But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought – George Orwell
I’m fascinated by language, specifically the way in which words influence culture and vice versa. Idioms that are taken lightly say more about a community than we realize. For example, let us take a look at the gender bias in Kuwait and how its fueled by a word here and a comment there. Most of the sentences uttered off-handedly say volumes about our society. “قومي صبَي قهوة حق اخوج” can be seen as an innocent, familial order given by a mother to one of her children. (Translation: get up and pour some coffee for your brother.) In reality, it’s phrases like these that shape our society and dictate dynamics between the genders. Although Kuwait prides itself in being a modern state (whatever that means), people still hold on to the most conservative traditions. It’s a cycle: the traditions are manifested in the language (highly prejudiced and sexist jokes, jabs or sayings) and the language shapes the culture. The cycle is detrimental, because even when people’s thinking is about to change, along comes a saying that will corrup the evolution.
This male-empowering language starts the moment a child comes into the world. When a little girl is born in Kuwait, we hear the excited exclamations “واااااااي يا حلوها! عاد هذه نبيها حق ولدنا” Translation: oh, she’s so cute, we want this one for our son! Yes, some lady just tried to reserve a newborn for her two-year old grandson, the same way you would ask a friend for a newborn kitten.
The language only gets worse as their children grow up. Take an innocent hug or kiss between two classmates at kindergarten. They would boast, “ابيه! حمود لازق بدانة لزقه – بس ما ينلام الصبي، اتينن هالبنيه شقره! اكيد أمها مو كويتيه” Translation: Gosh, Hamood is glued to Dana. But we can’t blame him, she’s gorgeous that child! I bet her mom’s not Kuwaiti!
That cuteness, however, is short-lived and is only applicable to boys. Once the son hits the critical teenage years, the parents turn a blind eye to their son’s behavior, especially when it comes to girls – they simply would rather not know what their son is getting up to. Their attention turns to their teenage daughters. Again, this double standard is manifested in the language, with phrases like “تعالي اعلمج الطباخ…. باجر لي يالج الريل شبتوكليينه؟” Translation: Come here, let me teach you how to cook. What do you plan on feeding your future husband? Or another common one is, “بسج طلعه! ان شاء الله اييج ريل يصك عليج” Translation: Enough with the outings! May God send you a strict husband who doesn’t let you go out much.
Most of these phrases are said in jest and have weaved their way into everyday language, but these phrases still pose a problem. No matter how ‘open-minded’ and ‘liberal’ people claim to be, their language denotes a deep-rooted gender bias. The gender bias is exacerbated when young men are looking around for a bride. Mothers are often heard complaining to one another, “اي قاعد ادور حق ولدي احمد… يقول ما يبي وحده متينه مثله! و ما يبيها تشتغل” Translation: Yes, I’m looking for a bride for my son Ahmad…. he says he doesn’t want his wife to be fat like him! And he doesn’t want a girl who works. Not only do the women accept these demands, they repeat them with pride and encourage their sons to take charge. “عاد لا ادلعها! من اولها خلك ريال” Translation: Now don’t go spoiling her! Be a man, right from the beginning.
These phrases are quite common and I’m barely scratching the surface on the topic. My point is, we should stop repeating phrases unless we truly believe in their meaning. What does it mean when a mother encourages her son to be a man, to be strict and put his foot down in the marriage? Does that mean she would want her daughters to be treated that way one day? Is that how the mother was treated herself, and she has accepted this as the norm? What role did our words play in establishing these social rules? What if we stopped saying “منك المال و منها العيال” to a young couple? (Translation: may you [as the man] provide money for the family and may she provide you with children.) The phrase I just mentioned is often said jokingly, but is it not a reflection of our beliefs ?
As Gilbert Highet said, “Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.” It’s time for us to take our words seriously. If we want our reality to change, we should stop repeating words that we do not believe in. Let phrases disappear, let them die out, and let us hold on only to the ideals we want to live by.