Leave Your Mother Out of It: A Commentary on Misogynist Insults

Insult Alternatives.jpg

"The insults...

...as cringe-worthy as they may be, aren’t the real offense, it’s that our society is still maintaining this restrictive and even oppressive conception that women are tools of misguided notions of honor."

***disclaimer: this article contains foul language (sorry mom)

I curse all the time and, if we’re being honest, there are most definitely days that I would not kiss my mother with this mouth.

I curse for some of the little things like spilling coffee on my laptop or nicking my knee while shaving (thank god winter is coming, am I right?). These cases illicit the usual shit! or damn it! But then there are the more trying situations: more often than not it’s a man catcalling me in the street and that’s when I find myself screaming kos omak (translation: your mother's vagina).

I know. But let me explain. For all you women out there, I know you can identify with the feelings that erupt when men stare or say something profane when all you want to do is get home from work, change into pajamas and continue binge-watching Broad City. There is something deeply disturbing about the continuous feeling of violation and even danger. It takes just one too many harassers—one is one too many but maybe that’s idealistic of me—to unleash weeks of pent-up anger and fear. Before you can even process what’s happening you’re cursing his mother and sister.

Shame immediately floods my chest after these words leave my mouth, making me want to look in the mirror and ask myself why. Well, here’s why:

Honor plays a very critical role in the social structure of the Arab world. It’s inextricably coupled with the notion of modesty, both of which are used to reinforce a family’s collective status of dignity. Now, here’s the catch: that delicate relationship of modesty and honor rests between a woman’s legs, specifically those of your mother and sisters. So, if you want to really insult someone you’ve got to target their family honor and thus the women of that family. Much of the foulest of Arabic profanity rests upon this framework.

The misogynist profanity is nothing new. In fact, it’s somewhat ubiquitous, being uttered on the sidewalks, in the markets, in traffic…the list goes on.

While I speak both English and Arabic, the former is my mother tongue, the language in which I think in and understand more easily. So, as I grew and absorbed the Arabic I was hearing around me, these phrases were just words and sounds intended to offend someone. I never realized the meanings or socio-cultural implications until much later on. The realization was simultaneously vindicating and disturbing—I was now aware of the misogyny I had been enforcing but would need much time to untangle it from my subconscious.

So, curious how pervasive the issue was, I walked into the office and asked everyone (to the red-faced embarrassment of a few of my female co-workers) to give me a complete list of the insults involving women. And, sure enough, the ones involving women induced much more reluctance from my co-workers than the insults that had nothing to do with mothers and sisters. They’re as vulgar as it gets.  

When the misogyny is so intricately contained within the very language of a people, then it rests deeply within the psyche of this people. It affects the way we perceive and act towards others without even being aware of it.

There are still days in which the phrases spill from my mouth as reflex reactions but at least I can catch myself and strive to kill the habit. I’m writing this because the profanity is a reminder that linguistic misogyny is alive and thriving. The insults, as cringe-worthy as they may be, aren’t the real offense, it’s that our society is still maintaining this restrictive and even oppressive conception that women are tools of misguided notions of honor. It’s a conception that I’m tired of reinforcing every time I tell someone off. 

Yasmeen MjalliComment