Similarities and differences

Proverbs and their variants from one culture, country, language or area often exist in other regions as well. For example:

  • Women are like shoes, they can always be replaced. (Rajasthani, India)
  • Women are like buses: if one leaves, another one will come. (Spanish, Venezuela)
  • Women are like fresh banana leaves: they never come to an end in the plantation. (Ganda, Uganda)

Even though local geographic and cultural differences play an obvious role, cross-cultural similarities in the world’s traditional gender legacies are striking, for example the gendered division of work, the gendered access to knowledge or to public and private spaces, to name just a few. Or take the following wisdom about gendered spaces originating from different parts of the world:

  • A woman is to be from her house three times: when she is baptised, married and buried. (English, UK)
  • A girl must not leave the house more than twice: on the day of her marriage, on the day of her death. (Arabic, Maghreb/West Sahara)
  • A woman should come to her husband’s house in a veil, and leave it in a winding shroud. (Persian)
  • A woman is well either in the house or in the grave. (Pashto, Afghanistan)

Proverbs also express contextual differences, they refer to the precious value of water in regions where drought is imminent, to lack of food and the attractive luxury of plumpness and fatness in places where hunger is a threat, to the importance of a warm fire or warm hands and blankets in places where people suffer from icy-cold winters. I found many more poetic proverbs referring to flowers in Asia than in Europe. Proverbs about veils prevail in Islamic countries in the Arab world and Asia and are very rare in Europe and the Americas. Even though local cultural differences thus do play a role, the similarities are overwhelming. This holds especially for the large variety of prescriptions and proscriptions circulated worldwide to keep women under control within a gendered space, in strong contrast with the encouragement of male freedom of movement in the public domain. Women’s physical strength, their working capacity, their mental power, and their profitability for men have led to all sorts of restrictive measures including violence. Indeed, proverbs are no innocent stuff.