostrils.'
If a woman is 'disqualified' for developing male sex characteristics, it is no less considered bad for a man to develop female sex characteristics, such as breasts. This may be due to hormonal changes, or, as some proverbs suggest, be the result of eating certain plants or food. The Quechua Indians in Ecuador warn men against eating a plant whose seeds contain a milky fluid: 'If you touch a chuchu muyu seed, you will develop breasts.'
Although in the eyes of many men breasts are considered intriguing and attractive, they prefer not to develop them on their own body. On the other hand, some proverbs insist that breasts (like beards) are not very special as such:
« A woman is more than her breasts; goats also have two. » (Rwanda) « Breasts are like a beard: even a barren woman has them. » (Ganda)
There are also women who do not develop real breasts. Wrongly, it has sometimes been believed that a woman without breasts is sterile and men would not lightly take the risk to marry such a woman. If a teenage girl does not develop breasts, some proverbs conclude that such a woman will grow old without having any children: 'The proof of a girl's lack of breasts is her white hair' (Rwanda) means that she will grow old without being married. The Kundu in Cameroon refer to this link of breast and womb as well, by saying that 'A girl has the other thing because of her breasts', in which 'the other thing' refers to a womb and fertility, although breasts or breast size do not really guarantee motherhood, and have nothing to do with female reproductive capacity.
NURSING BREAST AND BREASTS AS OBJECTS OF DESIRE
« You can always soothe a child with the breast, but how to handle a husband? » (Estonian)
For millions of years the first provider of food in people's life has been the mother. She starts suckling and nurturing right from the child's first day of life. She is willing to do this, but the child also has to remind her of his needs. This familiar image of a baby who cries to remind his mother of his need to be breastfed is widely used in proverbs:
« An infant must cry to get its mother milk. » (Sinhalese, Sri Lanka) « Until the baby cries, the mother doesn't suckle him. » (Romanian) « If the child doesn't cry, the mother won't find out. » (Russian) « The mother gives the child no milk until it cries for it. » (Persian) « A mother does not suckle a chuld until it cries. » (Tibetan) « A crying baby gets a suck; but a babbler only gains dislike. » (Khionghta)
Being indispensable to the young baby's survival, breastfeeding has served as metaphor for a mother's taking care in general as the basis for one's later life 'Everyone acts according to the amount of his mother's milk he has drunk' (Kurdish, Turkey). The majority of proverbs on breastfeeding argue that a female breast is meant to suckle children. Proverbs on this subject, however, do not only associate the mother's breast with it actual bodily function but, as usual, bring along other messages. Thus the Oromo observation that 'Breasts are two but the milk is the same' metaphorically reminds listeners of the old wisdom that different means may yield the same result or, as a European saying from a totally different domain puts it: 'More than one road leads to Rome.'
Several proverbs aptly combine the issue with familiar messages declaring that 'naturally' a female is supposed to act like a female. The act of breastfeeding serves as a pretext to justify the separation of roles along the lines of the sexes:
« Let a female develop her breast, eventually she must give it to her child. » (Igbo) « Little girl, you suck your mother's breast, and yours will be sucked. » (Lega) « A man's breast does not give milk. » (Hehe) « Breast-ache is not a man's ache. » (Minyanka)
Thus the female breast serves to exclude the sexes from each other's culturally established domains in life: men cannot suckle children and women should not be intellectually too talented - exactly the mechanism we came across in the discussion about brains.
The metaphor of breastfeeding is used to underscore the truth that right from the beginning a baby learns from those who surround him or her, in particular the mother:
« Whatever the mother has eaten, the child will take in at the breast. » (Sranan) « That which you sucked from the tit will be spilled over your grave. » (Spanish, Bolivia)
However, the opposite is not impossible. This idea is also reflected in proverbs about the breast, for example in the following one from Botswana: 'All women's breasts can feed wise children', arguing that even foolish mothers can give birth to and feed and child that is very different. Conversely, even wise mothers have no guarantee that their children will turn out to be reasonable creatures...
« In woman's womb lies the destiny of the home. » (German)
The womb is the fundamental organ to distinguish women from men: 'A womb makes a woman', a Latin proverb states, and an Italian proverb goes so far as to say that 'Women reason with the womb.' Here, once more, we find the familiar argument excluding women from the male domain of rationality on the basis of the female body shape or a specific body part - this time the womb.
Most proverbs about wombs are concerned with what the womb is actually meant for: procreation - the wonders and worries of bearing a child. Both men and women seem to attach crucial importance to having children. Wombs are receptacles for posterity, several proverbs argues:
« Love for a girl lies below the navel. » (Rwanda) « The woman with a storehouse under her navel will not die of hunger of cold. » (Ladino/Hebrew)
The storehouse under the navel is considered a good investment by an older generation. Therefore girls need to be fertile and fertility is signalled by menstruation - yet I found only a few proverbs dealing with the matter. The Zulu sound the drum for a girl's first menstruation to celebrate and announce that she is now nubile, but 'Unhappy the girl for whom the drum does not sound.' In an Arabic proverb, there are obviously mixed feelings about the event: 'When a girl begins to menstruate, either give her in marriage or bury her.' The proverb reflects the same need for drastic control in the Spanish proverb we came across earlier, and the same options of either marrying or burying her.
According to Islam, menstruation is considered as 'uncleanness' and during her period a woman is exempted from the usual duties of prayer and fasting. A menstruating woman, even if she is not allowed to pray, can still go to the mosque. Of course, nobody would be able to check whether she has her period, and therefore the fact is simply ignored. A Persian proverb refers to this by saying that: 'They don't close the mosque for one menstruating woman.'
In a number of cultures, traditionally, menstruating women were or are not allowed to prepare food for others. I only found one Baule proverb from Ivory Coast referring to the idea of food thus being 'polluted': 'Better to sleep hungry than wait for food prepared by a woman having her period.' Among the Baule (but also among a number of other peoples), there is another rule about menses: menstruating women are not allowed to have sex, and the same holds for widows. Hence the proverb 'Whether the widow has her period or not, it makes no difference': she cannot have sexual intercourse anyway. Finally, having one's period means not being pregnant. A Congolese Mboshi proverb expresses the worries of the married woman who desperately wants to conceive. Each month she hopes that her period will not appear, and then feels disappointed again: 'The chance of motherhood fades with regular menstruation.'
The fact that women carry their children in the womb for nine months before giving birth establishes strong links between them. The mother's love for their children is considered endless, she has loved them befroe she gave birth. For her the child is 'The one whom the heart has seen before the eye could see him' (Arabic, Lebanon). It is sometimes suggested that a child can only be completely happy as long as it is in the mother's womb, which the Yaka metaphorically refer to as 'the big forest', when they ask rhetorically: 'A child, will he weep in the big forest?' Before the womb can carry anything, action has to be taken, as recommended from a female or from a male perspective:
« He loves me well that makes my belly swell. » (English, UK) « It is not enough for a woman to put her hands on her belly to get a son. » (Arabic, Syria/Lebanon)
Sometimes, however, women seem to love their husband more than their child. In such a case 'The belly precedes the child' and this preference is socially disapproved of among the Rundi where this proverb comes from, but not only there. In all cultures, children are considered to be the hope of the future, and therewith the most important contribution women make to society.
When my first son was born in Congo, all the people from the neighbourhood came, one after the other, knocking at the door, to say 'thank you' to me for having given birth to a child. It meant that by giving life to a newborn I had contributed new strength to society. This idea is not acknowledged so movingly and explicitly everywhere, but the underlying truth is universally acknowledged. In the words of a Gikuyu proverb: 'The foetus in the womb carries the future.' In Arabic, a mother of attractive children is praised as follow: 'The womb is a mine of precious stones' (Lebanon), meaning that she has been a successful birth-giver.
Proverbs seem to observe mainly two different things about the content of the womb. First, children look like their mother and also resemble each other, an idea concisely expressed in English: 'The child follows the womb.' Secondly, and more frequently, it is argued that one cannot tell what the womb will bring, as it produces all sorts of children:
« A mother's womb does unexpected things. » (Digor) « A womb is an indiscriminate container: it bears a thief and a witch. » (Shona) « The womb is like the muwogo [cassava root]: it brings forth both beautiful and ugly. » (Ganda) « A mother's womb is like a slave ship, bringing both good and bad. » (Sranan)
Such widely different container metaphors as the cassava plant, and the slave ship refer to ideas about the womb as developed in various continents. One Russian proverb suggests that it all depends on the man and his sperm: 'A woman is like a bag, whatever you put into it, she will carry.'
Having children makes people worry about them, right from conception and forever after. 'The child hurts inside and outside', as the Tonga in Zambia put it, meaning that mothers always suffer because of their children. 'Wombs see trouble', as the Ganda aptly summarize this world of sorrow.
« Even if your wife's sex is small, dawn will find you there. » (Minyanka)
The vagina, this narrow path leading to the womb, is looked upon with mixed feelings by men and presented with mixed feelings by women. Metaphorically a Thai proverb warns men to handle the small vagina of young woman with care: 'Thread the small-eyed needle slowly.' On the other hand, a Creole saying from Guadeloupe observes that 'A vagina is like a pig's snout', meaning that it is so solid that it is never worn out, thus recommending that is should be well used throughout life. Apparently this is not so self-evident. A Sumerian proverb preserved in cuneiform writing on a clay tablet from thousands of years ago contains a complaint on the matter: 'My vagina is fine, [yet] according to my people [its use] for me is ended.' This complaint is attributed to an old prostitute defending her ability to continue her profession in spite of her aging. Had she known the Creole proverb, it might have served her as an argument!
Other proverbs emphasize that a woman should not be too eager or too willing to accept men's proposals. All over the world metaphorical warnings are provided to remind females of the serious consequences of such willingness. The following examples - all from Africa south of the Sahara - illustrate this by literally referring to the part of the body concerned:
« Let-me-please, let-me-please! grazes the vagina. » (Rwanda) « If a woman offers her sex to everyone, pestles are used on it. » (Minyanka) « The kind woman has a hairless vagina. » (Mamprusi)
Sexual indulgence can be detrimental, goes the warning. The Mamprusi image refers to the belief that abundant hair on a woman's private parts is a sign of health, and the proverb indicates more generally that the presence of one thing is a sign of something else that is hidden for the time being. All three proverbs literally refer to sex, but they express metaphorically that profiteers take advantage of the notorious goodness of people who sacrifice themselves to other people's pleasure. The violent Minyanka image of the pestle stresses that such behaviour is abused as well as despised.
Sometimes the vagina stands for a woman's nakedness: 'He who sees a vulva in the morning should go on to the market at once' (Arabic, Algeria), as it is considered good luck for a man to see a naked woman. It means misfortune, though, if it incindentally happens the other way round. Again, a woman is the object who brings good luck to the man, whereas seeing a 'penis', i.e. a naked man, is just bad luck, but for whom?
Although many proverbs speak about the dangers and powers of women's sexual attractiveness, I found only one proverb directly referring to the frightening archetype of the vagina dentata, originating from the Mapuche in Chile: 'A woman of striking appearance has a biting vagina.' In some cases the vagina is referred to without being mentioned explicitly, as in the following Rwanda proverb: 'A happy girl thinks that hers must be better.' It is quoted when people attribute their luck to their own merits.
As we have seen, most examples in this section are from Africa, and only a few are from Asia and South America. Indeed, in daily life the vagina is not a part of the body that is openly talked about. Nevertheless, having or not having a vagina is a decisive question, and the answers makes a no less decisive difference in life.
« She who offers a half-cooked meal is better than she who offers her buttocks. » (Rwanda)
Proverbs about female buttocks almost always refer to their sexual appeal. Buttocks are like breasts, in some respects: the same round forms, the same attractiveness. A woman who goes without pretty buttocks is disadvantaged: 'Neither a beautiful face, nor a supple behind' says an Arabic proverb disapprovingly, referring to anybody or anything in the world with nothing to recommend.
In Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, there seems to be more emphasis on this part of the body than in Europe or Asia. The ideal behind should be a large one, so it can be shown off:
« No one shows her buttocks unless they are big. » (Rwanda) « A woman is like the merino sheep - she is judged by her backside. » (Sotho, Lesotho/South Africa)
Although buttocks are important in the overall male appreciation of a female's attraction, men are warned that they are not free of charge. In Cuba it is jokingly said that: 'A woman with a big behind consumes a lot of gasoline', meaning that being an attractive lady, she will cost a man a lot of money. Some women aptly exploit this part of the body to enlarge their impact or profit, as observed in an Armenian proverb: 'A smart bride shows her husband only half of her behind.'
In order to arm oneself against such vulnerability, men are reminded not to follow their desire in the first place, as argued in the Rwanda motto in this section: a less attractive but hard-working woman who produces good food is always better than the lazy one who has nothing else to offer than just a beautiful pair of buttocks.
Another point insisted upon is that, although attractive to the male eye, like breasts, a bottom is not necessarily available:
« A big behind is not a drum. » (Creole, Marie Galante) « Although a man may fondly love buttocks, he is only allowed what a woman allows. » (Dutch)
Other aspects concern the temperature of female buttocks and the problem of breaking wind. Are women's buttocks cold or warm? Cold, says a Japanese proverb: 'Cold things are a cat's nose and a woman's buttocks.' Hot, states a Frisian saying from the Netherlands: 'Hot on hot, said the blacksmith, and he put his wife with her bare buttock on the stove.'
Breaking wind is a natural function for both genders, so why it should be especially associated with women is a mystery. When it happens at the wrong moment, in the presence of other people, such an uncontrolled body sound causes female embarrassment: 'After the fart she squeezed her buttocks', says an Arabic proverb about the irrelevance of taking measures only after an unfortunate event - but why the 'she'?
The twofoldedness of the behind is used to explain that misunderstandings and quarrels are unavoidable for those who live closely together as partners: 'Two buttocks cannot avoid brushing against each other' goes a Tonga proverb from Zambia. It also exists in a number of other Bantu languages in the following form: 'Buttocks rubbing together do not lack sweat.' A European proverb from Armenia has a comparable variant about breasts: 'Even breasts rub against each other' in which, once more, the metaphor of buttocks and breasts serve the same purpose.
LEGS, KNEES, FEET
« Heaven is at the feet of mothers. » (Arabic)
Legs, knees and feet are noticed for their beauty but also for their ugliness. Let me begin with the ugliness. Down on the scale are women who have no legs at all: 'Even a legless [woman] begets what has legs', the Hehe people in Tanzania say to express that insignificant and powerless people sometimes succeed in achieving miracles. Proverbs about ugly legs are quite rare. In fact I found only one, from Ireland, a mild jest about legs so badly shaped that their owners need dispensation from the Vatican for such a terrible sin.
Young women's legs are considered highly attractive and therefore happily shown at the dance: 'When the dance is in full swing, the girl's upper legs can be seen.' This Baule proverb encourages people to put all their energy into their work so that the result will be admired. Beautiful thighs can be dangerously powerful to the point of bewitching their charmed victims: 'A devout witch hides her leg but shows her thigh', a Catalan proverb warns. Another joking reference to the obsessive appeal of legs comes from Denmark: 'Reverends and girls' legs promise something better in higher spheres.'
Sometimes a woman's legs decide about the the married status of their owner - but who is the owner here? 'He rejected her and looked at her legs again' is an Arabic proverb. A woman's legs thus have an impact on her fate and future, that is her marriage's fate and future. In practice its meaning extends to someone's rethinking the situation he placed himself in, and then revising an earlier decision.
A Maori recommendation advises a mother as follows: 'Massage the legs of your daughter, that she may have a good appearance when standing before the fire on the beach.' Young Maori women, it is explained, used to dive to catch lobsters and afterwards they dried themselves in front of the fire before getting dressed - a good opportunity for them to proudly show their beautifully shaped legs before interested suitors.
As with shoulders and arms, there are very few proverbs about knees, and again they seem to have little in common. A Dutch said-saying deals jokingly with two perspectives on a woman's pair of knees:
« 'Cover them, cover them,' said the man to his wife. 'Why should I, I did not steal them,' said she, and sat with her skirt above her knees. »
The husband jealously wants to protect his wife's knees from the eager gaze of other men, while the wife claims that she has nothing to hide...
In different times and cultural contexts, modesty has been attached to a variety of parts of the female body, from hair to breasts, from buttocks to feet. Shifting erogenous zones has been associated with shifting norms of modesty, considering now this, then that part of the body as more (or less) provocative than other parts. Thus in proverbs from (at least some parts of) orthodox Islamic culture, men do not seem to have a problem with nude female feet, but with nude female faces, whereas, for example, in ancient China and in Western Victorian times it was immodest for women to exhibit their feet. Most of the underlying standards for such practices have been projected onto the female body as measures of control.
The proverb about losing the body and keeping the wife with which we began this head-to-foot survey of women advises men to look for a wife with more solid qualities than just appearance. Nonetheless, female beauty appears to be an inexhaustible source of proverbial inspiration in all parts of the world.
Women and greyhounds should have thin waists. (Spanish)
A skinny woman is like a racehorse: fast and fun, but no good for work. (English, USA)
Fatness is part of beauty. (Spanish, Chile)
Three traits of woman; a broad bosom, a slender waist and a short back. (Irish)
Beauty comes through the mouth. [Women should be fat.] (Spanish, Colombia / Panama)
A fat woman is a quilt for the winter. (Multani, India)
A pretty girl should have an eyebrow like a willow-leaf, an eye like the kernel of an apricot, a mouth like a cherry, a face the shape of a melon-seed, and a waist as thin as a poplar. (Chinese)
A woman's beauty is in her slender waist. (Tamil, India)
Spacious forehead, beautiful woman. (Spanish, El Salvador)
Beauty of the mountains is in the stones; beauty of the head is in the hair. (Turkish)
A pretty girl is like freshly made cheese. (Nenets)
Moonlight in the jungle. [no one around to admire her beauty] (Telegu)
What is the use of the peacock strutting in the jungle. (Malay)
A many-coloured hen does not stay in a corner of the house. (Kundu, Cameroon)
Even silent, a beautiful woman cannot go unnoticed. (Japanese)
A beauty is a joy to everyone. (Turkish)
Beautiful the girl who looks like a peony when she sits, like a columbine when she stands, and like a lily when she walks. (Japanese)
A beautiful woman is like newly forged gold. (Indonesian)
When three women join together, the stars come out in broad daylight. (Telegu)
A radiant beauty says to the moon: 'Don't bother to rise; I will.' (Persian)
A beautiful woman stands on the palm of the hand. (English, Hawaii)
Woman's beauty radiates in the brightness of her presence; a girl's beauty is in the freshness of her innocence. (Arabic, Morocco)
Nature meant woman to be her masterpiece. (English, USA)
Being slim is the property of the gazelle, being corpulent, the property of the big horse. (Syria/Lebanon, Arabic)
Plumpness redeems the seven deadly sins. (Arabic)
A plump wife is a warm blanket in wintertime. (Nandi)
Harvest makes girls and orphans plump. (Ovambo)
Should a husband blame his wife for growing fatter? (Mossi)
A slim woman smells of fish. [slim women are little appreciated] (Creole, Martinique)
Big bread does not find customers. [meaning that very corpulent women will not find a husband] (Portuguese, Brazil)
She who has her feet swept, will marry an old man. (Cuban)
Do not tie up your feet; you will not [be able to] give birth. (Quechua)
Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own. Don't marry the one with the big feet, because she is your fellow-male. Look for someone who has short feet, because one who has long feet is your fellow-male. (Sena, Malawi & Mozambique)
The woman with the long feet ends up alone in a room. (Chinese)
Old women's footsteps start firmly but don't last. (Rundi)
'Skating makes thirsty,' said the old woman, and she stood with one foot on the ice. (Frisian)
A woman who admits guilt will not spend time on her knees. (Yoruba)
Young and beautiful, access to everything. (Kirghiz)
No girl holds herself in contempt. (Swahili)
With a beautiful face no wealth is needed. (Ladino)
In the dark all women are moons. (Arabic, Tunisia)
In the dark every woman is [as beautiful as] the moon. (Ladino)
The ugly woman has to switch off the light to say that she is pretty. (Spanish, Cuba)
In the dark all cats and girls are beautiful. (Hungarian)
Every woman is beautiful in the dark, from a distance and under an umbrella. (Japanese)
Beautiful women are like fresh banana leaves: they never come to an end in the plantation. (Ganda)
If you think Miss-this-year is pretty, Miss-next-year will be more so. (Hausa)
It is easy to find a beautiful woman; it is difficult to find a good craftsman. (Thai)
A woman without clothes is as unattractive as food without salt. (Pashto)
If this is how she looks in beautiful garments, how will she look without them? (Turkish / Azeri)
Dress the corncob and it will look like a bride. (Arabic)
Nicely dressed, even a stick becomes beautiful. (Ladino)
Even a log is beautiful is beautifully dressed. (Hungarian)
Put jewels on a stump, then even the stump is beautiful. (Estonian)
A beauty in ugly clothes is still a beauty. (Uzbek)
A house is made beautiful by its thatch. (Tsonga)
Neither my father nor my mother made me beautiful, but my clothes [did]. (Lebanese, Arabic)
Loves flies with the red petticoat. [Only unmarried girls wear this garment.] (Japanese)
A woman's petticoat is the Devil's binder. (Romanian)
Many an Irish property was increased by the lace of a daughter's petticoat. (Irish)
The ribbons of a petticoat pull more than team of oxen. (Spanish, Mexico)
A foolish woman is known by her petticoats, showing her wealth by the number she possesses. (English, UK)
If your petticoat fits you well, do not try to put on your husband's pants. (Creole, Martinique)
A girl in lace and silk is suitable for dance and banquet, but not for lady of the house. (Romanian)
Silks and satins put out the kitchen fire. (Hebrew)
The woman who dresses in yellow trusts her beauty. (English, USA)
She who dresses in green trusts her beauty. (Spanish, Colombia)
She who dresses in black must rely on her beauty. (Spanish, Mexico)
Beautiful feathers make beautiful birds. (Russian)
A wife is clothes, a banana plant is weeding. (Swahili)
A woman without earrings is like a house without furniture. (Spanish, Cuba)
A woman with many bracelets is capricious. (French / Catalan)
With or without a nose-plug, women are always beautiful. (Makua)
Who wants to be handsome has to suffer pain, said the maid, as she pinned the bonnet to her ears. (Dutch)
A man leaves the home to attend to business, a woman to show herself. (Finnish)
Do not spread out your merchandise, it will diminish its value. (Lebanon)
From a woman wearing make-up, one turns his face away. (Argentina, Spanish)
The shepherd's wife dresses fancily in the evening. (Tatar)
The blind man's wife - for whom does she put on make-up? (Portuguese, Brazil; Spanish, Argentina)
The blind man's wife needs no make-up. (English, USA)
For whom does the blind man's wife paint herself? (Hebrew)
Blind man's wife for whom are you dressing up? (Greek / Portuguese)
The woman who dresses in silk stays at home. (English, USA)
A white complexion hides many defects. [a white skin was admired] (Japanese)
A little bit of powder and a little bit of paint makes an ugly woman look like what she ain't. (English, USA)
The woman who arrays herself well is never ugly. (Portuguese, Brazil / Spanish, El Salvador/Venezuela)
Beauty unadorned, adorns the most. (Hebrew)
True beauty needs no decoration. (Hindi)
The ugliest woman is she who dresses herself up most. (Portuguese)
And she powders, and puts on a blush, and still they won't look. (Russian)
A pretty girl is also pretty in an old dress. (Chechen)
A woman beautifies herself for the man who pleases her. (Chinese, Taiwan)
A wife who takes care of her appearance, keeps her husband away from other doors. (Spanish, Argentina/Mexico/Puerto Rico)
A woman wants to be pretty rather than intelligent and shrewd, because men, in general, see better than they think. (Hebrew)
God did not join brains with beauty. (Polish)
A daughter should be pretty and a son skilled. (Nepalese)
The man by his hands, the woman by her beauty. (Russian)
The brains of a woman are in her curls. (Neo-Aramaic, Iraq)
Man has beauty in his excellence and woman excellence in her beauty. (Spanish)
Man's brains are his jewels: woman's jewels are her brains. (Yiddish)
Women are wacky, women are vain; they'd rather be pretty than have a good brain. (English, USA)
Woman's beauty, the echo in the forest, and a rainbow fade quickly. (German)
Woman's beauty is a cloud's beauty. (Fang, Cameroon & Gabon)
A handsome shape sags out quickly. (Russian)
No shoe is so beautiful, that it will not become a slipper. (French)
Yesterday's lovely flower is but a dream today. (Japanese)
A woman's physical beauty is proved only after pregnancy and nursing. (Lebanese, Arabic)
Breastfeeding makes one wither, childbed makes beautiful. (Catalan / French / German)
A dress is beautiful until it is washed for the first time, a woman, until she has her first child. (Tamil, India)
Pregnancy spoils the waist. (German)
The hen will only stay beautiful as long as she does not lay eggs. (Serbian)
The pretty Creole does not die with her pretty bottom. (Creole, Guadeloupe)
When the sweet taste has gone, the chewing [gum] is thrown away. (Indonesian)
Wrinkled perhaps, but loved anyway. (Russian)
The heart has no wrinkles. (French)
A woman's beauty is not in her face. (Swahili)
Beauty without grace is a violet without smell. (Hebrew)
It is better to be graceful than to be pretty. (Spanish, Bolivia)
Beauty is in the face, grace in the body and you cannot exhaust it. (Burmese)
Beauty is a mirror, the silvering [the secret] of which is within. (Turkish)
Beauty without grace is a hook without a bait. (French)
A wife you love for her being, not for her beauty. (Swahili)
What is good is not necessarily beautiful. (Japanese)
Most good women are without beauty. (Chinese)
Beauty is null and void, when honour is lost. (English, UK)
Beauty without decency is wine without taste. (Italian)
Modesty and beauty do not come together. (Hebrew)
Virtue and beauty are a blessed association. (Slovak)
Chastity combined with beauty makes a woman perfect. (Lebanese, Arabic)
Do not take a wife because of her beauty but rather because of her virtues. (Lebanese, Arabic)
Beauty fades, but not goodness. (Filipino)
Do not follow after desire; do not love for beauty only. (Khionghta)
With character, ugliness is beauty, without character beauty is ugliness. (Hausa)
Beautiful roads won't take you far. (Chinese)
If ugliness suffered pains, it would cry out. (Ladino)
Offer her to the pig, he will say: 'I'm in no hurry.' (Arabic, Tunisian)
The wife who loves the looking glass, hates the saucepan. (English, USA)
It is a sad house where the husband cries and the wife is standing before the mirror. (Danish)
A woman that looks at herself in the looking-glass does not spend much time on housekeeping. (Letzeburgish)
The more women look in their mirror, the less they look to their house. (Hebrew)
A homely girl hates mirrors. (Hebrew)
An ugly woman dreads the mirror. (English, USA)
A woman's beauty never boiled a pot but ugliness never filled it either. (Irish)
Beauty is an empty calabash. (Kundu)
Charming girl, empty gourd. (Spanish)
Splendid without but empty within. (Thai)
The beauty of the bride can be seen at the cradle. (Armenian)
Beautiful woman brings diseases. (Bassar, Togo)
Pity the man who marries a beautiful woman; until she grows old, fear will not leave him. (Spanish, Colombia)
He who marries an ugly woman is not afraid of another man. (Brazilian)
A true wife is her husband's flower of beauty. (English)
One's chattels are one's own, but a beautiful wife is common property. (Khionghta)
Three things which a man ought not to boast of - the size of his purse, the beauty of his wife, the sweetness of his beer. (Irish)
If your wife is chaste, why should you watch her? If she is not, you will watch her in vain. (Hebrew)
A beautiful woman is an axe that cuts off life. (Japanese)
Beauty is much admired, even if it lies at the bottom of the abyss. (Arabic, Maghreb)
A beautiful wife is an enemy. (Sanskrit, India)
Beautiful women are dangerous. You cannot keep them long. (Spanish, Mexico)
A hair of a girl's head draws harder than ten oxen. (Yiddish)
One hair on a pretty woman's head is enough to tether a big elephant. (Japanese)