By Loubna Flah
Casablanca – They are cast away from society. They are forcefully disqualified from the relentless race to find a suitable spouse. They form a distinct segment in society. Cultures throughout history have given them different names. They are the “Aanissat” in Arabic,” Spinsters” in English, “Vieilles filles” in French, “Alte Jungfer” in German or “Dakhtar tarsheed” in Persian.
All these words have a common thread beside their reference to the category of unmarried women. They all bear a negative connotation close to pejorative discourse. Indeed, these words do not depict only the status of women who have not experienced marital relations. They bear a whole aura of negative attributes conducive to antagonistic attitudes towards the women referred to.
The whole concept of spinsterhood cannot be addressed without investigating gender relations in society. Beyond the sexual dichotomy of men and women, gender alludes to broader concepts related to social constructs, labor division and the roles that both sexes are expected to take up.
Thus, the use of gender-related words should be examined through the prism of social norms rather than linguistic structure. It is a postulate now among linguists that language is a marker of social status. Language indeed reveals unconsciously the countless number of mechanisms and perceptions prevailing in the speech of community about gender among other issues.
The negative aura surrounding the word “Bayra” (spinster in Moroccan Arabic) reveals a set of beliefs anchored in the Moroccan culture as a far as women’s status is concerned. Societies establish incrementally throughout history a set of norms that serve best the interests of the dominant groups and that ensure the stability of the social system.
Patriarchal societies, where the process of decision-making has been dominated by men, have designed a system of norms that consolidate male hegemony. This has resulted in an undisputed advance of men’s status while women’s advancement required decades of militancy for equity.
In most conservative societies, the female character at the risk of rejection and social stigma is required to fulfill a number of expectations. Women represent in patriarchal societies the subject of sexual desire, motherhood and virtue. When women fail to fulfill these anticipated attributes, society retaliates mercilessly.
Thus, when women remain unmarried in an advanced age, they are outcast from the mainstream society. The regular use of words like spinster or Bayra are constant reminders that these women were not up to society’s expectations that require women to be physically attractive, compliant with the norms of marriage and most importantly kept under control.
The concept of spinsterhood more frequently used in traditional societies is intertwined with women’s status. In fact, before they could achieve social emancipation and financial independence, women were under the responsibility of their husbands or their male relatives. Thus, the unmarried women were constantly perceived as a real burden.
Nevertheless, the difference in the appraisal of unmarried men and unmarried women reveals a biased attitude towards women. Some ascribe it mainly to the biological factor, arguing that women who reach the menopause age are no longer able to procreate, which accounts for the emphasis on differentiation. Yet, this categorization evolves to new forms of discrimination and social stigma that cause unmarried women a great deal of psychological distress.
In her book Women, “Gender and Language in Morocco” (Leide: E.J.Brill,2003) Fatima Sadiqi hints at the absence of an equivalent term for men who reached an advanced age without being married. The use of the term spinster only for women perpetuates the idea that women‘s value resides solely in their physical appeal and their desirability by men. The sole emphasis on women as sexual subjects is deeply rooted in patriarchy societies reluctant to a large extent to women’s entry and prominence in the public sphere.
The danger lurking beneath sexist language lies in its ability to promote bias against women. The same traditional concept about gender relations are sustained and transmitted to new generations through the most indispensable tool of communication: Language.
Needless to say that the use of sexist language has the ripple effect of distorting the image of women in society, which hinders all their attempts to recover equity, long high jacked by the patriarchal order.
As Sapir and Whorf pinpoint, language has the power of shaping our thoughts on the long run. Similarly, sexist language has the ability to constrain our thought to the point that pejorative terms like “bayra” become unquestionably integrated in our daily speech.
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