Human rights

Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins thus: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ If today for the first time in history a (still relatively small) number of men and women are being equally educated and doing the same jobs, we must be aware of the numerous impediments invented and cherished over the centuries and all over the world to prevent this from happening.

In spite of what proverbs want us to believe, femininity and masculinity are not fatally static. Quoting and analysing proverbs about women today definitely has a consciousness raising function as, for example, women’s groups in Southern Africa confirmed in letters to the publisher, after they had worked with my earlier book on African proverbs: ‘Source of All Evil.’ African Proverbs and Sayings About Women. (Nairobi, Phoenix Publishers 1992; Johannesburg, Ravan Press 1992). The women reported that in their meetings, they had discussed the African proverbs about women’s phases of life, basics of life such as love, sex, pregnancy, work, violence, power, and so forth. They found the proverbs intriguing both in the way they powerfully mirrored women’s own internalised ideas about womanhood, and in the way they revealed straightforward male dominance. After intense discussions in which the proverbial messages about women were questioned, they started turning the messages upside down by replacing in the proverbs the word ‘man’ by the word ‘woman’, and vice-versa. E.g.: ‘Consult your husband and do the opposite’ (Arabic); or: ‘Don’t take one man, if you can maintain two’ (Swiss); or: ‘Eating with a man is eating with a witch’ (Lingala, DR Congo); ‘A man without talents is already doing very well’ (Chinese), and so forth. This hilarious exercise provoked roaring laughter and proved to be an empowering eye-opener.

The strategy the women used was not to avoid or ignore, but to effectively re-appropriate those proverbial legacies. In their discussions they discovered the interests and hierarchies hidden in proverbs, and succeeded in subverting the impact they had on their behaviour. Thus, looking into proverbs definitely becomes a way of looking back to ‘the tradition’, and looking forward to new gender relations in a changing world. Our cultural legacies cannot be ignored, they are testimonies of humanity’s eventful history, and we have to understand the lessons this history is teaching us, so that we will be able to consciously select which part of our ‘traditions’ (but whose traditions are we talking about?) we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren. This is the right place to quote my favourite proverb which is Tibetan: ‘A hundred male and a hundred female qualities make a perfect human being’.