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“Behind every great man, is a great woman, and behind every great woman is herself”.

In the first part of Kalam Niswan, I explained one of the two reasons why this saying is the epitome of useless hearsay, or kalam nass sai. In reality great women, like men, tend to have the support of many other great men and women. People are social creatures that often need positive reinforcements from their loved ones. According to feminism, there is no special reason why women should be thought of as less or more competent just because they have two X chromosomes. This brings me to the second reason why it’s hard for me to find the saying agreeable.

When we talk about “great women” in such a context, there is a specific idea as to what the role entails. The idea manifests itself in quotes like—“A successful man is one who makes more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man.” The mentality that breeds such sayings, starts with phrases like “kalam niswan” and “like a girl”, which translate into insults. Soon you have actions based off of this mentality, which create a wave of negative reinforcements of gender norms that “keep women in the kitchen”.

Suffice to say, the traditionally insinuated definition of who a “great woman” is doesn’t necessarily sit well with me, or most feminists. For decades we have been misguided into thinking that a great woman is one who could make a man great, who could bend and twist her being into the form of a wooden cane, around which a man could easily tighten his grip and lean on for support. She is the good daughter who learns how to become a good wife. This means she can cook well, manage household finances (if her husband lets her), and skillfully nod her head when she needs to. She also has the exquisite talent of disappearing into the kitchen when her husband has guests over, only to come back out with a tray of refreshments and her head bowed, then tip-toe out of the room until they leave and she is needed to clean up after them. Last but not least, she has a good head on her shoulders to raise the kids (bonus points if she’s got a great pair of son-making ovaries).

This image has been tweaked a little in recent years, and some women hold jobs, or even stay in the room for conversation after serving the guests their tea. But to a large extent, the expectations of what a “great woman” should be are the same; she can be great so long as she can cower next to her husband or father, which often means she has to stop one step behind the man. For this reason, women who go beyond and above their “limitations” to realize their own dreams, in ways that defy society’s norms, often lose people on their way to the top. In many instances, they are not ideal wives because they seem defiant and daring, and, I suppose, that might be why it is assumed that great women have very few “men” behind them by the time they become “too great” (you know, because “real men” don’t let women outbid them). Paradoxical isn’t it? 


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Before you accuse me of contradicting myself, keep in mind that, while I disagree with the notion of a “great woman” with no one behind her but herself, I think it’s important to dissect why such a notion came into existence. Maybe then we can be more equipped to righting the wrong that underlies it. The whole saying became a feminist slogan between the 40’s and 70’s. During that time, the feminist agenda was about empowering women, and many women didn’t think men could understand their experience, or get over their egos enough to help liberate women from the shackles of inequality. But I believe that it wasn’t necessarily that men didn’t want women to become “great”, it was just that both parties had clashing definitions of what being a “great woman means”. The definitions clash because society reinforces a cycle of gender norms, and then a group decides to create a rupture defying these same norms (without setting up the right conditions for such a change). Both men and women, historically and up to our present day and age, are at fault for this.

But to be completely clear, I am in no way saying that there is anything wrong with being a great mother or a loving and supportive wife. My issue is with this being the only way to define a woman. This problem is not exclusive to women either. Men, too, are often valued by their physical strength, and their salaries. At the end of the line, we find our favorite monster playing at large. Kalam al Nass , especially small/closed (notice I don’t use conservative) societies where a set of unwritten rules and norms are created, and we are often required to abide by them if we don’t want to bring “le ahalna al kalm”, or put our families names to shame.

So you have a man required to work and save money, and then borrow some more just to be able to meet the expectations of his sweetheart’s family. It also means that his family will conduct a survey to find out if the girl is “bit nass”. This also means, for many intents and purposes, a man is not supposed to seem domicile, or talk about his emotions (even if he wanted to)—so when guys get together, you have husbands advise each other to “wear the pants in the relationship” or “keep al marra in check”. Furthermore, when you hear someone invoke the phrase “kalam rujal”, or give you “a man’s word”, you know something serious and noteworthy is being said, even though guys just talk about other women, sports, or food. However, when women talk about their hobbies and chat about issues they have in their every day relationships, it is labeled as “kalam niswan” and used as an insult to any man or woman who talks about “petty” subjects.

So what now? Well, for starters we need to start thinking about what we say and do, and make sure we’re not reinforcing negative gender norms—A. because they’re offensive and B. because the ripple effects of small stones like “you hit like a girl”, for example, can be crippling. To reinforce the idea that “men” (not boys) do things better, unless it’s a “woman’s” job, limits us as individuals, because we are predestined to specific roles by virtue of our sex. However, if the meaning of gender can change from culture to culture, and from generation to generation, doesn’t that mean it is not biological? Moreover, “gender” and “gender norms” social constructs, often based on how many Y-chromosomes you have. So if we can define what works and doesn’t work as we evolve, we are definitely capable of judging people on merit. That means you need to let go of the ruler that “kalam al nass” has given you, if that ruler threatens to measure you or anyone else, in an unjust light. 

Shahd Fadl ElMoula

Shahd is a social scientist, soon to graduate with a dual degree in Global Affairs and Criminology, Law, and Society. She spends most of her time trying to battle the chronic symptoms of mainstream society and is often that nagging socio-political voice in the corner of the room adding fuel to a heated debate. An expert at caffeine consumption and biting off more than she can chew, she can never say no to a cup of coffee or a good controversy. Shahd is also an avid bookworm, a home-bred feminist, and an aspiring writer and poet. For a taste of her work, visit or stir up a conversation with her on twitter @Shahdinator.