Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Women struggle to be female and person

Often a woman struggles to be a person, not just a female. (Ethiopia)

Dear Zayda,

As you grow older, you will probably hear a lot about what little girls are supposed to do and not do. You may wonder how it is that little boys can do all those things and get a smile or a pat that says “That’s my little man!”

Some of us are grown before we realize we don’t know ourselves as persons, even though the rest of the world may consider us as “nice ladies”, “good wives”, “great mothers” and “dutiful daughters”. But, beyond doing what females are supposed to do, we may not know enough about ourselves to celebrate the special gifts we bring to this life.

Most of us never learn to fight, because showing anger is not supposed to be ladylike. Boys thump each other all the time, and that is how some of them break down barriers and get to be friends. For the first ten years of my life, I had brothers and my cousins were all male. When they teased me, what was I supposed to do? As a nice little girl, I guess I should have cried and then complained to an adult. However, I knew that would mean even worse teasing next time. “Tattle-tale” would be added to whatever other names they decided to call me to get me angry.

My dad, to his credit, saw me as a person – just so long as he was not the one I was fighting! He told me to stand up for myself and not rely on others to fight my battles. So I learned how to fight with fists and with words. The result is that my male cousins would refer to me as their favorite female cousin. This was not so much a compliment when I was also their only female cousin, but at least they knew they had to treat me as their equal (at least!).

Perhaps women can be female if their men keep them at home having babies and doing the tasks that the society says females do and real males stay away from. Jamaican males of my dad’s generation would rather starve than be caught cooking a meal; they would rather buy a new shirt than wash and iron their own clothes. Many mothers encouraged their daughters to do all the housework while the boys were free to play cricket and football. And learn how to defend themselves and forgive each other after the fights.

Many Jamaican women today are working in jobs that require them to be persons. Well, up to a point. In Jamaica, as elsewhere, working women find that they are hired because of how they look. Those who fit the female ideal of the times – young, pretty, slim, blonde, light-skinned, and long-haired – can be well ahead of their sisters who are not beauty contest material. Once on the job, women can find themselves given female tasks, no matter the jobs they hold. If there is a meeting, women can find themselves expected to take notes, serve coffee, and leave the serious discussion to the men. A group will criticize a male boss on his qualities as a leader; people are more likely to criticize a female boss on her clothes or hair style.

The problem many women face today is in working the same hours as the males, but still being expected to do all the “female” tasks at home. Thankfully, some men have enough confidence in their manhood to wash, cook, clean, and look after babies alongside spouses or even as single fathers.

The challenge we face is to be the best of ourselves as females and as persons. We need to take care of ourselves so we can look in our mirrors and smile at ourselves because we like what we see. If others admire us as well, so be it, as long as we know we are more than our bodies. We need to learn to say “no” to tasks that ask too much of us, or make us feel as if we are allowing others to trample on us as human beings.

To be a person as well as female is to challenge patterns set by men and supported by women who accept their roles as just female. The road to being a person can feel lonely for a woman. On the other hand, those who deny themselves usually feel an emptiness that no amount of clothes, shoes, make-up, jewellery, or hair weaves can fill.

We can be who we choose to be, Zayda. Please know that I will support you all I can if you choose to express your gifts as a person.


Your shangazi


Lisa Shoman said...

Thank you for being wide shoulders upon which I and many of your daugthers do stand! May I serve as long and as well...

Yvonne McCalla Sobers said...

Thanks very much, my daughter. It is my great privilege to be here for you and for all my daughters.




When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at